Monday, October 19, 2009

Trinity 19 - Ian Boxall

You don’t have to be in a place like this for very long before you come to understand the importance of seats. Whether it is the Vice-Principal’s seat in the House Chapel bringing with it that highly prized prerogative of closing the Chapel door, or the question of who is going to sit on the chaise longue during coffee in the Staff Room, or the shocked gasps when an unsuspecting visitor sits down in the Senior Student’s place at the beginning of Morning Prayer, seats and what they signify are important aspects of our life together. Making it onto the back row in the House Chapel is an important rite of passage, as you move from being a newcomer or continuer to a nearly leaver. Seats are important signs of belonging. They are indicators of the place and the authority one exercises within a community. In a transitional community such as this, made up of individuals who have left previous lives and responsibilities in response to a vocation, the importance of one’s seat is all the more pronounced.

So the scene in today’s gospel should be quite intelligible to us. James and John come to Jesus asking for seats on his right and left in his glory. They have left their ‘place’, their ‘seat’ in the family fishing business, and now they have just heard the Lord making a promise to those who have left house and father and mother for the sake of the gospel. In other words, they have done something for Christ; now they take him at his word and want him to return the favour. ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ They want seats, and they are prepared to be a bit pushy in jostling for position and influence among the Twelve.

But Jesus’ response to James and John brings them up short. ‘You don’t know what you are asking.’ Or possibly, if we punctuate the sentence slightly differently, we get a rather different nuance: ‘You do know what you’re asking, don’t you?’ And that might be a better translation, exploiting the irony of the situation, because both of them may well think they know what they are asking for. They are swift to give a yes to Jesus’ next question. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” “We are able.”

James and John can’t be faulted for their commitment or youthful enthusiasm. After all, like so many of us here, they have left everything to follow Jesus, and now want to go one stage further. So what is wrong with their request for these particular seats?

First, they are asking for something which Christ can not promise. These are not places for him to give. What he can offer them is a share in his suffering and death, which is the only way of glory. And if the characters of James and John are set up as models for all followers of Christ, they are models in a particular way for those called to the ordained ministry in the Church. They are promised a ministry of suffering and death. Perhaps small encouragement for those of you who have signed the form and had your green slips sent off to the Ministry Division. It is not something we have flagged up in our prospectus or made a selling point on our website so far; although early Principals of St Stephen’s House were not slow to remind their ordinands that they were being prepared to be sent out for martyrdom.

Second, James and John might have changed their minds had they been able to see what seats on Christ’s right and left really look like. Towards the end of the gospel, we see two individuals placed on the right and left of Jesus. These, however, are two criminals flanking Jesus on the cross, while James and John are nowhere to be seen, having fled along with the other disciples.

That, however, is not the end of the story. Patristic commentators on today’s gospel often interpreted it as a prophecy of the martyrdoms of James and John. They would eventually come good. James, according to the Acts of the Apostles, was the first of the Twelve to undergo martyrdom, at the hands of Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2). The Fathers were a bit more ambivalent about John, given the tradition that he lived to a ripe old age in Ephesus. Yet there were stories about St John drinking a cup of poison, as well as being plunged into boiling oil in Rome before being exiled to the island of Patmos. So John too has his living martyrdom, a ministry of ‘dying’ which doesn’t involve physical death. Both James and John, in their ministries of martyrdom, serve as paradigms for those called to ordained ministry within the Church.

The ultimate paradigm, however, is the great High Priest himself. According to our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, he is able to exercise this ministry precisely because of his closeness to us. He has his own seat, the throne of grace, but it is a seat which he gained through what he suffered. James and John wanted the best seats with him in his glory. But Christ does not ‘glorify himself’; he doesn’t take this glory by force. Rather the author of Hebrews explicitly reminds us of the tradition about Christ’s passion, perhaps specifically his agony in the garden, the last event witnessed by James and John before they abandoned him: ‘In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission’ (Heb. 5:7). Although he is Son, Christ assumes his throne of glory through what he suffered, revealing the way not only for James and John, but for all those who long for seats close to him.