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Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross: James and John

March 7, 2010
Sermon:  Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross:  James and John
Text:  Mark 10:35-45



We continue our series of messages Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross.  Today, we come to two important disciples:  James and John.  They have a lesson to teach to all of us.

Like many of you, I have delved into my family background, researched a little genealogy.  One bit of information I discovered about the Neely clan – and it really is a clan because our origin is Celtic – is that the symbol on our coat of arms is a red left hand.  Both the O’Neils of Northern Ireland and the McNeils of the little island of Barra in Scotland have this red hand as their primary symbol on their coat of arms.

The story behind its use illustrates something of our Scotch-Irish heritage that is so much a part of our family.  When a king in Northern Ireland died, leaving no heirs, two rival chieftains decided they wanted to be king.  They did not want to go to war with each other, so they decided to have a contest.  Each chieftain would row a boat from an island across the large body of water to Northern Ireland.  The first to touch the mainland would claim it as his kingdom. 

Each chieftain got in a boat and began rowing over rough and choppy water.  They rowed almost neck-in-neck until one pulled ahead as they came close to land.  The man in second place did not want to finish last.  He wanted to claim this land as his kingdom.  In a rather dramatic and drastic move, he cut off his left hand with his sword and threw it across the water to the bank of the land, thereby touching the land first and claiming the kingdom as his own.  That is the story of how the bloody left hand became a symbol on the coat of arms of the Neely family.  Something in the Neely DNA makes us very, very competitive.  The Neely family connects with these two disciples.

The story of Jesus selecting James and John sounds so simple as we read it in the first chapter of Mark.  Jesus, walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and seeing Simon and Simon’s brother, Andrew, fishing.  He called them to follow him.  Further along, Jesus also called James and John, fishermen who were mending nets with their father, Zebedee.  These two men were fishermen, another connection to our family. 

When you think about the men’s response, you realize that they certainly were given to impulsive decisions.  Peter and Andrew left their boats and their nets.  James and John left their boats, their nets, and their father standing in the boat.  When this itinerate rabbi issued the simple call, “Follow me,” these men left behind their lifestyle.  They left behind their way of making a living, their livelihood.  They dropped everything to follow Jesus. 

Over the course of the next three years, Jesus did everything he could to train these four men to be his disciples.  There were other disciples, of course, men and women.  A rather large group followed Jesus at one time.  As they learned more and more about his ultimate mission – to go to Jerusalem and die – the numbers began dropping.  These four remained with Jesus.

According to Mark 3, Jesus went up a mountain and prayed.  When he returned, Jesus decided to appoint twelve of these disciples as apostles.  Jesus gave James and John the name Boanergees, which means “sons of thunder.”  You might wonder if this word is some kind of family name, if it has something to do with Zebedee.  No, the name Jesus selected has everything to do with their temperament.  These “sons of thunder” were quick-tempered.  We see evidence of this disposition in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 9, when they went to a village that did not welcome them.  They reacted to this rebuff by asking Jesus to call down fire from heaven and destroy the entire village.  Their reaction illustrated their fiery nature.  They were not going to take any prisoners.  Jesus, of course, rejected their idea, saying, “No, we are not going to do that.” 

You see in Mark 10 that James and John had special privilege as part of the inner circle that also included Peter.  They were with Jesus on numerous occasions as part of a select group.  They met with Jesus and went to the synagogue with him in Capernaum.  They stayed in the same house with him when Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law.  They witnessed him healing so many others.  They also accompanied Jesus up to the Mount of Transfiguration, where, before their very eyes, he was clothed and dazzling white.  They witness the appearance of Elijah and Moses with Jesus during that transfiguration.  The symbolism associated with the appearance of these two supports the notion that Jesus’ role was to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. 

James and John were also prideful and ambitious men as today’s text illustrates.  On this occasion, they tell Jesus, “When you come into your glory, we would like the places of honor – one on your right and one on your left.”  Why should these two disciples expect such an honor?  Why should they believe that they should have the places of esteem?  Perhaps it was because they were part of that inner circle.  Maybe they felt that they were favored.  Maybe they thought they should have the places of honor because Zebedee was a rather prosperous man.  We know that Zebedee’s servants helped him with the fishing business after his two sons left to follow Jesus. 

Perhaps James and John felt they should have the places of honor for another reason.  We must read carefully the New Testament and pay close attention to the combined list of women who were at the cross when Jesus died.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, was there, as was another woman called “the other Mary.”  Mary Magdalene seems to be there in all the accounts.  One account in the Gospels says that the mother of Zebedee’s children – James and John – was there.  Another says that Salome was there.  It is pretty clear that Salome is Zebedee’s wife and the mother of James and John.  When we read the fourth Gospel and see the list of women at the crucifixion, we read that Mary’s sister was there.  Mary’s sister must have been Salome.  Therefore, James and John are blood first cousins to Jesus.  Jesus set aside James and John, who have a kinship, a blood relationship with him, to be apostles.  Though Jesus could have given this place on honor for numerous reasons, he challenges these two, telling them that the places of honor are not his to give.

