by Daniel Harrell
Tonight marks Ascension Sunday on the Christian liturgical calendar—the seventh and last Sunday of Easter. Jesus’ ascension into heaven is not something we think about too much. Among the Gospel writers, only Luke records the event―twice—once in his Gospel and once in the book of Acts. Mark mentions it, but only in the tacked on verses at the end of chapter 16 which Mark himself didn’t write. After appearing to his disciples and others post-resurrection, Jesus “was taken up onto heaven” before their eyes, sort of like the prophet Elijah got carried away from earth, only Jesus didn’t require a chariot of fire. His going up on Ascension Day readies us for the Holy Spirit coming down (with tongues of fire) at Pentecost next Sunday. Though we don’t think about it too much, the Ascension provides a core source of our hope and confidence as Christians. Not only did God raise Christ and seat him at his right hand in heaven, but as Paul wrote to the Ephesians (while they still were on earth, mind you), “God has raised us up and seated us with Christ in the heavenly places.” The implications are significant. By faith in Jesus, not only is your seat in heaven is already saved, but as far as God is concerned, you’re already sitting in it!
“You have been raised with Christ” already, Paul reiterated to the Colossians, “therefore set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God”—and where you’ll be seated someday too. In the meantime, since your future is already set, you might as well go ahead and live like it now. As for what this looks like, Paul presents both positive and the negative aspects. As for the positives, Paul lists compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness and above all love, “which binds them all together in perfect unity.” As for the negatives, he lists sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed. It is interesting that this mostly sexual list ends with the economic sin of greed, which Paul calls idolatry (Biblical code for serious commandment breaking). Both economic and sexual sin are fundamentally matters of covetousness—which was what kept the rich young ruler out of the kingdom last Sunday. Covetousness turns love on its head, perverting self-sacrifice into self-gratification. Similarly with anger, revenge, malice, slander, abusive language and lying which are also parts of Paul’s negative list. We covet and do not get, so we get angry and get even, and we lie to make ourselves appear better than we are.
As the global economy continues to sputter and people struggle with losses of every kind, I’ve been intrigued in reading the various opinions behind the causes. Last week I mentioned Bernie Madoff, whose diabolical Ponzi scheme embodies many of the meltdown’s traits: “the illusion of expertise, the belief in getting something for nothing, the mirage and subsequent evaporation of wealth.” But as Nick Paumgarten observes in his most recent New Yorker article on the economy, Madoff is in some ways a distraction, a cover for the more systemic and serious flaws that reach down to the very core of human nature itself. The most insidious root of all human failure―economic and otherwise―remains what it has always been―base covetousness. Wanting more. As one financial analyst turned philosopher put it, “There are two things about human nature that we know for sure. One is that every person wants to be the center of the universe. And the other is that we all want to see what we own go up in value all the time.”
This desire for personal greatness and value—this covetousness—lies at the center of tonight’s red letters from Mark’s gospel. For the third time, Jesus informs his followers what following him entails—giving them, perhaps, once last chance to change their minds. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God alright, but he would not be the kind of Christ that the crowds wanted—no superstar, no superhero, no political leader or war general. Instead (or as a result), Jesus Christ would be betrayed, condemned, handed over, mocked, flogged and crucified. And then three days later, he would rise. James and John, eyewitnesses to the Transfiguration back in chapter 9, decide that rising from the dead is no longer outside the realm of possibility. They overlook Jesus’ gruesome descriptions of his demise and go straight to the punch line. If the seats in heaven are already set, James and John want to ride shotgun. Mark makes no attempt to soften their audacity, though he does report the remaining disciples indignation. However I don’t imagine that they’re angry about James and John’s request as they are at themselves for not thinking of it first. To envy is to covet too.
Jesus can’t believe what they’re asking. Had they not been listening to anything he said? “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” While wine and water may seem harmless enough, especially for those of us who’ve been baptized and taken communion a million times, for Jesus the implications were dire. Recall that throughout the Old Testament, the metaphor of the cup symbolizes the apportionment of God’s blessing, as in “my cup runneth over,” but also his curse. Jeremiah, Revelation and elsewhere describe this cursed cup as one “filled with the wine of God’s fury” to be poured out on all evil. In Gethsemane, the cup Jesus sought to eschew was the one brimming with God’s wrath against sin. For Jesus to drink this cup was to take on the full freight of God’s judgment. Likewise with water. The two Old Testament water episodes referred to in the New Testament as baptisms—Noah’s Ark and the Red Sea Crossing—are both judgment events. Like wine, baptism is the watermark of God’s wrath. Apropos to Jesus, the cup and the baptism are symbols for the cross.
Had James and John appreciated the dark side of wine and water, perhaps they would not have answered Jesus with such enthusiasm. After all, when the wine and water do eventually flow, James and John scatter and hide along with just about everybody else in Mark. Nevertheless, Jesus affirms that in time they will suffer for his sake. However, to reserve the best seats on either side in glory was not up to him. Jesus said, “These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” As far as we know, the only ones who ever actually got placed beside Jesus were two criminals crucified on either side.
