They were going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them, with urgency in his stride, a solitary figure against the horizon. All the disciples could do was try and keep up with him. They didn’t fully know yet who it was they were following and where he was going. On the road, Jesus had taught them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be killed and after three days rise again, and they couldn’t bear to hear it. The first time it was Peter who rebuked him for saying such things. The second time, Jesus told them again how the Son of Man would be betrayed into human hands and be killed, and after three days rise again. They didn’t understand what he was saying, and instead of asking him, they argued with each other about who was the greatest. Jesus was way ahead of them, and all they could do was try and keep up with him.
A third time he stopped to tell them what was going to happen to him. He saw with blinding clarity where he was headed. He would be handed over; the temple authorities would reject him and condemn him to death; Rome’s soldiers would mock him, spit on him, and torture him before killing him. And after three days he would rise again. This time, James and John approached him, the sons of Zebedee; they had been with him since the first days of his mission in Galilee. And what did they say?
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
Who did they think he was – a genie? Perhaps they weren’t as inattentive and insensitive as we might suppose. Perhaps they had actually listened to every word he had just said. Perhaps they weren’t as obtuse as it might seem to us; perhaps they had heard every detail about how he would run into the walls of rejection and political convenience and how these walls would become his grave. And perhaps their confidence in Jesus’ final triumph was so complete that they looked past the thick clouds ahead and past the deep darkness of his execution; they looked past all that and with one great leap they landed by the throne of the Messiah’s glorious reign. In their minds, the way of Christ was but a step from all that was wrong with the world to the reign of righteousness. In their minds, they were already standing at the door, their toes touching the threshold to the royal hall, and they saw the Risen One seated on the throne of glory.
“What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked them. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they replied. They were dreaming about cabinet seats. Certainly the Messiah would need a Chief of Staff or a Secretary of Righteous Reign – and why not them, trusted friends who had been with him almost from day one? They knew how power works: the ladder stretching from those who sit in the dust all the way up to those whose feet never touch the ground because they sit on thrones and ride in limousines or fly in personal jets. It’s a long ladder with many rungs, and the higher you climb, the greater the influence and the more exclusive the company. They knew how power works. Listening to the news out of Washington, it may seem like nobody wants to sit in the chair of the Speaker of the House these days, but that’s only temporary; that’s only because all the chairs are constantly being rearranged and it’s not always clear which seat at any given time gives greater influence to its occupant. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” the sons of Zebedee asked, imagining the glory of God’s reign like any ladder of earthly rule, only shinier and purer – without special interest lobbyists and big donors and cover-ups. When we think about power, we think about ladders and about climbing from the bottom to the top – or we worry about sliding or falling. Social Psychologists tell us that status anxiety accounts for much of what we do on a daily basis – we want to know where we are on the ladder and where the people around us fit in – above? Below? Somewhere on the same level?
I keep a copy of a long list of titles in the Federal Government, just for the joy of reading them out loud:
- Principal Assistant Deputy Under Secretary
- Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary
- Chief of Staff to the Assistant Assistant Secretary
- Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
- Chief of Staff to the Associate Assistant Secretary
- Principal Deputy to the Deputy Assistant Secretary
How do they fit these on a business card? I imagine myself at a cocktail party in D.C. with a few hundred of my closest co-workers, each representing one of countless, minutely graduated status rankings differentiated by extremely subtle nuances only the truly initiated are capable of grasping. Somebody introduces me to the Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary and after a couple of minutes the Principal Deputy to the Deputy Assistant Secretary joins us and I know exactly which of the two is more important. The titles may spread like kudzu, but I always know which way is up.
James and John thought of God’s reign as Washington writ large, and they were disarmingly honest about wanting to be near the top rung of the ladder. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they said. And Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.” They may have been imagining something along the lines of being with Jesus in glory like Moses and Elijah were at the Transfiguration, but Mark is very careful to remind us that the only ones at Jesus’ left and right when he was hailed “King of the Jews” were the two bandits crucified with him.
The way of Christ is the way of the cross, not a new and better way to secure power. The way of Christ goes against the logic of human institutions that are characterized by power exercised over others, by control of others, by ranking as the primary principle of social organization, and by hierarchies of dominant and subordinate. “Not so among you,” he says to us who try to follow and keep up with him. The way of Jesus is difficult because it requires of us the surrender of deep-rooted ideas of power and control, and a humble willingness to follow him.
“Not what I want, but what you want,” was the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane as he prepared to drink the cup of suffering, and those who follow him pray like him. Not what I want – not my aspirations, my ambitions, my pursuits, but what you want – your will, your purpose, your kingdom.
The reign of God comes into the world not by overpowering its opponents, but by subverting our notions of power. The reign of God undermines our desire for control. The reign of God entered the world in Jesus who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life to redeem us from the reign of death. Jesus didn’t manipulate people to get what he wanted. He didn’t lord it over those who recognized his authority. He didn’t use others in the pursuit of his own personal ambitions. He was in the world as one who served God and every human being he encountered. And he calls us, again and again, no matter how many times we get it wrong, to join him in his mission of service to all people. Following him on the way, we learn to look at others not as means to boost our own status; we learn to see people, all kinds of people, as fellow creatures whose desire to flourish goes hand in hand with God’s desire for all of creation. Jesus invites us to pray with him, “Not what I want, but what you want.” He invites us to quiet our anxious and ambitious selves, and to be open to the coming reign of God where love alone is sovereign.
We have heard it so many times, but it takes a lifetime to sink in: the way to be great is to be a servant, even as Jesus became a servant. Martin Copenhaver tells a story about a New England church he once served. Some of the older members could remember a time when the wealthy families would send their servants to help cook church suppers alongside those who did not have servants to send. The world changed, and by the time Pastor Martin came to the church these stories were repeated with some amusement, but similar confusions continued. According to the bylaws of the church the deacons were charged with the spiritual leadership of the congregation, and at a deacons meeting, someone complained that instead of being true to this high and momentous charge, deacons spent too much of their time delivering food to the homeless shelter and washing dishes after communion. How could they tend to important spiritual matters when they were occupied with such mundane tasks? “I schlepp bread and wine from the kitchen to the table, and when all have eaten I take the dishes back to the kitchen and wash them,” one of the deacons complained. “I feel like a glorified butler.” They did a little Bible study and discovered that the first deacons had been commissioned by the apostles in the Jerusalem church so that there would be someone to take food to the widows. They discovered that the word deacon was the anglicized version of the Greek diakonos, and that a diakonos was a servant or a waiter. They were indeed butlers, charged with the mundane task of delivering food, and also glorified because that simple act of service was an expression of the love of Christ the servant.
Here at Vine Street, we’re only days away from hosting Room in the Inn guests for a week. We come together to prepare meals and serve them, to make beds and do the laundry, to open doors and welcome strangers so they might experience the hospitality of God’s house. Glorified butlers, waiters and servants? You could call it that. But you’re serving in the company of Jesus. You may not get your picture in the paper, you may not even get your name in the church newsletter, but for that one night, you are part of changing the world and welcoming the reign of God. For that one night, you not only get to watch, but participate in the power of love undermining the love of power.
 Paul C. Light, The True Size of Government (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1999), 74.
 Mk 9:2-8; 15:27
 Martin Copenhaver, Christian Century, October 5, 1994, 893.