I grew up in a family that loved sports. In high school, my mom ran track, my dad played football, and they both played basketball and tennis. This love of athletics continued into their adulthood. My mom’s favorite pastime is jogging. Even in the midst of all the busyness of being a mother, she always found time to sneak away and squeeze a run in. Likewise, during his career as a jr. and sr. high school science teacher, my dad coached football, as well as men’s and women’s basketball.
I primarily grew up watching basketball and football. As soon as I had any hand-eye coordination whatsoever I was trying to throw footballs and shoot basketballs. When I was only 5 or 6 I had a full set of football pads and a helmet. I loved to play football with my dad in the yard. Early on we got a basketball hoop, and my dad would lower it to the lowest setting and I would try and make baskets, but even from the earliest age my dad was concerned about form. He taught me how to bring the basketball up through the center of my body, and flick my wrist to get backspin. He taught me how to throw a spiral football and how to tuck the ball under my arm when I ran, because, obviously, I would be a running back when I started playing football and I needed to know how to protect the ball.
Whenever we watched football or basketball on TV, my dad would point out what the athlete did right and what they did wrong. “See how he keeps his legs moving when they try to tackle him? You’ve gotta keep pushing until you’re down,” or, “did you see the way he faked and then spun? You’ve gotta use your pivot foot.”
Growing up, I loved to watch sports and I dreamed of the day when I could play them, when I would be out there dodging tackles and making three pointers. But there was a bit of a gap between when I started wanting to play sport and when I could actually start playing sports. Sometimes, as a family, my dad would take us to the gym at the school where he worked on Saturdays or Sunday afternoons when no one was there. He’d give me a basketball that was so big I’d have to use both hands to carry it. I’d try to dribble, but the ball would hit my foot and roll away. I’d look up at the hoop that towered above me. I’d throw the ball toward the hoop, and it wouldn’t even get close.
I remember being so frustrated. I couldn’t believe that I’d ever be able to dribble between my legs, or shoot a three pointer, or throw a spiral. Because at that point I couldn’t. It was impossible. I had to grow and develop skills. I had to practice and mature.
We’ve been in a difficult set of teachings about discipleship these last few weeks. As we hear what’s required of disciples of Jesus, we may begin to feel like 5 year old me trying to shoot a basket or throw a spiral. We may feel like it’s impossible. We’ll never get there.
James and John certainly seem more like 5 year olds than mature disciples in our story today when they make their bold request to be seated as #1 and #2 at Jesus’ side when he is glorified. Despite all that they’ve heard Jesus say about discipleship – and they’ve heard everything we’ve heard these last few weeks – they still don’t get it. They still think following Jesus is going to result in glory and prestige and power, and they want to be the first in line to reap the benefits.
After making such an audacious claim, we might expect Jesus to throw his hands in the air, tell them they’re idiots, and start looking for replacement disciples, but, instead, Jesus does something very “Jesus”: he asks them a question. He asks them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” In the Old Testament, the image of the cup could refer to “joy and salvation (Pss. 23:5; 116:13) or woe and suffering (Ps. 11:6; Isa. 51:17, 22).” Jesus is referring to suffering, but James and John must think he’s referring to joy and salvation because they quickly reply, “We are able.”
Jesus then responds, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized…” This sounds ominous, right? We know what’s coming. We know the cup Jesus will drink. We know the baptism he will be baptized with. We know that the two who sit at Jesus’ right and left in his moment of glory are not prestigious figures, and they don’t actually sit. They hang. They are the two thieves, crucified alongside the Messiah. One on his right, and one on his left.
But we can hear Jesus’ words to James and John in another way. We can hear them as a kind of assurance, a comfort, if you can believe that. In this passage we see James and John’s immaturity. Like a 5 year old trying to shoot a basket, they fall embarrassingly short. But they won’t always be such novices. They won’t always misunderstand Jesus’ words. They will grow, they will mature. They will become professional disciples – the Michael Jordans of the Way. But, once again, that doesn’t mean fame and money and national championships.
Let me read to you from Acts 12:1-2: “About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.” James, in our reading today so immature and arrogant, would indeed drink the cup that Jesus drank and be baptized with the baptism with which Jesus was baptized. He would become the first of the 12 disciples to be martyred for the faith.
John, didn’t have it as rough as his brother James. According to church tradition, he’s the only disciple who wasn’t martyred. Instead, he was exiled to the island of Patmos. But we do have three letters attributed to John, creatively titled 1, 2, and 3 John, as well as the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation. There is, of course, scholarly debate about whether or not John was the actual author of these books, but, for now, I’m not concerned with that. If we assume that the Church is right about who wrote these books, especially the letter of 1 John, we can see how John grew to be a disciple who finally got what Jesus was talking about. He says this in the letter of 1 John, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s good and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (3:16-17). This sounds very similar to Jesus’ teaching from today, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” By the time he wrote 1 John, John’s teaching reflects Jesus’. Now he’s the one telling other Christians that discipleship means laying down their lives for one another, and that the way of Jesus is guided by love of one another, not domination of one another.
