“We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes. They will condemn Him to death and hand Him over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again.”
It is on the heels of this, His third and most explicit prediction of the Passion, with Palm Sunday and Holy Week on the immediate horizon, that James and John make their bold request of Jesus:
“Grant that we may sit, one on Your right hand and one on Your left, in Your glory.”
This request to “sit” with Jesus in His glory might have the Messianic Banquet of heaven in mind — which Jesus described for His disciples on several occasions. And that would certainly coincide with His primary reference to the “Cup.” But the disciples do not yet realize that the Banquet will begin with the Last Supper, when Jesus Himself will become the Passover Lamb, handed over to the Cross for sacrificial death, and His Blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins.
It may well be that James and John did sit to the right and left of Jesus at the Last Supper. We know that John reclined beside Him. But as for being with Jesus in His Glory, that was appointed for the two thieves who were crucified with Him, “one on His right hand, and one on His left.” Then the Scriptures were fulfilled, that He would be numbered with transgressors. And it remains the case, for James and John, and for you, as well, that being with Jesus in His glory is first of all to share His Cross and die with Him, as you have in fact been granted to do in your Holy Baptism.
What James and John wanted, however — and what all of the disciples desired — was honor, prestige, and a favored position, no less so than you also desire such things. They wanted to be great. They wanted to be close to the top. They wanted to be popular and powerful.
In one respect, James and John and the other disciples have chosen well in hitching their wagon to Jesus Christ of Nazareth, in seeking a place at His side. Although it seems incredibly bold and equally tacky to ask for personal privileges on the heels of His Passion prediction, at least they are assuming that Jesus will triumph over all the obstacles before Him and in spite of all opposition.
Yet, none of the disciples really knew what they were asking. The one who wants to be great must be the servant and minister of the others; and the one who wishes to be first must become a slave to all the rest. Those are the standards and criteria of the Lord, who operates with a very different measure of greatness and glory than the world. He sets the standard by His own voluntary death.
What James and John and all the disciples of Jesus, yourself included, must learn to understand, is that the divine glory of the Lord Jesus Christ will not be “in spite of” His Cross and Passion, but it will be accomplished and manifested precisely by the way and the means of His Cross.
To share in His greatness and His glory, therefore, necessarily means sharing in His Passion. To sit on His right or His left means that you hang side-by-side with Him on the Cross, that you are crucified, put to death, and buried with Him. And then, having suffered and died with Him, you also live with Him, as well, in loving service to others. It means that you liquidate and relinquish everything you are and have for the sake of your neighbors, including those who make you mad. You take up the Cross and follow after Christ, through death and the grave, into life everlasting.
It is not that you must be crucified on a cross of your own, as if to make payment for your sins and to satisfy the justice of God. That would never work, but neither is it necessary. Rather, it was necessary that Christ, the Son of God and Son of Man, be crucified for you, His Life alone the all-sufficient Ransom for the many. And now you must be crucified with Him, in order to rise with Him and live with Him in the Kingdom of God; for it is in and with Christ Jesus, and only through Him, that you have access to the Father and bold confidence to come before the throne of grace.
It is in Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, crucified and risen from the dead, that you find grace to help in time of need, His forgiveness and life and salvation. Apart from Christ, the Cross would just be the beginning of your eternal judgment, which is all that you deserve by your sins. But that is what the Cross became for Him — the entire judgment of God compressed into those long dark hours — in order to become the Tree of Life for you and for all the sons and daughters of man, and the Fountain of His divine mercy, grace, and Peace, given and poured out for you.
It is especially significant that Jesus describes His fast-approaching Cross and Passion as a Cup that He is drinking and a Baptism with which He is being baptized. Here, at the heart and center of the Gospel, the Lord describes His entire Life and Ministry with reference to His Sacraments, which are the way and the means by which He saves you, and by which you follow Him in faith.
As for the Cup, that was first of all an image of God’s righteous wrath and judgment against sin. That is the sense in which Christ prays, in the Garden of Gethsemane, as He bears the terrible burden of your sin and death in His truly human flesh: “Father, if possible, take this Cup from Me.”
The physical pain of crucifixion is already enough to cause the bravest and strongest of people to tremble and faint. But this Cup that your Lord drinks for you is far worse than even that. It is the everlasting wrath and judgment of hell and damnation, leveled against the sins of the whole world, of all times and places, including all of your own most heinous and hideous sins of thought, word, and deed — all of them carried in the body of the Son of God and judged forever in His flesh upon the Cross. That is the Cup of wrath which He drains down to the dregs for you and for the many.
How is it, then, that James and John will drink this Cup that Christ is drinking? And how shall you be able to drink that Cup? You surely cannot bear the wrath and judgment of God against even your own sins, far less those of others. But you are given to drink the Cup of Christ, and you are able to receive it and drink it in peace, because the Lord has first of all drained that Cup for you.
The Lord Jesus Christ has borne the wrath and judgment of God in His own Body on the Cross; He has shed His Blood of the New Testament for the forgiveness of all your many sins. So it is that, what was wrath and judgment for Him, is mercy and grace for you. In the Cup of Christ, which He pours out for you here at His Altar, you receive the fullness of His Life and Salvation.
