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The cup of sacrifice

[For additional background on the theme of the greatest being the servants of all, from this gospel reading and elsewhere, see Status, love and equality and Peter took him aside. To search this site further go to DB Home.]

They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; {40} but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." (Mark 10:39-40)

When they asked for privileged places in the kingdom, Jesus challenged his disciples with the question of whether they would be able to submit to suffering as he would: Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? It was the cup of sacrifice (Matthew 26:39) and baptism into his death (Romans 6:3) that he was talking about. They were on their way to Jerusalem and he had been preparing them for how he would have to face humiliation and death when he was there. Despite what he had told them already about the first being last and taking up their own cross and following him (Mark 8:31-35), they were still seeking privileges in the government of the kingdom they expected him to establish as the Messiah.

So Jesus said in effect, if you want to share the privileges can you share the suffering? Can you take the bad with the good? They thought that they could, but Jesus believed that they did not know what they were saying.

Jesus himself, indeed, had yet to face the question of whether he, personally, could drink the cup of suffering. He was ready and knew what he must do, even to the bitter dregs, but he still had to go through with it. It was not a foregone conclusion. His struggle to live and die in obedience to his Father's will was a real struggle. We find him in the garden not long after this, on the night when he was betrayed, facing the final question:

Now he was utterly alone,

He knew that was how it would be. He had just said as much to them:

Yet only an hour or so earlier he had passed around the cup of fellowship signifying for those who shared it that they would be sharing in his death:

Years later they would recall many times the meaning of this sharing in the cup of sacrifice, as Paul expressed it:

They knew that it was a communion in which they shared in the life of their risen Lord, and that it was also a remembrance of his death in which they were called to share. Not that they could accomplish anything like what he did for them when he drank the cup of sacrifice: they could only take up their cross and follow him, in the hope of sharing in the victory over sin and death which his sacrifice had won for them all. And indeed many of them did suffer a martyr's death, not least Peter who found faithfulness at the end so difficult, but whom Jesus forgave and re-commissioned when he walked again with him on shore of the lake after he rose from the dead:

All this was yet to come when he said to them that they would indeed drink the cup that he would drink. There were not many days left before it would all come to a climax, but they would probably not even have cause to remember what he had said until much later when the cost of discipleship would become clear to them. They had first to grasp the meaning of his death, and the promise of new life. They had to go through the experience of being identified with him in his death and then to share that with others so that believers would learn to die with him to the old lives they would leave behind when they went down into the waters of baptism and rose to a new life. Later Paul would interpret that experience for all believers:

From that experience they would eventually know what Jesus meant when he said, the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized. And through the ages to come the church, his body, would celebrate the sacraments in which the promises which belong to sharing the cup of blessing and the water of baptism would be fulfilled for all those who joined themselves to him in the fellowship of the apostles.

So I hope you can appreciate the symbolic depth, the deep assurance, the great challenge and the sure hope of fulfilment that was contained in those words of Jesus about sharing in his death, under the signs of the cup and water. It did come in the context of political talk about power in government, about the need to be a servant if you would be a leader, and all that was important and necessary; but there was a great deal more to it than a lesson in ethics and politics. It is indeed important to remember the associated admonition:

But do see how he continued, bringing it back to his death:

The social and political message comes out of his sacrificial death in which he gave his life as a ransom for many, which we remember, re-enact and appropriate in faith as we share in the sacraments, and as we break the bread of life into the world in sacrificial service. Action in the service of humanity declares in deeds of mercy the same word as the proclamation of the good news about his death, but the gospel is about his death and resurrection, not how we must act in the world. Paul summed it up this way:

That is the heart of the matter, and it is what Jesus himself was teaching the disciples to be ready to accept when their journey to Jerusalem had come to its terrible and glorious end. That is what we are called upon to share. The gospel, the good news of his death and resurrection, is what will put everything in perspective. In the light of the cross and his victory all social and political action will be both judged and brought to fulfilment. Apart from the cross, even if the appropriate emphases are made on humility and sacrifice, even the very best of human service can fall into self-justifying pride, and in some groups into an authoritarian ideology justifying such things class warfare and denigration of people who disagree with a currently popular form of enlightenment. Nothing is more important today, when theories of social action tend to take the place of the gospel, than to remember the cross in which we share. It is a sharing in the death of Christ in which all theories, motives, and movements are brought under judgment and transformed. Not that we are not called to effective political action, we may well be, but remember what Jesus said to his disciples when they began to prepare for how they would govern the kingdom: Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They would indeed share the cup of sacrifice, and be baptised into his death, thereby bringing to us also that sharing in his death which gives us the life of Christ for all eternity. Praise be to him who took the cup of sacrifice and gave his life as a ransom for many; and praise to God who has given us the means through his death of sharing in that life which was poured out for us all.

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