Thomas McKenzie
by grace alone
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Can I Have That When You Die?

My father used to tell a story about his nieces. My dad had two older sisters. One of these sisters died childless, and the other sister had two daughters and one son. From time to time, my dad’s nieces would visit their grandparents (my dad’s parents).

The grandparents had lived a long and fruitful life. For the past several decades of their time on earth, they lived in the Texas Panhandle. They had a farm and a house in “town” (a tiny town called, not creatively, “Panhandle”). In their house they had a number of antiques, works of art, and souvenirs of their lives lived all over the U.S., from Pennsylvania to North Dakota to California.

When they would visit, the nieces had a habit of going through the house and finding things of beauty or interest. They would often bring these to their grandparents and ask “grandma, can I have this when you die?” And if that wasn’t “precious” enough, they would write their names on scraps of paper and then tape the papers on the back or underside of their favorite items. The better to claim them once the “old folks” had gone off to their heavenly reward.

In the reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:32-45), Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem. On the way he pulls his closest disciples aside and tells them, quite plainly, that he is going there to suffer and die. We can not imagine the anguish Jesus is experiencing, nor can we forget his sense of hope as his earthly mission is finally drawing to a close.

In the midst of Jesus’ suffering, we find our friends James and John. These two brothers, young men, probably teenagers, are just as self centered as they could possibly be. After hearing that Jesus is going to die, they say to him "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."

There are two ways to interpret this, neither of them favorable to our friends James and John. On one hand, they are like my dad’s nieces. “Since you are going to die, can we have a special spot in heaven so that we can reign with you?” The other possibility is that they simply disregard Jesus’ promised death. Believing he is going to conquer Jerusalem, they want to reign as prime ministers in his new Jewish kingdom.

Like my dad’s nieces, James and John are hoping to take advantage of someone close to them. They want what they want, and the suffering of another person doesn’t seem to make that much difference to them. And, yes these two guys are called “saints.”

Why “saints”? Because James was the first apostle to be killed for his faith. John served the Lord for many decades, was imprisoned by the Romans, and wrote four books in the New Testament. How did these men go from self-absorbed children to two of the greatest leaders of the early Christian Church?

The answer is, of course, the cross. The cross happened. When pain and death was theoretical, James and John could ignore reality and concentrate on themselves. But when Jesus actually “drank the cup” of suffering, everything changed. John was the only male disciple at the foot of the cross; and both brothers witnessed the resurrection.

The reality of the cross changes lives. The cross centers us and reminds us of who we are and what our salvation costs.

When my dad’s parents actually died, their nieces had grown up. They mourned the passing as adults. When James and John died, they had come to deep maturity in their faith. I want to focus on the Cross this Holy Week, and be transformed into a more mature walk of faith.