The same thing is true for His Baptism, with which you also are baptized. From the moment that He stepped into the waters of the Jordan River and submitted Himself to St. John’s Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, the Lord Jesus took the sins and iniquities and frailties and burdens of the entire world upon Himself and bore them in His Body on His Way to the Cross. He entered the water sinless, holy, and perfect, but He emerged thoroughly soaked with your sins. His entire Life, therefore, is one long continuous Baptism into His death — a Baptism by which He undergoes the destructive and death-dealing Flood of God’s wrath and judgment against sin.
So, then, as with His Cup, so also with His Baptism: It is one thing for Him, quite another for you. In each case, it is a Baptism into His Cross; for you know that you were buried with Him through your Baptism into His death. But, whereas it was for Christ a drowning of judgment and wrath, it is for you a rich and full washing away of sins and a gracious water of Salvation. For though you enter those waters sinful and unclean, you arise and emerge from those waters decked out in the beautiful white robes of Christ’s perfect righteousness, united with Him as a beloved child of His God and Father in heaven, anointed by His Holy Spirit, and born again as a brand-new creature.
It is by these gracious means of Holy Baptism and the Cup of Christ that James and John, and you also, receive precisely what they asked for, though not in the way they were hoping or expecting.
In the waters of your Baptism, and in the Holy Communion of His Body and Blood, you are indeed seated with Christ in the glory of His Kingdom, because you are thereby united with Christ in His Cross and Passion, which is the Hour of His Glory. To drink the Cup of Christ, and to be baptized with His Baptism, is to share His Cross, His Passion, and the promise of His Resurrection.
This Sacramental union with Christ in the accomplished fact of His Gospel means that, even now, two thousand years after the events of Good Friday and Easter, you participate fully and most intimately in His great Salvation. His Baptism and His Cup define His entire Life and Ministry from the Jordan to Calvary, and from the tomb back to the right hand of His Father. But so also do His Baptism and His Supper define your life in and with Him, in His Cross and Resurrection. Not so much as a confluence of separate and independent things, but as one reality in the Body of Christ Jesus: His Baptism and yours, His Cup and yours, His Cross and yours, His Life and yours.
That is all very good news, for which you rightly thank, praise, serve, and obey your dear Lord Jesus Christ. So it is that we prize and treasure so highly the Holy Sacraments, which are the heart and center of the Christian faith and life and of your salvation in Christ. By the same token, bear in mind the character and content of this divine Life that is yours in Christ Jesus by the washing of the water with His Word in Holy Baptism and by the Cup that He pours out for you at His Altar.
The fact that Christ has shed His blood for you, that He has suffered and died for you, in your place, does not mean that your Christian life is going to be painless, smooth, and easy-peasy. To be sure, on account of Christ and His Cross, you have a sure and certain hope in the Resurrection of the Body and the life everlasting of your body and soul with the Father in Paradise. But in the meantime, here and now, living with Christ means that you bear the Cross and follow after Him.
That, too, was part and parcel of the glory that James and John and the other disciples shared with Christ Jesus, their Lord. So, for example, St. James was martyred rather early by King Herod in Jerusalem; his brother St. John was persecuted for his faithful witness and exiled to the Island of Patmos; St. Peter was crucified in Rome, and St. Paul was beheaded, also in Rome.
These Christian disciples and holy Apostles of our Lord learned to understand the real greatness and glory of Christ Jesus in the bearing of His Cross. Both St. Peter and St. Paul thus describe their sufferings for the sake of Christ as a blessed privilege, giving thanks that they were counted worthy to share His Cross and Passion for the Gospel. Along the same lines, St. Paul describes his life and ministry, and that of the other Apostles, as a drink offering that is poured out for the sake of others to the glory of Christ. The Gospel itself was embodied in their Ministry, even unto death.
What, then, does it mean for you to be a disciple of Christ? And how shall you live as a Christian?
First and foremost, you live as a Christian disciple and share in the glory of Christ by participating in His Life, Death, and Resurrection, most especially through your Holy Baptism and in the Holy Communion. As Christ here indicates, these Sacraments are definitive of His Gospel and of your life in Him, which is by faith in His Gospel. And as disciples are made from all the nations by way of Baptism and catechesis in the Name of Christ, so do you continue to live as a disciple by living in the significance of your Baptism and by drinking the Cup of Christ, according to His Word.
And sharing in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ by way of His Baptism and His Supper, you live now for others as He has lived and died and lives again for you, because He now and ever lives in you and through you, and by His Word and Spirit He conforms you to His divine Image and Likeness as the incarnate Son of God. In Christ Jesus, therefore, you do love your neighbors, including your enemies, as Christ Jesus loves you. You do unto others as Christ does for you. You forgive, as you are daily and richly forgiven by Christ. And you sacrifice your time, treasures, and talents to the glory of His Name and the benefit of your neighbors, as He was sacrificed for you.
This life of grace, mercy, and peace is yours, and it continues to be yours, because everything that Jesus says in this Holy Gospel is repeatedly spoken to you here at His Altar, in a most direct and personal way, every time the same Lord presents you with His Cup and speaks these gracious Words: “Take, drink; this Cup is the New Testament in My Blood, which is poured out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins,” for the strengthening of your faith, and for the life everlasting.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.