18 October 2015

‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?’
… a challenge to the Church today

‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ (Mark 10: 38) … Saint John with the poisoned chalice, a statue on the Great Gate of Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 18 October 2015, the 20th Sunday after Trinity,

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin,

11 a.m., The Solemn Eucharist.

Job 38: 1-7; Psalm 104: 1-10, 26, 37c; Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-45.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Whenever I hear this morning’s Gospel story (Mark 10: 35-45), I think back to my childhood days. I remember all those preparations for football matches, as we lined up to pick sides. And how we all wanted to be among the first to be picked for a team.

Everyone wanted to be picked first, everyone wanted to line up there beside one of the two captains. No-one wanted to be picked last, even when there were enough places for everyone to get a game.

I can still see them: 9- or 10-year-old boys, jumping up and down on the grass, waving our hands or pointing at our chests, and pleading: “Me, me, please pick me, I’m your friend.”

“Me, me, please pick me.”

And then when we were picked, how we wanted the glory. Slow at passing the ball, in case I might not get to score the goal. Thinking it better to lose the ball in a tackle than to pass it and risk to someone else scoring the goal and gaining the glory.

And that’s who James and John remind me of: wanting to be picked first, wanting to be the first to line up beside the team captain, being glory seekers rather than team players.

No wonder the other ten were upset when they heard about this. But they are upset, not because they wanted to take on the servant model of discipleship and ministry. They are upset not because James and John had not yet grasped the point of it all. They are upset because they might have been counted out, because they might have missed out being on the first team, on the first XI.

And their upset actually turns to anger. Not the sort of young men you might expect to be role models as mature apostles.

Did James and John think that opting to follow Jesus, becoming disciples, was a good career move?

And what did James and John want in reality?

They wanted that one would sit on Christ’s right hand and the other on his left.

Now, even that might not have been too bad an ambition. The man who stood at the right hand of the Emperor in the Byzantine court was the Emperor’s voice. What he said was the emperor’s word. And so, in the creed, when we declare our belief that Christ sits at the right hand of the Father, we mean not that there is some heavenly couch on which all three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are seated, comfy and cosy, as if waiting to watch their favourite television sit-com or this evening’s rugby match.

A modern icon in the style of Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Old Testament Trinity or the Hospitality of Abraham

When we say that Christ “is seated at the right hand of the Father,” we mean that Christ is the Word of God. In some way, I suppose, this is what Andrei Rublev was trying to convey in his icon of the Visitation of Abraham, his icon of the Holy Trinity in the Old Testament.

In that icon, the Father and the Spirit are seated on each side of the Son. In that icon, Christ is depicted wearing not the elaborate high-priestly stole of a bishop, but the simple stole of a deacon at the table.

When James and John say they want to be seated at the right and left of Christ in his glory – not when they were sitting down to a snack, or watching a match together, or even at the Last Supper, but in his glory (see verse 37) – they are expressing an ambition to take the place of, to replace God.

Little do they realise, it seems, that to be like God is to take on Christ’s humility, as we are reminded in this morning’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (see Hebrews 5: 8-10).

We are made in the image and likeness of God, and then God asks us, invites us to return to that image and likeness when Christ comes in our image and likeness – not as a Byzantine Emperor or a Roman tyrant, but just as one of us.

Just as one of us: he did not seek glory, or honour or power. He came to us as an exile, he came in tears and crying, he came in suffering and in death.

Those who serve Christ today are those who attend to the crying, suffering and dying.

If we would seek to stand alongside Christ today in all his glory, then we should seek to stand alongside those with ‘loud cried and tears’ (Hebrews 5: 7), those who weep, those who suffer, those who are powerless, those whose lives are worth little and those who are ransomed.

In a sermon almost 400 years ago on Whit Sunday 1622, the Caroline Divine Lancelot Andrewes talks about a “ministry or service; and that on foot, and through the dust; for so is the nature of the word.”

Saint Paul uses regularly talks about ministry as διακονία, as if the foundation of is seeing that the hungry are served at the table, meeting the needs of those who are neglected and needy, collecting and distributing charity and making sure they are fed.

I was reminded in Crete recently that ‘The Beggars’ Opera’ translates into Greek as Η λαϊκή όπερα (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In its crudest meaning, the word liturgy (Λειτουργία) comes from the word λαός, meaning the people, not nice people, good people, people like us, but in its crudest use in Greek it refers to the many. The liturgy is for the benefit of the many, the riff-raff, even the beggars: “this is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many …”

A theatre poster in Crete recently reminded me that The Beggars’ Opera translates into Greek as Η λαϊκή όπερα.

In other words, the liturgy of the Church only becomes a true service when we also serve the oppressed, when we become God’s ears that hear the cry of the poor, and act on that, when through the Church Christ hears that cry of the bruised and the broken.

And to do this great task, as our ambitious pair, James and John, are reminded in our Gospel reading this morning, we must first be servants and slaves (Mark 10: 43-44).

