I imagine James and John as the sorts that used to hang out in front of the drug store in the village where I grew up. Wiry, pimply faced teenagers, with sharp, darting eyes. Kids who buzzed and hummed with unused energy, eager for some adventure to come along; the ones always on the lookout for something, often tinged with mischief; anything to fill long, boring summer days. These are the sons of Zebedee, and everyone in town knows their name.
That's how I imagine them when Jesus strolled along the beach what seems like an eternity ago. They weren't loafing about in front of the drug store, but mending nets in their dad's fishing boat. Still, it didn't take much more than a suggestion of adventure from Jesus to get them to drop their nets, and abandon the family business. Immediately, (impulsively?) they left their dad with the hired hands and chase after the peculiar Rabbi. You can see them wrestling each other, all arms and legs, pushing and shoving to be the first out of the boat, the first to stand at attention and follow wherever it is that Jesus has in mind to go. Whatever the adventure, they are ready.
Jesus obviously seemed to get a kick out of their youthful energy, their eagerness for something more. He even gave them a nickname: The Sons of Thunder. This was not one of those ironic nicknames like the huge man called "Tiny." This is who they are. Thunder Brothers. When the Thunder Brothers roll in, things get--well--louder, more exciting, a little less orderly. I think James and John are good news for those who aren't very good at sitting still in church. They're good news for the ones who get excited and forget their manners. They're the ones who forget to raise their hands before they blurt out the answer, the ones who never were much good at following the rules exactly.
It's these two, in Luke's gospel, who want to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village that didn't want Jesus to stay the night. There's good biblical precedent for this sort of thing, the prophet Elijah set the gold standard, but only James and John have the guts to suggest it. They don't do things halfway. They are all in. Their hearts are on their sleeves: what you see is what you get, and whether you like it or not is not something that crosses their minds. And there's something about that that Jesus has an affection for. He never seems to regret having called these two spitfires to the frontlines of the gospel. In fact, they become part of his innermost circle. It's these two with Peter who get to see the Transfiguration. Jesus will soon want them with him in Gethsemane.
So, their request doesn't come out of nowhere. Frankly, if Jesus were to have a right-hand and a left-hand man these two may be top choice. They are true believers. They are ready to go wherever he leads. They've left everything behind for this. They believe he is who he says he is; that he will, without question, "come in glory." Jesus, when you are glorified, we want to be right there with you.
We can laugh at their impudence, at their rough manners, at the foolishness of the request. But we can't doubt at their commitment. They are ready to be Jesus' right hand, to be Jesus' left hand. They are ready to bring the kingdom to life. They are ready for the new world that Jesus has been preaching. To imagine that the sons of a fisherman might somehow sit in places of prominence and power in the kingdom of heaven is the stuff of fairytales. But it's perfectly possible in the topsy-turvy world of the gospel, and they have wholeheartedly bought in to the possibility. They understand that what Jesus is on about is a matter of life and death and they're ready to give both for the cause.
So, it seems that the problem is not so much their intention, not even their audacity, but their orientation. What does it mean to be the right hand, the left hand when Christ's kingdom arrives in all its fullness? What were they imagining for themselves? These are the positions of enforcer and protector, aren't they? They would be the ones to bring about Jesus' will and way--by force, if necessary. They would be the ones to ensure the kingdom's security, to make sure that Jesus' glory is acknowledged and solidified. The request is outlandish, and I have to assume that our response isn't all that different from the other disciples. Who do they think they are? They've obviously forgotten where they came from.
And yet, although we might be more sensible than James and John, too polite to make such ridiculous requests out loud, I'm inclined to agree with the thinker on these things who said that we all have "a little Zebedee DNA in our genes." We may not be quite as boisterous, but I know I certainly have the capacity to imagine that what I want for and from Jesus is perfectly in line with his expectations. I know what it's like to say to Jesus, "I've got a plan and before I tell you, I want you to promise not to mess it up." Maybe not in so many words...
I know that whenever I say things like, Who do they think they are? the unspoken assumption is that I know better than they do, that I would do better than they would, that those seats up at the front are actually better suited to a person of my character and gifts. I'll never be accused of having the Thunder Brothers' energy, or their brashness, but I know a thing or two about how even the best of intentions can get all twisted up. The history of the Church is littered with examples of men and women who earnestly wanted to see Jesus glorified, but who--often in an effort to protect and enforce his way--have dramatically missed the mark. James and John here might be Christendom in a nutshell.
Of course, twisted intentions aren't limited to the church. We see it in politics and business; we see it in our homes, in our relationships. We know all about wanting control and protection for the way we think things ought to be. And we know the results (though, like the 10 other disciples, we tend to see them more clearly in others). Eagerness to get to the front, to hold the gavel, to ensure our security at all costs, ends in messes of all kinds.
We see it in political climates where the "common good" is traded in for being right, where getting elected and being in control is the most important thing. We see it in business practices that only allow growth and influence as acceptable markers of work well done, regardless of the collateral damage. We see it in relationships where the unspoken goal is to get more than is given, where my wants, needs, and feelings are the first and final metric of how things are going. We see it in families and communities torn apart by favoritism. When Jesus says that the Gentiles do this stuff (first of all, he's talking about us), it's sort of a broad-stroke way of pointing out a truth that we're all more or less familiar with. This stuff happens. This is the way folks are in the current order of things.
Which is not to say that all these things (and you can add in your own examples of disoriented intentions) can't perfectly well have noble beginnings; of course they can. The desire for political control can come from the highest ideals; ambition in business can look like living up to our potential; we can be easily convinced that if we're not perfectly happy then we can't possibly make others happy--the self-care industrial complex has taught us to love ourselves first and above all; We often bestow special favour on those we think need a leg up.
