Tuesday, October 23, 2018

All that Belongs to Him

“The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”  St. Mark 10:39

Jesus often spoke in phrases heavy with meaning.  He used images freighted with symbolic power, ambiguous turns of phrase that force the listener to slow down and consider.  Meditation--a word that comes from the Latin for what a cow does with her cud-- is not merely a pious practice.  We must often chew long on these phrases to draw out their full meaning. 

That can be difficult for us in a world where people try to conduct national policy debates in 280 characters or less.  By and large, we long for the single-page memo, the objective facts distilled out from the spin, the bullet points drained of their adjectives. Many of us seem to be drowning in a sea of words as it is. We don’t think we have time for beautiful rhetoric or the probing syllables of poetry. 

But we can miss a great deal if we rushly too quickly to the point, especially when the words spoken to us are about those things at the core of our existence. 
God’s Word, we discussed last week, is a two edged sword, exposing our consciences, fertilizing our imaginations, inflaming our passions.  Jesus speaks to us in a manner worthy of our dignity, expecting us to listen with all our faculties, so we hear a message that might at long last break through and bring the change we truly need.

Today’s reading is one of the most striking examples in the Gospels of Jesus using complex, powerful and arresting phrases.  He speaks of the cup that He must drink and the baptism with which He will be baptized.  These things are integral to His kingdom, symbols that conjure up the world into which He is calling His disciples.
And when Jesus speaks of them to James and John, they are sure they know just what He means.  His journey to Jerusalem is approaching its destination.  The crowds are moved by His words and demonstrations of power.  James and John love Him and they want to be right alongside Him in the victory that surely soon to come.  “In your glory, Jesus, can we sit beside you?  In the great battle soon to come, can we be shoulder to shoulder?  In the parade through the streets when thousands shout your name, can we march on either side?  At the triumph banquet, when we feast on Herod’s lambs and wine from Pilate’s cellar, can we share the table with you?”

“Are you able to drink my cup?”  Jesus asks.  To be sure, they think; that golden cup, encrusted with gems.  At grand occasions kings took such a cup and shared it out with their most trusted followers.  “What about my baptism?” He asks them.  Our translation is less helpful here.  The Greek word can just mean “my submerging.”  It was an everyday word then, not a religious one.  As a commentator noted, James and John may have thought Jesus was talking about a bath.[1] Just then, King Herod was showing his wealth and high cultural accomplishments by constructing Roman-style baths throughout Palestine.  The ancient bath was a social center, a place for relaxing and intimate conversation. “ Will you taste my cup and soak in my bath?”--that’s what James and John hear.  The question suggests refreshment and renewal, the welcome delights at the end of the hot, dusty road.  But it also hints at intimacy and common purpose.  Will you share in all that belongs to me?

We are able, they say.  We long for that cup and that baptism, a share in your glory. 

But no, Jesus tells them, you don’t understand what I’m saying.  Jesus means a different kind of cup, what Isaiah calls “the cup of fury, the bowl that makes men stagger.[2]   To Jesus the word points to the suffering that surely lies ahead.  The cup that James and John are so eager to drain is the same one Jesus will beg the Father to remove from Him in Gethsemane in a few weeks’ time.[3]  And His baptism, His submerging--for Jesus this means the flood of hostility and injustice that will soon swallow up His life.   He can see that the waters are rising around Him.  He has, in fact, just told His disciples of the cross that lies ahead.  The cup and baptism of suffering, these are my destiny, He means.  If you would have a part in what is most central to my life, you must suffer with me.  Will you share in all that belongs to me?

He answers for them.  You will drink my cup, Jesus tells them, and you will be baptized with my baptism.  Suffering lay ahead for both of them: James would be the first of the apostles to die as a martyr, by Herod’s sword in Jerusalem.  John would bear the burden of establishing the church in many places before ending His life in exile.  Here on earth, they would never drink from gilded chalices or soak their weary bodies in refreshing marble baths.

But Jesus doesn’t deny that someday they will share in His royal banquet, and be refreshed in the river of life that flows like crystal from the throne of God.  He rebukes their ambition.  He hints at a weakness that will make cowards of them on His day of trial. Surely the suffering must come first.  But this is no iron appeal to duty either.  A glorious reward still lies ahead of them.  “If we have died with him,” Saint Paul writes, “we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him.[4]

But Jesus also points to another cup and another baptism.  If you are like me, they are the first things that come to mind when I hear the passage.  One night soon, Jesus would hand them a cup, “This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.[5]  After He had drained the bowl of wrath at Calvary, and passed through death’s waters to life again, then He would give them a baptism.  “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The sacraments are borne of Christ’s steadfastness unto death.  Their power springs from the gift of His life for us.  We drink of His own blood and are baptized into His death.  Yet His passion is, as George Herbert wrote, “That liquor sweet and most divine, which my God feels as blood, and I as wine.[6]  For us, the sacraments bring strength and consolation in the midst of our struggles.  Through them we share in His resurrection and the transforming work of His Spirit.  Jesus’ cup and baptism are a foretaste of the glories still to come.  And as in the suffering and the glory, through the sacraments Jesus bids us share all that belongs to Him.

Jesus asks us,  “Do you want to grow closer to me, to walk in my steps?”  It’s a penetrating word.  And first, we know, it is an invitation to deny ourselves, to give generously of what we have to advance His work.  We respond to that call when we care for our sick children and our fading elders, when we feed the hungry and console the brokenhearted, when we persevere in prayer and sing on through pain.  Jesus does not promise any more worldly acclaim or comprehension than what waited for Him at Calvary, at least not in this life.  But He does say that this path brings us closer to His heart. 

We ask you today to make a commitment to the work of this parish in the coming year.  These gifts are a way of taking up that cup and sharing in that baptism, especially if they come of real sacrifice, especially if they are the first fruits of your labors and not what’s left over.  They are also a way of drawing closer to the rest of us, casting in your lot with this band of imperfect people who depend together on the strength extended through His Sacraments and who look in hope together to the glory still to be revealed. 

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

By your grace, may we answer: “We are able.”

[1] Swete, Henry B.  The Gospel According to Saint Luke.  Third Edition.  London: Macmillan, 237.
[2] Is. 51:17.
[3] Mk. 14:36.
[4] II Tim. 2:11.
[5] Matt. 26:41.
[6] The Agony.

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