In another account, we get the picture that John was very intolerant.  He wanted to stop a person from casting out demons in the name of Jesus.  Jesus rebuked John, “No, we are not going to stop him if he is doing the work we are doing.  He is with us.” 

Do you know people like this?  Do you know people who have a lot of pride, people who have a quick temper, people who have great ambition?  Do you know people who are intolerant and quick-tempered? 

I know these guys.  I know these guys pretty well.  I have been fishing with them.  It matters a lot to them who catches the biggest fish.  You ought to hear what comes out of their mouths when they snag their favorite lure on the bottom of the lake and have to cut it loose. 

I took my four sons fishing one time.  The fish were biting, and everybody was catching fish except Erik.  Scott, the best fisherman among our children, was catching fish right and left.  Like my grandfather, he could catch fish out here in the parking lot.  Scott caught and reeled in his third large-mouth bass, which was fairly large – a pound and a half, maybe two pounds.  He had a little something to say about his catch.  Erik, who was so frustrated because he had not even had a bite, said, “I’m going to hook me a large-mouth Scott.”  I have been fishing with men just like James and John.

Years ago when I was in seminary, I tried golf for a year.  I thought pastors had to be golfers, so I spent some money I did not have on a set of used golf clubs.  Three guys in seminary with me kept insisting that I play golf with them because they needed a fourth person.  I finally relented and went with them.  We were about halfway through the first round when I found out that one friend had played for the University of Texas golf team.  Another had played for the University of Florida team, and the third had played on the golf team in high school.  Golf is a miserable game if your partners start feeling sorry for you.  These three felt so sorry for me that they would give me a Mulligan on every hole. 

I lost so many golf balls that year.  I would go to the driving range and buy a dozen golf balls for about a dollar.  I used those cut, dented, and marred balls to drive because there was no telling where they would land when I hit them with my driver.  The other three guys always kept score and competed with each other.  I was left out of that camaraderie because I was not a good player.  I struggled through this golfing experience for about a year. 

One Saturday, we traveled to Eastern Kentucky to play golf at a swanky course located in a mountain valley.  I remember standing on the first tee and looking toward the green.  It was like looking down a piece of PVC pipe.  The fairway was so narrow.  I lost about half a dozen golf balls just on the front nine.  I was hopelessly behind. 

The golf course itself was beautiful.  A mountain stream wandered all through that course, affecting almost every hole.  There was one par five on the back nine.  The stream came down one side of the course, cut across and went down the other side, cut back across, and wrapped around the green.  The idea was that you were supposed to drive the ball so that it landed between the two places where the stream crossed.  As we started playing the second nine, I hit the best drive of my life.  Wouldn’t you know it?  My ball went into the second stream.  As I was standing on a rock searching for that ball, I saw a brook trout fanning in the water.  I thought, Why am I standing here with a seven iron in my hand?  Where is my rod and reel when I need it? 

That was the last time I played golf.  Playing golf was not a restorative for me.  Fishing is.  Maybe that is the reason Jesus called fishermen, not golfers, to follow him. 

I know guys like James and John, men who are very competitive, very prideful.  I have seen them fishing.  I have seen them playing on the golf course.  I have seen them at pastors’ conferences.  They go to a corner and huddle, talking about membership, baptisms, and budgets.  People like James and John are both male and female.  They show up at beauty pageants and anywhere there is this sense of pride, competitiveness, ambition, quick temper, and intolerance.  I have seen them at piano recitals and dance recitals.  I have seen them on a soccer field and at little league baseball games.  While the children are having a good time, the parents are behaving badly. 

I have also seen people like James and John at writers’ conferences, bragging about how many books they have written, how many books they have sold.  I have seen people like this wearing garnet and black or orange and white.  They wear red for Georgia, Alabama, or Arkansas.  They wear blue for Duke, North Carolina, or Kentucky.  These people appear on every reality television show.  What matters to them is winning, making somebody else look bad, coming out on top.  Competition has everything to do with late-night television.  It might as well have been James and John as Jay and Dave.  These people occupy seats in the United States Congress.  I see this in my own brothers and sisters, in my own children, in my cousins.  What bothers me most of all is that every morning when I get up and look in the mirror, I see this in the face gazing back at me. 

The truth is that we are all kin to James and John.  We all want to win.  We all want places of honor.  You will notice that the other disciples, when they realized what James and John asked for, were indignant.  This spirit of ambition, competition, quick temper, intolerance, and pride permeates the human race. 

Dr. Martin Luther King preached a sermon on this very text.  He spoke about this trait, which he called the “drum major instinct.”  He said that we all have the drum major instinct.  We want to lead the parade. We want to be the one out front of everyone else.  We want to be the one everybody notices, the one in charge.  We do not want to be a part of the parade.  Dr. King said this kind of prideful ambition interfered with the civil rights movement.  It can interfere with many aspects of life.  I have seen it absolutely tear apart a church.  I do not see that happening here at Morningside, but I want us to be careful.  You know, as I do, that this sense of ambition is just a part of our genetic makeup.  The companies we work for and the organizations we belong to nurture this characteristic.  The Christian must respond in a different way.