When James and John come to Jesus and want him to grant them “whatever they ask,” I’m sure he’s frustrated. But Jesus doesn’t just see who they are in that moment, he sees who they’ll become. He has faith that his words are taking root in them, even if they aren’t bearing much fruit yet. He also knows that they’ll be shaped more by his actions than his words. His words will only make sense to them in light of his death and resurrection, which are yet to come. Remember, in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is really concerned with people understanding the big picture when it comes to their confessing him as the Messiah. As soon as Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus, without skipping a beat, tells the disciples that he must suffer and be killed and rise again on the third day. He knows they won’t fully grasp who he is, or what it means to follow him, until the whole mission is accomplished: life, death, and resurrection. And after he returns to the Parent, he trusts that the Holy Spirit will lead them, and they will continue to grow in their discipleship.
Perhaps, these last few weeks, you’ve been feeling a little discouraged or overwhelmed by our Gospel readings. Maybe you feel like there’s no way to live up to Jesus’ difficult teaching about discipleship (and maybe you don’t want to!). Maybe, if your honest, you relate more to James and John in this passage from Mark than you do with James the martyr or John the letter-writer.
Let Mary Oliver’s poem “Don’t Worry” be a comfort to you.
Things take the time they take. Don’t
How many roads did Saint Augustine follow
before he became Saint Augustine?
No one starts out a perfect disciple. Just as no one is born shooting 3-pointers and making 50 yard runs on the football field. You can read Augustine’s Confessions and hear all about his journey. The answer to Mary Oliver’s question is: he took many roads.
On February 23, 1977, the Catholic Church appointed a new archbishop of San Salvador. El Salvador, at the time, was a country of violence and unrest. As one source puts it, “The role of archbishop of San Salvador in the mid-1970s was all but impossible. The archbishop was expected to serve the interests of the people, the ruling oligarchy of landowning families, the local Church, the Vatican, and even the United States, which funded El Salvador’s military.” At this time, a “dangerous” new theology was gaining ground across Latin America: Liberation Theology. This theology claimed that God was on the side of the oppressed. It challenged those in power and gave theological legitimacy to the cries of the poor. The ruling elites were not fans of this new form of theology, to say the least. Fliers were circulated throughout El Salvador that said, “Be a patriot. Kill a priest.” The Catholic church wanted an archbishop who wouldn’t rock the boat, someone who would care for the people without challenging those in power. A priest named Oscar Romero appeared to fit the bill.
Romero was known as a stickler for the rules. He avoided social justice issues and disapproved of political theology, instead focusing on personal improvement. He even dressed more conservatively than other priests. The powerful elites, who had the final say in who the archbishop would be, readily signed off.
But only 3 weeks into his stint as archbishop something happened, something that would change Oscar Romero forever. A friend and former seminary classmate, Rutilio Grande, also a priest, who was organizing sugarcane workers, was murdered. After attending Rutilio Grande’s funeral, Romero was a changed man. He became a voice of opposition to the violence of the government and the ruling class. In his homilies on Sundays, he would read aloud the names of those killed or kidnapped. He encouraged churches to provide sanctuary for peasants who were in danger. He even went so far as to excommunicate the president of El Salvador because he failed to stop the murders of priests and laity. Unsurprisingly, the support he had received from the Vatican and local ruling class quickly evaporated and were replaced by opposition.
Romero used his church radio station to challenge the state-controlled media that dominated the airwaves. On March 23, 1980, Romero preached a sermon that was broadcast through this radio station, as all his sermons were. Speaking directly to the military regime, he cried out, “I implore you, I beg you, I order you, in the name of God: stop the repression!”
The next evening, Romero was celebrating Mass at a small chapel in a local hospital. As he stepped to the table to lift up the body and blood of Christ – that is, to remember the cup that Jesus drank, the baptism with which he was baptized – Romero did drink the cup that Jesus drank. He was baptized with the baptism which Jesus was baptized. A gunman stepped through the front door of the chapel and shot Romero in the heart.
Last Sunday, October 14, 2018, Oscar Romero was officially canonized as a saint in the Catholic church. Pope Francis, wearing Romero’s blood-stained rope belt from the day he was martyred, said at the ceremony that Romero “left the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to give his life according to the gospel – close to the poor and to his people.”
Oscar Romero, like James and John, like all of us, didn’t start out as a radical disciple. He started out as a ruler-follower who seemed like a safe-bet for those in power. But, by the end of his life he was known as “a voice for the voiceless.” He took Jesus words to heart, becoming a servant to all.
I want to be like Oscar Romero, like James the martyr and John the letter-writer. Ultimately, I want to be like Jesus. But it’s a long road. It doesn’t happen in an instant.
We are all in the process of becoming. We are all in the process of transformation. We are all walking the path of discipleship, and none of us have made it to the destination. All we can do now is put one foot in front of the other, and trust that God will lead us where we need to go. But we must be sensitive to God’s leading. We must be willing to throw off all other allegiances, anything and everything that stands in the way of the Way of Jesus. Oscar Romero’s actions put him odds with his nation and his religious institution. Are we also willing to stand against our nation and our religious institutions if we need to? Are we willing follow Jesus all costs?
If the answer is, “Yes,” then we can trust that he will lead us.
I’ll leave you with a slightly adapted version of the Mary Oliver poem I read earlier:
Things take the time they take. Don’t
How many roads did Saint Oscar Romero follow
before he became Saint Oscar Romero?
 C. Clifton Black, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, 191.