To be a great Church, to be the Church in its fullness, we must be a Servant Church, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for [the] many” (Mark 10: 45).

If we would follow Christ, as Christians and as the Church, then we are called first and foremost to serve the suffering, those who call out in loud cries and who are in tears.

For you, who are the suffering, who are those whose cries are unheard unless they cry out loud, who are those whose prayers cry out for response (see Hebrews 5: 1-10)?

In responding to their needs, to their cries, to their prayers, we shall find ourselves drinking the cup that he drinks, or to be baptised with his baptism (see verses 38 and 40), that we shall find ourselves at Christ’s right hand and at his left in his glory (Mark 10: 37)

Of course James and John found their request was granted, but not in the way they expected. This hot-headed pair, the sons of Zebedee, went on to serve the community of the baptised and the community that shared in the one bread and the one cup, the community that is the Church, the community that in baptism and in the shared meal is the Body of Christ.

James – not James the Brother of the Lord, whom we remember next Friday (23 October 2015), but James the Great – was executed by the sword and became one of the first Christian martyrs (see Acts 12: 1-12).

John too lived a life of service and suffering: he was exiled on Patmos, and although he died in old age in Ephesus, there were numerous attempts to make him a martyr.

Saint John the Evangelist with the poisoned chalice ... a window in Saint John’s Church, Monkstown, Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

According to tradition, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian Saint John was once given a cup of poisoned wine, but he blessed the cup and the poison rose out of the cup in the form of a serpent. Saint John then drank the wine with no ill effect.

It may be pious myth, but it seeks to tell us that Saint John too takes up the challenge to drink the cup that Christ drinks (Mark 10: 38-39).

For there is another poison that can damage the Church today – we can fail to love.

It is in sharing and serving with those who are most like Christ in his suffering that the world becomes united with the Christ we meet in Word and Sacrament here this morning.

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10: 45).

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Mark 10: 35-45

35 Καὶ προσπορεύονται αὐτῷ Ἰάκωβος καὶ Ἰωάννης οἱ υἱοὶ Ζεβεδαίου λέγοντες αὐτῷ, Διδάσκαλε, θέλομεν ἵνα ὃ ἐὰν αἰτήσωμέν σε ποιήσῃς ἡμῖν. 36 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Τί θέλετέ [με] ποιήσω ὑμῖν; 37 οἱ δὲ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Δὸς ἡμῖν ἵνα εἷς σου ἐκ δεξιῶν καὶ εἷς ἐξ ἀριστερῶν καθίσωμεν ἐν τῇ δόξῃ σου. 38 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Οὐκ οἴδατε τί αἰτεῖσθε. δύνασθε πιεῖν τὸ ποτήριον ὃ ἐγὼ πίνω, ἢ τὸ βάπτισμα ὃ ἐγὼ βαπτίζομαι βαπτισθῆναι; 39 οἱ δὲ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Δυνάμεθα. ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Τὸ ποτήριον ὃ ἐγὼ πίνω πίεσθε καὶ τὸ βάπτισμα ὃ ἐγὼ βαπτίζομαι βαπτισθήσεσθε, 40 τὸ δὲ καθίσαι ἐκ δεξιῶν μου ἢ ἐξ εὐωνύμων οὐκ ἔστιν ἐμὸν δοῦναι, ἀλλ' οἷς ἡτοίμασται.

41 Καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ δέκα ἤρξαντο ἀγανακτεῖν περὶ Ἰακώβου καὶ Ἰωάννου. 42 καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος αὐτοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγει αὐτοῖς, Οἴδατε ὅτι οἱ δοκοῦντες ἄρχειν τῶν ἐθνῶν κατακυριεύουσιν αὐτῶν καὶ οἱ μεγάλοι αὐτῶν κατεξουσιάζουσιν αὐτῶν. 43 οὐχ οὕτως δέ ἐστιν ἐν ὑμῖν: ἀλλ' ὃς ἂν θέλῃ μέγας γενέσθαι ἐν ὑμῖν, ἔσται ὑμῶν διάκονος, 44 καὶ ὃς ἂν θέλῃ ἐν ὑμῖν εἶναι πρῶτος, ἔσται πάντων δοῦλος: 45 καὶ γὰρ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου οὐκ ἦλθεν διακονηθῆναι ἀλλὰ διακονῆσαι καὶ δοῦναι τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ λύτρον ἀντὶ πολλῶν.

Mark 10: 35-45 (NRSV)

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ 36 And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ 37 And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ 38 But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ 39 They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’


Almighty God,
whose Holy Spirit equips your Church with a rich variety of gifts:
Grant us so to use them that, living the gospel of Christ
and eager to do your will,
we may share with the whole creation in the joys of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our Father,
whose Son, the light unfailing,
has come from heaven to deliver the world
from the darkness of ignorance:
Let these holy mysteries open the eyes of our understanding
that we may know the way of life, and walk in it without stumbling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Solemn Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on 18 October 2015.

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