For most of my adult life I had one prevailing neurosis – I know, just one, right? – but this neurotic behavior wasn’t a big help in church life. I would not, under any circumstances, eat what I called public food, and I certainly wouldn’t eat off someone else’s plate or drink from someone else’s cup. If someone asked to try my green beans or mashed potatoes, they were welcome to, but then that whole plate was theirs. If someone needed a sip of my Coke, again, they were more than welcome, but I then invited them to keep the whole thing. The worst though, was pot luck dinners. Not being a Methodist, thankfully, I wasn’t subjected to a whole lot of pot lucks, but they cropped up from time to time, and I would drink a cup of coffee and chat with those who were eating, my stomach full from the McDonald’s I had eaten on the way. Public food made me shudder, until I got to seminary. Being poor and relatively confined makes one either pick up or put down neurotic behavior, and I had to get used to very, very public food very quickly, or I would have starved to death. But still, the memories of the good old days of no public food linger in the back of my mind, so when I read again the Gospel passage from St. Mark, where the disciples are pledging to drink out of one cup, some of that old shuddering came back. But then the shuddering just turned to sadness, then fear.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink” may be the most charged question of all time. To answer yes to Jesus when He poses that question seems like a fool’s answer, the pledge of the stupid. To answer no just seems logical, at least knowing what we know. Of course we are not able, at least on our own power, to drink from the cup that Jesus drank from, that cup of wrath filled to the brim, that base death which He died. The fact that the entire Faith is based on that cup of wrath, that Christianity wouldn’t exist if Jesus hadn’t drank His full, the fact that we are called to do the same, seems like bad news rather than good news, but God moves differently than we do.
The Methodist Bishop Will Willimon talked about this Gospel lesson in light of evangelism and church growth. He said that he sees billboards that read “Looking for peace in life? Worried about the future? And then underneath the questions, the answer: “Jesus Christ is the answer.” The bishop goes on to say that “this is the predominate presentation of Christianity these days: You have some need, perhaps a need for peace in a troubled life, the need for greater hope and confidence in the future, and, well, Jesus is the answer. This is called “evangelism,” the attempt to lure people toward the gospel, the effort to win people to Christ, by putting forth all the benefits of following Jesus. Looking for meaning in life? Jesus has got it for you. A sense of serenity and hope in an often difficult and demanding world? Jesus has got you covered. Years ago his church hired a consultant to teach them how to grow their congregation. The consultant told them “First find where people itch; then find a way for the church to scratch that itch.” “The church is here to meet people’s felt needs,” the consultant said. “Remarkably, when compared with the way we talk about Jesus, Mark has little to say about our felt needs, our struggles and our difficulties. Mark mainly talks just about Jesus. And when he talks about Jesus, it’s not Jesus as the answer to our problems that Mark stresses but, rather, Jesus as a strange and demanding Lord. The Jesus that drinks that cup of wrath, and promises us some of the same.
We sometimes don’t understand that strange and demanding Lord; as much as He is our help and rock and shield, He is also the Lord who does not try to snow us, He doesn’t promise nothing but peace and worry-free days. St. Mark continues through the last few Gospel readings we have heard to point out how the disciples didn’t understand Jesus either, even when standing right next to Him. Today it’s the Zebedee boys, James and John, whose turn it is to prompt Jesus into revealing what is to come. James and John want Jesus to promise them that when His Kingdom is set up, when the coup is complete, that they will sit at His right and at His left, sit as vice-chancellors of the Kingdom. This request is not as arrogant or tone-deaf as it sounds: James and John had been with Jesus through His whole earthly ministry, and someone had to take places of honor when it was all finished, it might as well have been them. What we know that James and John didn’t know is the manner in which Jesus would enter into His glory, that the cup Jesus was talking about wasn’t filled with fine aged wine but filled rather with tears of anguish and pain. And drink from it they would: James was “put to the sword,” beheaded, by Herod, and John was boiled in oil, then sent to work in prison mines until freed from his labors, and died peacefully. Amazingly, James and John got off relatively easy compared to the other Apostles.
And more amazing still, they delighted in all of this. Surely the Apostles looked for peace and serenity, worry-free days and confidence in a secure future, all men do. These are the felt-needs, what every man wants for himself and for his family. Many will attain these things, and many, many more will not. We here have felt needs because we have the luxury of feeling for them; many, many, more do not. I have a friend we call Snow, she is the daughter of the former Archbishop of Burma. Our government wrongfully recognizes the junta government there, we all blithely call the country Myanmar, all the while ignoring what has and is happening there. The last I heard, Snow’s father was on the run, he was being hunted for being a Christian, for opposing the slaughter of innocents, for being an heir to the Apostles. Snow’s father has real needs, he has no time for felt needs. He has no time for church signs that promise cheap serenity, for church consultants who find itches for the church to scratch, he has no time to look for perceived needs. Snow’s father knows what he needs, he knows what his people need, and that’s Jesus.
Each time I say the collect that asks Jesus not to look upon our sins but the faith of His Church, I think of Snow’s father, and ask for some of his merit. From now on I will also think of the cup Jesus willingly drank for us, how He drank His full so that when we sip from that same cup, we receive also a portion of His glory. I will think of how without that cup of wrath there is no cup of life, how we cannot receive the Blood of Christ without that Blood first being shed. At first glance all this doesn’t seem like good news, but God doesn’t move like we do. So next time you think that God doesn’t care about your needs, that Jesus hasn’t the cure for what ails you, think about the things you really need, think on that cup of life you are about to receive, and look for the glory to come.