These two disciples, James and John, approach Jesus and demand that he does whatever they say. But Jesus listens to them, and they demand to be seated next to him in heaven, but what happens is they get a shock, and discover that discipleship to Jesus is much harder, much more demanding than they expected or we expect.
I think this is one of the most interesting, provocative and challenging questions in the Gospels: “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” I invite us to reflect on this question and I want to offer a few points about the cup, the call to service, and how we are going to answer the question.
First, remember when this happens, Jesus is headed to Jerusalem, to the cross, to torture and death, to give his life in nonviolent suffering love as he resists the empire, the Temple, and the structures of injustice, so for him, the cup is the cross, and he asks us: Are you going to take up the cross and follow me? Are you willing to give your life in suffering love for humanity? Are you willing to be baptized with the second baptism that I am going to undergo, not in the River Jordan, but a baptism of blood on the cross?
The cup is an important image used throughout the Bible. In the Psalms and in Jeremiah, we read about the cup of wrath and suffering, but also in Psalms about the cup of joy and happiness. We read that during the Passover meal, the tradition was to leave a cup of wine on the table which no one was allowed to touch because it was for the prophet Elijah when he returns. Then we read that at the Last Supper, Jesus shocked everyone by taking that special cup reserved for Elijah, and he drank from it, and then said, “This is the cup of my blood. Take it and drink.”
Later in the Garden of Gethsemani, where he prayed in agony, you recall he said, “Lord, let this cup pass me by.” Jesus did not want to drink the cup of suffering. But he prayed, “Not my will, but your will be done.” When he was arrested, Peter took a sword and tried to kill a soldier, and Jesus told him to put the sword down, and then asked again, “Am I not to drink the cup God has given me?” So the image of the cup is important. It’s an image of life and suffering and death.
Second, notice that when the other disciples hear about James and John, they are mad not because they asked to sit at the right hand of Jesus, but because James and John thought of it first. Jesus tells all of them that they are missing the point. If they want to follow him, they cannot lord it over others, they cannot dominate others, they cannot try to be in control or make their authority felt like emperors or generals or presidents. The whole world, and our culture especially, is all about domination, about lording it over others, about being number one at any cost, including massacring the people of Iraq or risking the future of the planet itself with our insane nuclear weapons. To follow Jesus, we cannot support or be like those who dominate or lord it over others, people like Bush and Chaney and Aschroft and Rumsfeld. If you want to share my life, Jesus says, you have to become a slave of humanity, and serve people and give your life as a ransom for all. It’s one of the most powerful lines in the whole Bible.
How do we do that? We have to renounce ourselves, put away our selfish pursuits, refuse to support anyone or any country that dominates others or lords it over others, as our country and its misleaders are doing, and instead, as followers of Jesus, we have to reach out and serve others, serve everyone in our families and in our parish and then take a stand in loving solidarity with all those in need around the world, especially the people under the weight and oppression of the United States (the people of Iraq, Colombia, Palestine; for that matter, the people of Africa, Latin America and all the third world). We have to oppose anything that hurts people or dominates people.
Finally, we can reflect on how we are to answer the question. Are we going to drink the cup of Christ or not? Do we say we’re going to drink the cup of suffering love and selfless service and give our lives for others and refuse to support domination or lording it over others and actually do these great things, OR do we avoid the cup of Christ, do we seek our own selfish pursuits, do we aspire to be number one and want to dominate the world like everyone else?
I think that there is a place within each of us that does not want to drink the cup of Christ, but deeper down, there is another place within us that is willing to drink the cup of Christ, that deep down we want to share the life of Christ, that we all willing to drink the cup of Christ, and share in his sorrows and joys, in his cross and resurrection.
So I just want to encourage us all not to be afraid to drink the cup of Christ, which means to share his life, to share his suffering and death and nonviolent love, to give our lives in loving service for others, to oppose domination, oppression and violence, and to join his struggle to disarm the world, and it’s going to be hard and painful, but according to the Gospel, this is the best thing we can do with our lives, to drink the cup of Christ all the way to the bottom, and we can do it because Jesus has gone ahead of us and shown us how, and he is with us every step of the way.
And that’s what we are getting ready to do now. When we come to altar and drink the cup of Christ, we are saying that we want to share the life of Jesus, that he is going to live in us, that we are going to follow him on the way of the cross, no matter what, and we can trust that one day, like Jesus, the cup of suffering and sorrow and difficulty and struggle and pain will be transformed into the cup of blessing, the cup of joy, the cup of resurrection.