Ransomed into the New

Josef August Untersberger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: How do Christians experience the peace of the Lord in a world gone mad? Jesus addresses this issue when he discusses with his disciples the spiritual perils of seeking worldly power and prestige. He compares this turbulent way of life under human rule to a peaceful way of life under God’s rule, where the greatest are the humblest servants of all.

Scripture: Mark 10: 35-45

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

If I were to conduct a one-question poll of a random group of Christians, the question would be, “What is the one burning question on your mind related to the Christian life today? I wouldn’t be surprised if the response was something like, “How is it possible to experience the peace of the Lord in a world gone mad?” So, if that’s the burning question on your mind, you’re in luck, because that’s what our scripture reading for today is all about.

As always, let’s review the context. Jesus was making his way toward Jerusalem for the final stage of his selfless ministry to humanity. Along the way, he was doing his best to prepare the disciples for what would happen to him there. In verse 33, Jesus tells his disciples for the third time about his upcoming arrest, death, and resurrection.

He says, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

The disciples struggled to understand the kind of Savior Jesus is and the kind of kingdom he would set-up. They, like many Jews of Jesus’ time, wanted Jesus to be a political savior who would save them from the tyranny of the Romans. They had their hearts set on Jesus’ setting-up a worldly kingdom that would allow them to occupy positions of worldly power and influence.

They had their hearts set on the wrong idea. Jesus was doing his best to teach them that his kingdom was not a political, worldly one. In his kingdom, the greatest is the exact opposite of the kind of person considered the greatest by the standards of this world. In his kingdom, the greatest is the humble servant who welcomes the lowly, not the arrogant big shot who scoffs them.

And that brings us to our scripture reading for today. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus requesting positions of power and prestige in his kingdom. They knew that glorification awaited Jesus because they had witnessed his transfiguration; they wanted some of that glory for themselves.

Jesus responds, “You do not know what you are asking.” He responds this way for two reasons. First, he knows that they don’t understand the kind of savior he is and the kind of kingdom he would set-up. He asks them if they are willing to drink the cup that he is about to drink and receive the baptism that he is about to receive.

What cup was he referring to? In the gospel of Luke 22:42, Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”

He was referring to the cup of suffering that he would drink before his baptism by fire – a permanent transfiguration through the death of his personal self. He was asking James and John if they were willing to sacrifice their personal selves for the sake of others.

This is the level of selfless, loving service the greatest in Jesus’ kingdom possesses. At this point in time, James and John were not able. We know this because all the disciples would flee and hide after Jesus is arrested. Jesus would be crucified between two bandits, not two disciples. James and John would not get the true meaning of Jesus’ mission and what his kingdom was all about until after his resurrection.

Yet both claim that they are able, and Jesus predicts, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” James would eventually be martyred, and John would be exiled to the Island of Patmos – both persecuted for the sake of Jesus’ kingdom. Curiously, James would be the first disciple to die, and John the last.  

What did Jesus mean when he said, “but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Jesus is saying that God is the playwright, and Christ is the actor. When it comes to the casting the actors in this play called Life, God makes the decisions. In fact, God has already made those decisions.

Apparently the other ten disciples were furious with James and John for vying for positions of power over them. So, Jesus calls the disciples together because it was clear that none of them realized the spiritual perils of the human drive for worldly power and prestige.

This is the second reason why Jesus responded, “You do not know what you are asking.” Many who are in positions of power and prestige “sell their soul to the devil” to protect their positions and privileges. They use any means necessary – including violent means.

Soon, the disciples will witness the violence unleashed by those seeking to protect themselves from the implications of Jesus’ ministry. The Sadducees feared that Jesus’ ministry would inspire an uprising, potentially triggering the Romans to destroy the Temple, which would completely destroy the role of the Sadducees since their job was to direct Temple activities.

Pontius Pilate feared that he too might lose his job if he could not keep things under control in his district. So, he ruled through intimidation by dealing very violently with any and all troublemakers. Jesus might inspire an uprising. That’s all he needed to know. As with John the Baptist’s death, whether Jesus’ death was fair didn’t matter to these worldly rulers.

While they killed others to save themselves, Jesus would – in direct contrast – willingly sacrifice his life to save others. He would forgo any attempts to control his fate or to prevail over others. He was willing to be powerless and vulnerable (like a child) to demonstrate the true meaning of power – the immense spiritual power that lies within each and every one of us – and how that incredible power is unleashed.

Jesus explains to his disciples that they will not occupy positions of worldly power and prestige. If they wish to be the greatest in his kingdom, they must resolve to be the greatest servant of all and the humblest of all.

Our scripture reading ends with Jesus saying in verse 45, For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” This statement gives us a glimpse into the purpose of Jesus’ ministry as the gospel writer Mark sees it. Remember that Mark’s gospel is the oldest gospel and was used as a source by all the other gospel writers.

The word translated as “ransom” is the Greek word lytron (LEE-tron). The Old Testament’s use of a related word sometimes refers to a redemption or purchased freedom, but also often refers to God’s acting to deliver people.

When we hear the word “ransom,” we think of someone who has been taken against his or her will, and the bad guys are demanding cash from the family to get their loved one back. The person who has been taken is innocent. They haven’t done anything wrong.

Many pastors argue that Jesus is talking about a ransom for sin here, but Jesus isn’t talking about sin. He’s comparing worldly leaders to spiritual leaders. He comparing those who sacrifice others for their own sake to those who sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

He’s comparing an old way of life ruled by men to an entirely new way of life. Jesus is suggesting that his death will free people from oppression and captivity to another power, restoring them to membership in the community that is ruled by God.

