29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 53: 10-11 | Hebrews 4:14-16 | Mark 10:35-45
Almighty, ever-living God, grant that we may always conform our will to yours and serve your majesty in sincerity of heart through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.
The cross, the crucifixion — we believe, as Christians, that this event changed the world. It brought salvation to everyone, and yet it remains a great mystery as to exactly how it saved us all. How is it that this one event had the power to restore human beings to a place they had lost, that they were no longer aware of or in touch with, a gift that came through the death of Christ? As a child, I thought that the crucifixion must have been the most painful death. The image that was always before me as a child was this larger-than-life crucifix with this man hanging on a cross, with nails in his hands and feet and his head bowed, covered with blood. It was a horrible, painful, bloody death, and somehow it seemed to me, clearly, as I read the symbol, that what I was looking at was the need I have to prove my love to God, the need I have to suffer in order to do that, in order to say, “God, I love you. I want what you offer, and I can see the way one gets it is to be in physical pain.” And there were periods in the church, through the Middle Ages and times like that, when people were literally creating pain in their bodies as a way of saying to God, “I join you in your crucifixion. I want to show you how much I love you. I’ll be in pain for you, and this will please you greatly.” It’s simply not true. Why would God want you to suffer? Why would He want you to be in pain?It can’t be simply that we have a model in the crucifixion that we should be welcoming, accepting pain in order to be saved. It’s much more subtle, much more mysterious, much more interesting.
What is the crucifixion really saying about the life of Jesus? A young man, working 30 years to become the man He knew He was called to be, to be the Messiah, He had a wisdom that was so far beyond anything anyone else had. He had an understanding of God being in him, and He resonated this, and He had a peace about him. He was so magnetic and effective as He walked around, and He was human, 100 percent human. And so you have to see Jesus as someone like you. Otherwise, the crucifixion doesn’t make any sense because so many times people would say, “Well, Jesus went through this whole thing just to show people how to suffer, and He knew it was going to be over in a couple of hours. The whole thing was planned, and it was a piece of cake, because it didn’t … the whole Passion started on Thursday night and ended at 3 p.m. the next day. So it wasn’t a long period of time of suffering.” So what is it saying?
Well, Jesus, if He was 100 percent human and began this ministry that He knew was so valuable and so important, if He wanted to change the church and encourage men, who were laying burdens upon people right and left, to see things differently — He wanted so much to change the hearts of these men so that they would not do the damage they were doing to people in the name of religion— and He was just getting started, He must have reflected on what He was doing. And maybe He was a man like you and me who, when He looked at what He did and saw that there was something created in what He did that put his life in danger and He was pushing the envelope; He was yelling and screaming at the leaders, calling them hypocrites and people twice as fit for hell as their converts. He went for the jugular on that, and of course, they were in power. They were in charge. They could make things happen, and so they wanted to get rid of him. And when He realized that this was going to happen to him, He was in a terrible, painful, frightened state, like all humans, but He not only had to face a death that was difficult, but He had to face the fact that a ministry that He longed to accomplish — and He may have well thought that he was going to live a long time and have time to do it — was ripped out from under him, and He was going to be seen by those He loved, by those He tried to help and save, as a complete fool, idiot, blasphemer and law-breaker; and He was spit upon, laughed at, displayed naked on a cross. He had to give in to the most humiliating handling for a leader and do it in a peaceful way when He simply gave in and served the story, served his destiny, was a slave to it. And when He did that, He broke the most amazing illusion wide open. That is, negative things are always to be avoided. God is the God who takes care of his people and doesn’t let anything negative happen to them. He protects them. He takes away their diseases. He makes the rain [fall] on the crops, so the farmers make money. God is there to take care of us if He loves us. So in the Old Testament, it was clear that if anybody didn’t receive these gifts, they were obviously not favored by God because his favor always is to give people what they want, what they need, and so it would be clear that they would say, “Well, the reason that person has bad luck or something is because they’ve sinned.”
So here’s the Messiah, the Savior of the world, in a situation that would reveal to everyone that he was a sinner. He was a phony. He was not the Messiah. So think of it. When this came to him in the Garden of Gethsemane, he begged God three times, “Please, please, please take this away. Take it away.” He sweat blood. He did not want it to happen, and the answer from God was always, “This is the way it’s written. Give in. Serve the story.” And when He realized that and realized that’s what everybody needs to learn, then He changed the world. He gave us the answer, the key, the key to the kingdom. Surrender, suffer, allow what is the plan.
