The village where I live has various claims to fame, from an internationally known strain of the azalea flower being named after it, through the novelist Hilary Mantel being a former resident, and then the fact that in their pre-fame days the Spice Girls rehearsed here.
While the Spice Girls were preparing for world domination, they sometimes had lunch at a café in the village run by the churches, called The King’s House. (It’s no longer in operation, sadly.)
And so it came to pass than when a documentary was made some years later covering their ascent to fame, a scene of them at The King’s House was scripted and filmed. One of the volunteers there was assigned the rôle of taking their order.
The volunteer in question was one of our church members, a retired Professor of Botany at Imperial College named Jack Rutter. I never knew him, because he moved away and then died just as we arrived here. He was a brilliant man, but his vast knowledge did not stretch to popular culture.
Thus it was that he could be handed a line in the script which he could deliver with a completely straight face as the Spice Girls dithered over what to order from the menu.
He said to them, ‘Tell me what you want, what you really, really want.’
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’
36 ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked.
Jesus says to James and John, ‘Tell me what you want, what you really, really want.’
Because when Jesus asks us what we really want from him, it reveals our hearts. So in the Old Testament at the dedication of the Temple, the Lord asks King Solomon what he wants, and he famously chooses wisdom rather than wealth. Next in Mark’s Gospel Jesus meets blind Bartimaeus and asks him what he wants him to do for him. Bartimaeus asks for his sight, and he then follows Jesus.
But when Jesus responds to James and John’s request that he do whatever they ask of him, he uncovers an unworthy, if not spiritually lethal request. For what they want is so contrary to the ways of God’s kingdom.
And perhaps that’s something we might reflect on generally: what do the kinds of requests we make in our prayers say about us, our values, and our priorities? Are they in line with God’s kingdom?
Sometimes, God’s answer to our prayers is ‘No,’ and on this occasion James and John get a very lengthy ‘No’ as Jesus sets out just how contrary to popular aspirations in his day (and ours) the kingdom of God is.
In what ways does Jesus say ‘No’ to what James and John really, really want? There are three, and they are all linked.
Firstly, Jesus talks about suffering.
Jesus asks them whether they can drink his cup and be baptised as he will be.
‘We can,’ they answer,
You will, says Jesus, but it’s not up to me who gets the best seats in the house. (Verses 38-40)
The problem James and John have here is that they interpret ‘cup’ and ‘baptism’ differently from Jesus. In the Old Testament, ‘cup’ is used figuratively in different ways. It can be a good thing, such as ‘My cup overflows’ in Psalm 23, and that’s the sort of meaning James and John have in mind. However, it can also be the cup of suffering, and that’s the line Jesus takes.
Jesus has to tell them that the life of the Christian disciple in following him will not be one big jamboree. For all the joy of the kingdom, following Jesus will mean suffering for your faith, just as Jesus himself suffered.
When we become Christians, some of our problems are all over but some other problems are only just beginning. Our sisters and brothers in other nations know this at great cost. For us it may be lesser.
I recently ran an advertising campaign on Facebook for one of my churches, hoping to drum up some letting income. A small minority of people launched personal attacks at me for doing so, one telling me to ‘f- off out of here’. I didn’t respond. I didn’t justify myself. I didn’t put him down. I just ignored it. I expect it from time to time as a Christian. I’ve had worse. Let’s not be surprised by it if we follow Jesus.
Secondly, Jesus talks about serving.
Gentile and pagan rulers lord it over people. They enjoy their status. They crush the people under them, says Jesus. I’m sure we can think of plenty of examples in our own world. He reverses this by saying that the key value to greatness is not gorging yourself on power but serving others. In fact, he doesn’t even say ‘servant’, he says ‘slave’, which was lower than a servant. (Verses 42-44)
It’s a sign of that Christian heritage that we refer to senior members of Government as ‘ministers’, a word which means ‘servants.’ I’ve said before in sermons that ‘Prime Minister’ means ‘first servant’, and one thing to do at a General Election is ask which party leader looks most like someone who would bring a spirit of service to the job.
But we need to remember it in the church, too, which is what Jesus was talking about. Even in the small pond of the church there are those who like to be big fish. There are sad individuals who crave the limelight, or who want to climb the greasy pole. Pick whatever metaphor suits you! But these people think it’s OK to put others down. They like to be seen as the important ones.
I see these traits in both my fellow ministers and in members of congregations. And Jesus reminds us that this is contrary to his kingdom. ‘Not so with you,’ he says (verse 43) – and that is present tense, not future. It isn’t that it’s something to be eradicated in the future, it’s something that shouldn’t even be present now if we had any inkling of what it means to be his disciple.
When you want to fill a vacancy in the church, be that an officer in the local congregation or a new minister, look for someone who doesn’t care about status but who does care about serving.
Thirdly and finally, Jesus talks about sacrifice.
45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
I’m using the word ‘sacrifice’ here not in the ritual religious sense but simply in the sense of giving up something or even everything.
Here is the way Jesus would be the triumphant Messiah who brought people into his kingdom: not by obliterating his opponents but by giving himself up to death, through which those who were kept captive by sin were set free.
We cannot sacrifice for others in the same way as Jesus, but the call to sacrifice, to give up things for the kingdom of God is still loud and clear to us from Jesus.
Life, then, according to Jesus, is not about all the things we amass. It’s not about the abundance of possessions. It’s not about having a bigger and better home. It’s not about having a better paid job than the neighbours. And it certainly isn’t about having access to the elite members of society.
Jesus says we will know true life when we have sacrificed for the kingdom of God. I wonder why we find this so hard? We wouldn’t think twice about sacrificing time, money, or possessions for children, so why not for Jesus and his kingdom? If that’s our issue, then are we like James and John people who are apparently in the religion game just for the benefits and not for the challenges?
Tell me what you want, what you really, really want.
If your life is centred on yourself then suffering, serving, and sacrificing are not going to be top of your list.
But if your life is focussed on following Jesus, then you may well pray for the grace to endure suffering for his name, to serve others rather than polish your own reputation, and to sacrifice things for the cause of the kingdom.
What do you ask for in your prayers?