Jesus takes the opportunity to calm everybody down by reminding them again about the distinction between the greatness to which James and John aspired and that which they would actually achieve. Jesus said, “You know that those who are regarded as great ones among the Romans throw their weight around and exercise authority.” (Yeah, they knew―the Romans treated them like their slaves.) So Jesus said, “whoever wants to become great must be a servant and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” And before they could object and complain about being treated like doormats, Jesus reminded them that “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Most Christians have heard this stuff so many times that it hardly even registers anymore. We nod, resolve to do better, but don’t change too much because deep down we still want to be the center of the universe. Sure, we admire those who’ve managed to take Jesus seriously, people like Mother Theresa or, well, like Mother Theresa (and she’s been dead twelve years). Or like Henri Nouwen. The late Henri Nouwen was a very popular and powerfully inspirational writer who made his name writing about Jesus’ name. In one of his best-known works entitled In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen wrote that, “The way of the Christian is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on a cross. This might sound morbid and masochistic, but for those who have heard the voice of Christ and said yes to it, the downward-moving way of Jesus is the way to the joy and the peace of God, a joy and peace that is not of this world. To follow Christ is to follow in weakness and humility wherein the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest. I am not speaking about a psychological weakness in which Christians are simply the passive victims of the manipulations of their milieu. No, I am speaking of a weakness whereby human power is constantly abandoned in favor of love. True followers of Christ are people so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever, always trusting that with him, they will find life and find it abundantly.”
Nouwen practiced (and experienced) what he wrote in the latter days of his life, shunning whatever literary fame he had achieved in order to serve the severely disabled in a community outside Toronto. I remember taking a class on Christian Spirituality with Henri Nouwen years prior to that. I was recounting recently how on one occasion, just before a spring break in what turned out to be an unforgettable object lesson, he asked us as a class who among us didn’t have any plans for the ensuing vacation week. A few people timidly raised their hands (basically admitting they had no plans and no friends) and Nouwen asked whether they’d be up for flying to Haiti to spend a week working among the desperately poor at a Catholic mission there. Oh, and you’ll be leaving to tomorrow. Nonplussed, the ones who raised their hands said OK (you couldn’t say no to Henri Nouwen). The rest of us, relieved that our spring breaks were left intact, were then asked by Nouwen to get out our wallets. He pulled out a big bucket and passed it around and told us to empty our wallets in Jesus’ name. He used the money (our spring money money) to buy the plane tickets for the others along with supplies and sent them to Haiti the next day.
Several years ago I heard a talk by the late Mike Yaconelli, another writer and minister who was deeply influenced by Nouwen’s writing, especially this book, In the Name of Jesus. Yaconelli had this nutty practice of tracking down living authors whose work had an impact on him, and then traveling to wherever the author lived in order to thank him or her personally. So Yaconelli located Nouwen in Toronto and made an appointment to visit. Unfortunately, his flight got delayed and he was unable to let Nouwen know he’d be late―something to do with misplacing a phone number. He finally arrived in Toronto, but over three hours late.
Having read many of Nouwen’s other books, Yaconelli was fairly familiar with what to expect as he finally made it to Nouwen’s door. Henri Nouwen’s grace and compassion were legendary. Yaconelli knocked. He heard a melodramatic stomping followed by a violent ripping open of the door revealing not the love of God but the wrath of Henri Nouwen. Irate, Nouwen lit into Yaconelli: “Where the hockey puck have you been!? Why didn’t you call?! Do you know you’re three hours late?! I have a schedule to keep! Do you think that you’re the most important person in the universe?” Yaconelli was for a second dumbfounded, but mostly just offended. A lifetime youthworker, he knew how to react in the face of temper tantrums. He barked back to Henri: “HEY, IN THE NAME OF JESUS, DUDE! REMEMBER?”
For you Nouwen fans, you’ll be relieved to know that he apologized and went on to have an enjoyable visit with Mike Yaconelli. But for Yaconelli, it was that initial, stressful encounter that proved most instructive. Not because it tarnished Nouwen’s reputation, but because it reinforced how hard following Christ truly is—even when you’re doing it. Jesus agreed. It is hard―as hard as threading a camel with a needle. As hard as hanging on a cross.
Tonight’s passage concludes with Jesus, his disciples and the crowd coming upon a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. Having heard the rumors that this may be the long awaited Messiah of God, Bartimaeus gives him a shout out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Using the title “Son of David” was Bartimaeus’ way of saying he believed the rumors were true. He’s the only person in the entire gospel who ever uses it. Many in the crowd berate Bartimaeus, they tell him to shut up and get lost. But what more does he have to lose? So he yells all the louder: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus, not refuting the title, calls him over and asks him in verse 51, “What do you want me to do for you?” which if you’re paying close attention, is the exact same question he asked James and John back in verse 36. The contrast is intentional. Throughout Scripture, sight and blindness are metaphors for genuine faith and the lack of it. James and John wanted to be great in the eyes of others. Bartimaeus wanted eyes to see true greatness. Jesus obliged. “Your faith has healed you,” he said. Or as it literally reads, your faith has saved you. In other words, blind Bartimaeus could already see—even before he got his sight back.
The contrast between the request of James and John and that of blind Bartimaeus is intentionally stark. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether Mark intends more than merely contrast. If it is true that we each want to be the center of the universe and have our values rise even as Christians, then Jesus’ invitation to servitude and slavery is useless. We’re just not going to do it. Sure, we’re happy for Mother Theresa and Henri Nouwen, but their servitude made them famous. Most of our good deeds just go unnoticed. I was amused by the story about one church’s noble attempt to get its congregation to serve more. The pastor challenged each member to “outserve” the other for a year with the “winner” (the one who served the most people) getting a cash prize at the end. Reportedly the church never helped so many needy people as it did that year. And no one considered this the least bit ironic. I read about it in a column devoted to “good ideas for pastors to use.” Greed as motivation for love. I don’t know, didn’t Jesus himself caution against any kind of recognition or reward when it came to obedience? Something about not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing?
But what good is doing good if nobody sees it? I want to be noticed. And thanked. And appreciated. And applauded. Maybe this is why Mark puts Bartimaeus right behind James and John. Not so much as a contrast, but as a corrective. When it’s greatness we crave, what we need to do is ask for is mercy.