Now, the Scripture today, as it starts with the image of … we have a Messiah whom we should be able to understand. He sympathizes with us because He knows the temptation we have to use God’s power to make things happen, the things we want to happen, and so the story in the Scripture, in the gospel, is perfect. James and John came to Jesus well before the whole thing was going south and things were not working and looking so good. They realized that Jesus, being the Messiah, would end up being in charge of everything. There was no distinction between government and religion, so the rulers of Jerusalem and the whole area were the religious leaders, and they had all the power, and they had the authority to make things happen. So the disciples were psyched and pretty happy that they were soon going to be in that elite group that made things go the way they thought they should go. And so James and John, I guess, were talking. They were brothers, and they thought, “John, you’re really close to Jesus. Let’s ask for a little, special favor. He obviously favors you, so how about asking him if we can have a sort of really special seat in that great position of authority where Jesus is in the middle and we’re all around him. Let’s ask if we can be on his right and left. It would look great in pictures." Jesus looks at them and says, “You don’t even know what you’re doing. You don’t even know what you’re asking. You really don’t,” but listen to the way this matter is presented in Scripture. They came to Jesus and didn’t say, “Would you do this for me?” But to test the waters, to see — now, He’s the Messiah. He’s close to God. They didn’t know He was God, and so God is always there to give you what you need. So they thought, “Can we just decide the things we need? Will you do anything we ask of you? Will you do that?” And Jesus says, “What do you want?” And then He says, “You don’t even know what you’re doing.” Then He says, “Can you go through two things? Can you, first of all, can you drink [from] the cup that I’m drinking?” And the cup, of course, is his destiny. They said, “Oh, sure. That’s not a problem.” And then He says, “Can you be baptized?” That means to die to all those instincts inside of you as a human being that work against the reality that God has created, so that we are somehow in this incredible, mysterious place called life, and we’re sitting there changing the rules, demanding that God change the rules and messing the whole thing up, if He would do what we asked. Well, they didn’t know that either, and so finally Jesus said, “Look, your getting the authority to sit with me and make decisions, like people in authority do, that’s not mine to give. If God wants to give that to you, he will, but that’s not my job. I don’t determine what God is going to do.” And then he’s talking as a human being. “I don’t — I know God wants you to go through baptism and drink [from] the cup. I know that much.” He wants you to accept your destiny. He wants you to participate in this mysterious world called reality,and you surrender to it. You submit to it. You go with it, and grace is not there to give you the power. The Spirit of God is not there to give you the power to change the way all that works, but to somehow participate in it, to enrich it all, to serve it, in a way to be a slave to the reality. It sounds terrible, but to be a slave, when we’re told the whole thing that God is doing in the Old Testament is moving us from slavery to freedom, but if you’re a slave to reality, you are one wise person — one wise person. And guess what else — joyful, peaceful and aware of the importance of your role.
Jesus goes on to say, “You don’t like authority. The authority you want — you don’t like it when other people have it over you, so you want to have that authority over God and his plan.” So how does it feel when somebody comes into your life and has authority and says, “These are the things you can never do. These are the things you can do, and I’ll determine those things, and I’m going to determine how you’re going to live your life.” Nobody wants to be told what to do. It’s interesting. In the last 30 or 40 years of the church, our Holy Father, who was a wonderful, wonderful Pope, was very strong on morals and made clear what everybody was supposed to do, and sometimes people felt, which is probably true, some of those moral rules, as well as being good, moral teaching, when laid upon everyone as if they had to follow the letter of that law, no matter what the circumstance, they would say, “You’re lording something over us. You’re taking away our ability to participate in what’s real here.” And nobody wants to be robbed of that because that is our right.
So when Jesus gave in, He did something to shatter sin. So what is sin then? Sin is not making mistakes because of our weaknesses, our humanity. That’s what most of us think. That’s what people go to confession to tell me. They got angry. They were unfaithful. They made a mistake. They crossed a line. Those are weaknesses, human weaknesses, but the real sin — the real sin is somehow deeply embedded in our intention. My relationship with God, my doing the right thing for God is a bargaining chip I use to get the authority that I need from him to be able to fix the things around me that I don’t think should be the way they are. I can heal my brother who’s sick because I don’t want him to die. I can change the mind of people who are abusing other people because there’s no reason for abuse in the world. There’s no reason for pain in the world. There’s no reason for death in the world. Well, that is part of the world. That is part of the world. You want to take away death? You want to take away disease? You want to take away all that? I think we’re always going to be dealing with those things. That’s part of what life is about, so when you pray, what are you praying for if not to change reality? It’s to participate in this mysterious plan of God and to make sure that everyone in the entire system surrenders to what is and maybe finds out that one of the things that’s causing the disease is a resistance to reality, and then there will be a healing, or maybe somebody realizes that the major problem in your life is that you’re constantly frustrated and pushing, pushing, pushing people to act in a certain way because you’re responsible to them, and you’re miserable, and you’re sick. Yeah, you could be healed. We don’t have the responsibility of running anybody’s life. The only person who runs our life is God. He’s the one who has written it, and what an insult, what a slap to say, “Oh, no, no, no, I don’t like this part. I don’t like the death. I don’t like the suffering part. I don’t like the fact that there are these conflicts. I want a world without conflicts.”
What would happen if we had no darkness, no pain, no suffering, nothing difficult? What would it be like? Would we grow? I don’t think so, and if the real task of life is to grow and become conscious and aware of everything that’s going on and to participate in a way that is so rich and so full that it’s intoxicating, that — now, that sounds like something that God would want, not lording it over but somehow being a slave and a servant — a slave and a servant to reality, a slave and a servant to my story, a slave and a servant to everyone else’s story, but does that mean we’re mute and not valuable? No, no, because people need support. People need some mysterious thing that flows out of me to you, you to me. We need that to be able to live in this mysterious world and embrace it, all of it, in joyful, loving service.
Father, you sacrificed that part of you as a man who longed so much for success to achieve something through, in a way, your greatness as a man, and you realize something greater than that need we have to be the Savior. And you taught us the most amazing thing, to surrender, to allow the things that are written to be, and not in a passive way but in a very active, loving way of supporting all of that and participating in it fully and helping others to be open to it and receive from everything that is happening. Bless us with this wisdom, this gift, and we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.