Texts: Isaiah 53:4-12, Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
Then, who can be saved and enter heaven?
It’s The Question that is still floating in the air in the tenth chapter of the gospel of Mark.
We heard in last week’s gospel, just a few verses before the ones we have today, how Jesus told his disciples that a rich person might find wealth an encumbrance to entry at heaven’s gate. And then Jesus pointed to a child and said, You must be this tall or less to enter the kingdom of heaven. And the disciples all knew they were taller than that.
Now we hear that two of the disciples, James and John asked to be seated in the Jesus box in the theatre of eternity, center right and left. And the other disciples were angry. Probably not because they thought it was a stupid question, but because they hadn’t thought to ask it first. So Jesus sat them down for another little talk about the upside-down-ness of God’s reign when it comes to lords and tyrants, greatness and first-ness, and the honor and beauty of coming in dead last.
What were James and John thinking when they made their request? Maybe it was fear talking. In between last week’s lesson about entering heaven like a child, and today’s little episode with the disciples’ yearning for upward mobility there are three verses that should never have been left out – verses which say that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem and that his followers were both amazed and afraid. Perhaps not surprising emotions after a tough conversation about getting into heaven. But even less surprising when you realize that they are getting in touch with the exact same feelings they’re going to have standing at the empty tomb.
Amazed and afraid.
Call it a premonition.
And then Jesus, for the third time announces his appointment with suffering, death, and resurrection. We want them to hang on to that word resurrection, but they don’t, they only hear suffering and death.
But hey, isn’t that what happens to us whenever we come face to face with endings? Do we think, oh joy! This is going to be my resurrection day! No, we only think, (if we think at all) I’m SO dead now. We think of our sins. We think of how hard it is to suffer…Can we reschedule our appointment with judgment? We scramble a defense – look Jesus, we’re already suffering for our convictions!
So let’s give James and John some grace and mercy that even their fellow disciples couldn’t quite muster, in the middle of their own fear.
Weren’t they really asking, Lord, if death is where your road leads, give us an assurance that heaven is where we’re finally going to be. And when there’s suffering involved don’t we all want to hear that heaven’s good is somewhere, somehow, close to suffering’s terrible other side?
James and John got that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the One who saves. A priest of the order of Melchizedek – a priestly king named one time in Genesis and once in the Psalms, a king in the land before Israel had kings, and who was not from either of Israel’s priestly tribal lineages. A spiritual monarch, humble yet strong, able to stand in the presence of God and make amends for his people’s sins. And it seems that James and John were operating on the principle, that Jesus was that kind of holy king and messiah…that Jesus could set them on high in heaven.
But how diabolically twisted their hopes were! A situation revealed by the quiz Jesus gave them.
Can you drink my cup? Sure! And they can, but they don’t realize that it’s the cup of the Passover, the cup of betrayal. They will drink and then run away at the arrest of their friend, and at the news of his death, will know with Jesus the terrible pain of abandonment.
Can you be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with? Sure! And they will be, because it’s the cleansing of the soul that will come when they are awash in their own tears, shed for their crucified Lord. It’s the cleansing they’ll receive when they return to the waters of Galilee to be washed in forgiveness by the risen Lord. Where they finally realize what being saved looks like.
Though an ordinary mortal would be understandably angered and disappointed at the failure of his friends, Jesus was not. His words are simple and gentle. He tells James and John what is impossible. It is not possible for them to sit at his right and left in his glory because his only visible throne of glory will be the cross. And the places at his right hand and his left are reserved for the two common criminals whom the Empire will crucify with the Messiah.
Then, who can be saved and enter heaven?
What is heaven anyway? The word is related to a primitive root meaning to be elevated. But maybe not to a place. Could it be to a way of being? Yes. It could mean resurrection. The way of being with God as Jesus Christ was, by giving yourself away completely, and for free.
Then who can be saved? And when will it happen?
You must be this tall or less to enter the kingdom of heaven…
Perhaps you can be this tall or less now. Already. It’s all about adjusting where you’re coming from. And where your hopes are placed. “For the son of man came not to be served but to give his life a ransom for many.”
The world is full of people who strive to be the highest, the best, the most important, the most recognized, the most feared. But Jesus spent his life for others. He found his place among sinners and was a fearless servant all the way to the cross…which was the lowest place in society.
After that came the only elevation that really counts - the resurrection. Jesus hoped that his followers, that we, might take the same attitude – having a far deeper desire to serve than to be served. And one day, some day…to discover with amazement that we were just as close as can be to his unseen glory all along. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.