The Cup of Suffering
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right hand and the other at your left hand in your glory.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right hand or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
Tuesday, Forth Week of Lent
The purpose of the Christian life is to make us saints, people whose characters reflect the likeness of our Lord. To be sure, it is a big task and one that takes a lifetime. It is, to borrow Eugene Peterson’s phrase, “A long obedience in the same direction.” This is something that is incredibly difficult to embrace in an instant society. We will always be fighting the urge to scorn ourselves for not getting there faster, forgetting that transformation is sort of like erosion. It is difficult to see it taking place in the moment.
And one of God’s greatest tools in creating saints is that of suffering. This too is difficult for us to hear in a therapeutic society.
James and John come to Jesus with what seems like an audacious request: “let us sit next to you when you’re in glory.” Who wouldn’t want to be seated in close proximity to the radiant, risen, and ascended Lord Christ? Their question shows that they have learned much of who Jesus is and who He will be upon the completion of His sacrficial work. I find myself also wanting to be near to Jesus in His glory.
And yet, the path of coming to Christ has some bumps. Jesus responds to them: “If you want to be with me, you will need to experience the ‘cup’ and the ‘baptism’ that I am going to experience.” Here James and John show that they still haven’t quite got it all figured out. “We can handle it,” they answer.
It’s a hasty response, and one that is not very wise. Yet Jesus tells that they certainly will experience this cup and this baptism, even though they don’t know what he means. However, divine seating assignments aren’t going to be disclosed until the kingdom of God comes to its fullest expression in the life to come.
Jesus response suggest that this cup and baptism of suffering and death will become the norm for Christians. Certainly this proved to be uniquely true in the lives of the earliest followers of Christ. And yet, it is true for us as well.
As Bonnhoeffer puts it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” [Paraphrase] It might not be the case that we will be put to death for our insistence that Jesus is Lord. However, saintliness requires the putting to death of ourselves that we may be made new in Christ.
We put to death our consciences when we demand of ourselves that our culture not shape our values, rather that they be shaped by the witness of Scripture and of the Church. We put our bodies to death when we affirm with the Scriptures and the Church that comfort is not the chief end of life. We put to death our fallen natures when we humbly rely upon Jesus to allow us to stand, perfectly loved, in the presence of the Father.
Death always hurts. But the promise of Scripture is that there is something we are dying toward. Through the cup and baptism of suffering we are being carried further along a continuum of holiness. And, in the end, it is supremely to our benefit to have traveled that long and winding path. As Gordon Smith has noted, “The only tragedy is to die a fool.” The fool is the man who says in his heart, “There is no God.” What is more, the fool is the man who lives the double life that affirms God’s existence, but acts as though that reality has no bearing on life.
God, grant us strength to drink this cup and experience the baptism that you experienced to the end that we may be more like you. Amen.
Prayer Appointed for the week:
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep me both outwardly in my body and inwardly in my soul, that I may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.