Jesus’ death will be a ransom from human rule for the many who recognize that they are enslaved by this old way of life – a way of life that revolves around violently protecting the personal self where those with the most worldly power always prevail over those with the least.

But we can live an entirely different way once we remember who we are. Once we remember whose we are. Once we chose spiritual power over worldly power. Once we no longer feel the need to protect an illusion. Jesus endured crucifixion to demonstrate to all humanity the truth that who we really are cannot die and needs no protection.

What does this scripture reading have to say to us today? It has much to say to us today. If anyone thinks that only the political leaders of Jesus’ time were driven insane by worldly power and prestige, they haven’t watched the news lately.

We see the same strong-armed political theater happening today – men and women who engage in blatantly unjust and tyrannical deeds just to remain in their positions of power and enjoy their privileges even though it’s at others’ expense. There’s not so much physical brutality as in Jesus’ day, but there is a great deal of mental and emotional brutality going on.

Not only do we see this behavior in political leaders seeking to maintain their elected positions, we also see this in members of the general public who wish to maintain their positions of power and privilege over others on the basis of their gender, race, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, etc.

I believe their tactic has become quite clear: to sow seeds of hatred by spreading misinformation and lies. If we all hate each other, we won’t join together and fight for one another because we’ll be far too busy fighting against one another to have the time to challenge the legitimacy of their privileges.

Why do they seem so desperate? Because their privileges are not legitimate, and they are spotting the fact that more and more people are figuring that out. Jesus taught his disciples that the gentiles and the Samaritans were just as worthy as they to receive God’s blessing, and he is telling us today that no one is unworthy because the truth is that on the fundamental level, we are all nothing less than a sunbeam of God.

The things that make us appear different – things like positions, genders, races, religions, socioeconomic statuses, sexual orientations, etc. are just that – appearances – temporary appearances. They are illusions that all pass away with the personal self.

So, the question Jesus is asking his disciples, including us, is this: Do we want to live under human rule with worldly power and privileges and the stormy, complicated, perilous life that comes with it?  Or do we want to live under God’s rule – with the immense spiritual power of childlike humility – and enjoy the privileges of unwavering peace and an elegantly simple life of extending the Love of God to all?

If we say we do, then we must not allow ourselves to get caught up in the drama of those who still chose to live under human rule. It’s easy to get caught up in all the fear-mongering and intimidation when we forget that we are not ultimately ruled by these insane people, and they can’t do a thing to harm who we really are.

They have no power over us except for the power we chose to give them. When we allow their words and deeds to trouble us, then we are giving them power over our thoughts and feelings. We can choose not to do that either by tuning them out or by observing their words and deeds without getting upset. Hey, it can be a form of entertainment for us. That way, we keep our power, demonstrate our faith in who we are and whose we are, and keep our sense of humor.

We can do that because we live according to God’s Will, and we trust God’s Will for our lives. We trust that nothing can happen to us that is not God’s Will for us, that does not have some loving purpose for our spiritual growth. That goes not only for us individually but for humanity as a whole.

What will our lives be like if we no longer feel the need to protect our bodies, our stuff, our statuses, our lifestyle – the “story” of our lives? We would have the peace that Jesus left with us – peace that nothing in this world could take away from us.

If we say we want this indestructible peace under God’s rule, then we must commit to it by watching out for the temptations of power and privilege that can so easily pull us back into human rule.

There’s nothing wrong with having power as long as we don’t lord it over others and demand that they kowtow to us. And there’s nothing wrong with privilege as long as we don’t attempt to block others from access to the same privileges. Because when we lord our power over others or attempt to block others from the privileges we enjoy, then a very relevant question is, “Who do we think we are?”

Because when we lord our power over others or try to block others from the privileges we enjoy then we are doing nothing less than protecting the personal self and its “story” of superiority. In that moment, we are making a very clear statement about who we really think we are and the kind of rule we prefer.  

But when we are humble servants, we do whatever we can to help others without strings – without any demands or expectation of reward or even thanks. We are willing to sacrifice the personal self’s need for kudos because we recognize the truth that it’s just the personal self’s attempt to steal the glory that belongs to God. That is the kind of servitude Jesus is talking about – a greatness in servitude that is reflected in the apostle Peter’s first letter, chapter 5:1-4.

He writes, “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

We serve others by correcting the misinformation that inspires discord. We serve others by rebuking the lies that sow hatred. We serve others by ignoring the mind, tuning into the heart, and responding to God’s call – each instance of inspiration to extend love to someone in need. Not because we’ll feel guilty if we don’t. Not because we want people to think we’re a good person. But just because we are willing to allow God to use us in this way.

This is how we accept the ransom Jesus paid for us – by our commitment to step out of the old turbulent way of life under human rule and into a new peaceful way of life under God’s rule. Let us aspire to be no one – no one but who we really are in Christ, and let our only ambition be to express the love of God through selfless service to all of humanity.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to accept the ransom you paid for us and to live in a new world ruled by God. We accept the peace you leave with us by letting go of the heavy burden of protecting the personal self. We are ready and willing to be used by God to serve others in need and to let all the glory be reserved for God alone. AMEN.

Resources

Life Application Study Bible.

Skinner, Matt. “Commentary on Mark 10:35-45.” Workingpreacher.org, 18 Oct. 2009, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-29-2/commentary-on-mark-1035-45-2

Vitalis Hoffman, Mark G. “Commentary on Mark 10:35-45.” Workingpreacher.org, 18 Oct. 2015, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-29-2/commentary-on-mark-1035-45-3