And when we do things with what we imagine to be the best of intentions we generally assume it's going to make things better. And sometimes it does--we don't need to be overwhelmed by cynicism. But at least as often as not, in our attempts to protect and control what we believe to be the good and right thing, we end up cramped and limited. We set up barriers and boundaries around what can be. We end up narrowing the scope of possibility. We do it because our own vision is so limited. Even Jesus wasn't prepared to tell James and John how it's going to be when the kingdom comes in its fullness; only the Father has a vision sufficient for that task. Even Jesus doesn't get to pick who sits beside him. Why are we so quick to make such decisions?
There's a beautiful bit of grace in the fact that Jesus doesn't run the disciples off. He's literally just finished talking about how his mission is one of suffering love and here they are going on about seats of glory. But he doesn't run them off. Instead he interrupts them. He stands in the way of their best intentions and orients them in another direction altogether. This is what Jesus does. He comes Spirit-launched into our space and says, "Hold up! Repent! Turn around! You're going the wrong way! The kingdom's over here." The kingdom of heaven doesn't look like the kingdoms we're used to, where the powerful and worthy are in charge, where authority is wielded in the service of a narrow vision, where leadership and tyranny can be awfully hard to distinguish from one another. The kingdom doesn't look like getting ahead, it refuses our paltry metrics of growth and wealth and influence; it denies myopic selfishness and comfortable self-assurance.
Repent, come a different direction, Jesus says. Pay attention to the God who has called you and claimed you, the One who made you and knows you better than you know yourself, who loves you without measure. Pay attention to the types of folks this God seems to have a special interest in: old, childless couples; cheats and scoundrels; slaves and nobodies; widows and orphans; teenagers and tax-collectors; fishermen and prostitutes; lepers and shepherds. These are the types that overwhelmingly populate the story of God with God's people; these are the ones who make up the greater part of the great cloud of witnesses to what God has done, is doing, and will do--not the rich and powerful, not the lofty and lorded. Over and over, Scripture shows us that God's vision is so dramatically broader and longer, deeper and higher than we can even fathom; it's much too big for us to grab hold of, to protect and enforce.
Jesus doesn't run the ambitious disciples off; he interrupts their best intentions and reframes their work. He draws them into a eucharistic life, a baptized life--a life that doesn't look like the lords and rulers of the way things are have told us we should look. He draws them into a life that points towards how the world will be when God gets the world God wants--a world awash in love, justice, and righteousness. Can you drink the cup that I'm going to drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I'll be baptized with? "We can and we will!" bless their hearts. And again, grace. Jesus doesn't snort at their ridiculous enthusiasm. He affirms that they can and they will. But by grace it won't look anything like they're imagining.
Instead, he draws them into so much more. He pulls them far from protective, controlling ambition and up to the table. And he pours a cup for them that they cannot grab from him, they can't even ask it of him; they can only receive it as he passes it and says "Take. Drink. All of you." And it's not the cup to toast their victory (at least not yet); it's the cup of a new covenant, God's fresh promise. It's the cup that symbolizes their ransom from the way things are. It's the cup that frees them to walk a new way, and draws them towards what will be: the world restored and made new, heaven and earth as one, every belly filled and every tear wiped away, enemies embracing, the broken made whole and the dead raised to new life. It's the cup that points us towards the table being prepared, over and against the enemies of sin and death, in spite of their raging; the table at which all cups will overflow.
When Jesus sets the table and offers the cup there's no shortage; there's no need to be protective and controlling--we're perfectly free to give it away, to hand it around, to make sure that everyone is satisfied, never worried that there might not be any left when it gets back around to us. We can safely go last, because the cup he offers is nothing less than himself, overflowing with a love deeper and higher, longer and wider than we can imagine.
Christ calls us out of selfish concern, and he calls us into a eucharistc life. He gives thanks for the cup and blesses it, before he passes it around. A eucharistic life is a life of gratitude, a life that looks at the world, looks to the face of Christ and understands that we what we have already been given outshines all our best ambitions and finest intentions for ourselves. A eucharistic life is a life that opens us up to gratitude for one another, for our neighbors--even, heaven help us, for our enemies. We can be thankful and generous in all circumstances because in the presence of Jesus, in the way of the God who loves the lowest and the least, saints and scoundrels, we are learning to see the goodness and grace of God at work in us and others, all made in God's image.
Jesus draws us towards a whole new possibility and then he plunges us in. We are a baptized people. In baptism we are initiated into God's new way, we are cleansed of the way things are and freed to do nothing that can't be done to the glory of God. We are given divine permission to live as a sign of what God is up to in the world--reconciling, making new, bringing a new life out of the shell of the old. In baptism we pledge our allegiance to nothing less than the will and way of the One who loves this world so much that he gives, and gives, and gives. In baptism we are crucified with Christ, and raised with him as new creations, strange in the world. A baptized life is a life that looks strange enough now that it will fit right in, when God gets the world God wants.
Jesus loved the Thunder Brothers. He loved their energy and their readiness for a whole new adventure. Perhaps he knew that they would in fact drink his cup, and be baptized with his baptism (James will be martyred in Acts 12), because in the end what they desired more than anything was him; what they had come to want more than anything was what he wants. And maybe this is one more proof that God can shoot straight with crooked arrows. Maybe it's a reminder of the work God's up to in us; the ways that Jesus, by the Spirit continues to interrupt our wonky and best intentions, to draw our gaze back to the ways that God is with us and for u; to the ways of the One whose thoughts are far above and wondrously around us. I think it's a reminder that caught by the grace of Jesus, he will make our lives sacramental--make in us a life that becomes an outward and visible sign of the grace and the love that we've received: the hope of the world. That's the adventure we're called to.
May it be so.