Every summer, my mother had a private conversation with each of the eight children in our family.  During that discussion, she would give us each a passage of Scripture to memorize.  The summer before the seventh grade, she gave me a note containing the Scripture I was to memorize:  Romans 12:1-2:  “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, and acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.  And be not conformed to this world:  but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”  I memorized that passage.  Throughout that summer, my mother stopped me and asked, “Kirk, can you say your verse?”  I could sayit for her.  I knew the verse.

The next summer before the eighth grade, my mother and I had our talk.  She handed me a slip of paper with the verse I was to memorize:  Romans 12:1-2.  I thought, Well, she’s slipping.  I said, “Mama, this is the very verse you gave me last summer.” 

She explained, “I know.  You memorized it, and you can say it.  Kirk, I want you to know this verse by heart.  I want it to be in your heart.  I want you to know what this Scripture means.” 

All that summer, I considered what those two verses meant, especially that second part:  “Be not conformed to this world.  Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.  But be transformed.”  The word “transformed” is used only one other time in the Greek New Testament.  “Transformed” describes the transfiguration of Jesus.  That passage was speaking of a real change.  “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” encourages us to make a real change, to think differently than the way the world thinks; otherwise, we will slip into the pattern of the world.  We must think differently so that we may prove what is the “good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.” 

The summer before I was in the ninth grade, I again had a talk with my mother.  She handed me a slip of paper with the reference to Romans 12:1-2 written on it.  I questioned her, “Mama, three summers in a row?” 

She answered, “Kirk, you memorized the words.  You know what it means.  I want you to live it.  I want this to be the way you live.” 

We are to present ourselves as a living sacrifice.  The trouble with a living sacrifice is that it keeps crawling off the altar.  It does not really like being sacrificed so much.  It wants to have its own way.  “Present yourself as a living sacrifice” means that you are not your own, that you belong to someone else.  This is your reasonable worship.  It is not unreasonable. 

Jesus did not say to James and John, “Now, now guys.  Let’s not be competitive.”  That would not have worked with them.  It would not work with me either and probably not with you.  Jesus told his disciples, “Listen, the way to compete and be great is to become a servant.”  Jesus himself set the example, humbling himself and becoming a servant, obedient even unto death. 

According to Jesus, true greatness comes, not by climbing over other people, not by stepping on them and one-upping them.  True greatness comes through servanthood.  Most of us want to achieve greatness.  It is available to every single one of us.  There is not one winner, though, because everybody wins in the life of service.  A marriage will work if both the husband and wife have a servant heart.  A family will work, a church will work, a business will work when people have a servant heart, when they want the best for everyone.  People must give of themselves and have this servant attitude. 

You will notice that Jesus asked James and John, “Can you drink the cup from which I drink or accept the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:35).  Jesus is not talking about the ordinances of the church.  He is not talking about the Lord’s Supper or baptism.  He is talking about the life experience of suffering.

The disciples glibly answer Jesus with, “Yes, we can.”  They had no idea what was coming.  Acts 12 tells us that James was the first of the apostles to die; Herod killed him with a sword.  John, the last of the apostles to die, died as an old man in the town of Ephesus.  It was from there after the fall of Jerusalem that he wrote the Gospel of John.  “You will know the experience of suffering,” Jesus told these apostles.  The disciples did know; they learned. 

Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote that discipleship has a cost.  He experienced that in his own life.  Our salvation is a free gift, a gift of grace, but it is very expensive.  It cost the Lord Jesus his life.  The cost of discipleship is not just something Jesus paid.  We sing “Jesus paid it all.”  If you are a disciple of Christ, it is going to cost you.  You will have to give up some things.  If you are a disciple of Christ, you will be left out at times.  If you are a disciple of Christ, your life will be different.  According to Jesus, our leader, our only leader, this is the way we are to live.  Jesus took up his cross and asked each one of us to take up our cross with the attitude of a servant and follow him.  His cross led him to Calvary. 

The red hand of Ireland is not the symbol of Christianity.  Our symbol is two red hands stretched out on the timber of Calvary.  There, we see the symbol of suffering and shame.  There, we see the symbol of “sorrow and love, flowing mingled down.  We see the symbol of a servant.  It looks as if Jesus is lost, but it is actually the greatest victory ever won.  It is the way we are to live, to follow him.  James and John learned the hard way.  The truth is that most of us have to learn the hard way, too.  Discipleship is costly.  It is a commitment.  It is an investment of your life in the cause of Christ.

If you have decided to follow Jesus, you know that you have begun a long journey.  Some have never made that decision.  Would you like to become a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ and follow him?  You must take the first step to acknowledge Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.  Some of you have other decisions to make, decisions you have been postponing.  I simply ask, Why are you waiting?  We invite you to make the investment, to make the commitment today.

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2010

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