In the Book of Acts (17:6) we may read where the Christians were described, in no friendly terms, as "These that have turned the world upside down." What an apt description, however much it was meant as a warning and accusation, the charge that our beliefs are inherently subversive. May we live up to it. My brother, David, in his book Atheist Delusions, summarized the implications of Christ's cross as the most subversive fact in all human history. Indeed, it was. The world has built its only possible notion of order on power, strength, and a shallow kind of honor, merely paid like a tribute, given to those who can grab it. "Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them," says Jesus in today's selection from the Gospel According to Matthew (and I shall use an updated translation): "But it shall not be so among you: but Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your servant; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your bond servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
The Roman Empire used the cross to symbolize its power, and it used the sword. Both were used in images of mighty Caesar forcing his will on the conquered nations in a manner that clearly depicted the empire as able to assert itself on the unwilling-with all of the most obscene and violent implications. The cross was a crude symbol to the Romans, a symbol of their power over everyone and anyone. This was, in that Pagan empire, both political and religious, as Caesar was lord and god to the hordes of Rome.
But, our Lord Jesus Christ turned the cross into the symbol, though more than a mere symbol, not only of Rome's ultimate collapse, but of the defeat of the whole system we call the world, and of its evil prince. John tells us of one manner in which Jesus described his cross, and what it would mean, as follows:
"'Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.' This he said, signifying what death he should die." (John 12:31-33)
Indeed, the cross condemned the word's system, and all of its evil priorities.
This lesson, however, at the time that the mother of James and John came to speak to the Lord on behalf of her sons, was yet to be learned by the disciples. Oh yes, the Lord told them that to follow him was to walk his path, the path of the cross. He said that no one could be his disciple unless he was willing to take up his cross and die. Earlier, in the same Gospel According to Matthew, the Lord had to rebuke Peter for his attempt to dissuade the Lord from going to his cross -- and that right after pronouncing a blessing on him for speaking the truth revealed by God the Father, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
"From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, 'Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.' But he turned, and said unto Peter, 'Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.' Then said Jesus unto his disciples, 'If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?'"(Matt. 16:21-26)
What Jesus referred to as the cup that he would drink, in today's Gospel reading from chapter twenty, asking the sons of Zebedee if they were able to drink it, was his cross.
This lesson was learned eventually, and John and James became able to drink it, only after their Lord had died on the cross, as the ransom for many. He died there, that is, as the One for the many, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. He gave his life, that no man could take from him, in the great heroic service of your salvation from sin, and mine. He became the ultimate servant of servants by enduring the shame and pain of the cross, the derision of priests and soldiers, the insults of onlookers, the cruel lashing of the Roman nine-tail whip, the thorns and the nails, the vinegar and the gall, the thirst, the pain and the dust of death.
"Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isaiah 53:4-6)
The Suffering Servant, foretold by Isaiah, was in fact the Lord of Glory. But he made himself a servant out of the great love wherewith he loved us, so that we might become the children of His Father, having our sins washed away, and our consciences cleansed, ourselves redeemed to become "partakers of the Divine Nature." (II Pet. 1:4) Jesus Christ showed the way; he, equal to God by His Divine Nature, humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Phil. 2:5f). The Lion of the Tribe of Judah became as a Lamb that had been slain (Rev. 5:5,6); he did this willingly, having told us, "Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father." (John 10:17,18)
But, as of yet, James and John lacked the power to perceive of Christ the Lord taking the death of the cross on himself. In fact, they had yet to see him rise from supper and wrap himself in a towel to wash their feet, by his example rebuking the argument about who among the disciples would be the greatest. As John wrote, years later:
"So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, 'Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.'" (John 13:12-17)
But after all of the events of Passiontide, after they saw Christ crucified, and risen again from the dead, and after receiving on Pentecost the power to drink from his cup, by grace only the Holy Spirit could provide, they were changed men. Today we see that James, that is Yakov (Jacob) Bar-Zebedee the brother of John, had the grace to be a servant in the ultimate sense. He had enough humility to know that the Church would live without his help. He had the grace to accept death as a martyr.
Last year, in his final weeks on this earth, Bobbly Springle joked with me about how once he responded to the suggestion that he trust certain doctors in a specific VA hospital: "I gave my life for my country once; do I have to give it again?" I knew what he meant. He had been in the Korean war, and by signing up for the Navy in time of war had, in effect, laid his life down. So too, my father during World War II, having joined the army because his country was at war. Those who enlisted in the wars did in fact give their lives, for once in battle they might survive, but they went into combat as men already dead, retaining their lives as a gift should they come out alive.
The Apostles and all those who endured persecution in the early Church laid their lives down by confessing their faith in Jesus Christ before a hostile world. So too, many today. The 20th century saw more Christian martyrs than all previous centuries combined. The first ten years of this century have seen no respite, no relief from the persecution. It takes the heart and mind of a servant, genuine humility and trust, to die the death of the Christian martyr, to follow the Lord so literally to the cross. James learned the lesson of this humility, and proceeded to die; and in so dying, he was the first of the Apostles to receive the Martyr's crown.
The cross is the great subversive message that the whole system of the world is worthy of contempt, and that it is all overthrown. The world's exaltation of power and riches, the world's perverted sense of what constitutes honor, the world's admiration of sin, the world's culture of death, the pride, arrogance and ambition of men, is all overthrown. It is made a spectacle of defeat, led about in a Triumph by the Son of Man. For pride itself is laid in the dust to be trodden underfoot, sin is washed away as dirt and stain removed from garments, power is reduced to rubble for the Prince of this world is cast out, and death is overthrown by the Risen Christ, the Son of Man with the wounds in his side, his hands and his feet, now revealed to be the Son of God with the true power of an endless life.
My concern is not that the world has yet to learn the message of the voluntary servitude and humility of Christ the Lord, his example of foot washing, and his obedience unto the death of the cross; my concern is for how much we, those of us in the church at this time and in this place, have yet to learn his way of the cross.
"I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you."
"Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your servant; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your bond servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."