Jesus had twelve Disciples to manage. That means everyday he had twelve personalities to deal with, twelve opinions to listen to, twelve sets of emotional baggage to unpack, and twelve different backgrounds to understand. Jesus and his Disciples were not working remotely. This was not a Monday through Friday, nine to five gig. They were together all the time, and as our Gospel lesson today shows us, they did not always get along.
One might think that having the Son of God as the leader of the Disciples would prevent any conflict from arising. The Gospels show us that this is simply not the case. Despite witnessing Jesus’s miracles firsthand and having front row seats to his preaching, the Disciples still occasionally argued like children fighting over who gets to sit in the front seat of the car.
The drama of our Gospel lesson this morning centered on the Disciples James and John Zebedee. James and John were biological brothers. They were fishermen by trade who famously walked away from their job in the middle of a workday when they first called by Jesus.
James and John were passionate men. When the people of Samaria did not give Jesus a warm welcome, James and John wanted to command fire to come down from heaven and destroy the whole city. These Brothers were tough fishermen who did not back down from a fight. Jesus affectionately nicknamed them the sons of thunder.
These sons of thunder made a simple yet bold request of Jesus. They asked Jesus if they could sit at his right and left hand in the Kingdom of God. They wanted the good seat at the table. They wanted to make sure that they were in close with Jesus and that they would always have positions of honor.
There are many ways to feel about James and John’s request. On one hand, their intentions may have been really noble. They may have thought and convinced themselves that they were the best men for the job and that by sitting at the hands of Jesus, they would be in the best positions to help.
On the other hand, James and John had no idea what they were getting into or how much conflict their request would start. Jesus bluntly tells them “You do not know what you are asking.” This must have been a humbling moment for the sons of thunder. Jesus’ pastoral care here is extraordinary. He does not humiliate or berate James and John, but calmly explains why they are misguided in their request. Jesus sticks to the facts of what he can and cannot do and teaches James and John that the positions at his right and left hand in the Kingdom of God are simply not his to grant. Jesus does not make this a personal issue, and as a good teacher, he guides James and John to a better understanding of God.
Not only did James and John not know what they were asking for, they also did not think about or at least severely underestimated how angry the other ten Disciples would be about their request of Jesus. Imagine how you would feel if you were one of the other ten Disciples. Suddenly one day you get word that these sons of thunder are making a power move, trying to be number two and three in the organization. This would be startling and scary. It’s no wonder the other Disciples reacted with such anger.
This is a really special moment in the Gospel. It shows us that Jesus and his Disciples were not spared from the same stresses we go through in our daily life – workplace politics, favoritism, gossip, and clashes of personality. Certainly the stakes were higher at their work but the nature of the conflicts were the same. They were just like us and we are just like them.
Jesus’ response to this conflict within his camp is immediate. Jesus did not let the tension fester or let his group fragment. We are told that Jesus called his Disciples and addressed them all together right away face to face.
This must have been quite a scene for the Disciples. All twelve of them standing before Jesus with anger in the air. I’m sure we’ve all been in similar situations before, those tense moments right before difficult conversations. Hearts pounding, legs shaking, and minds racing.
Jesus’ calming yet authorative tone cuts through the tension as he tells his Disciples “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” This is servant leadership at its finest. Jesus yet again does not make this a personal issue with his Disciples. He sticks to the truth that he knows so well and explains that even he the “Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…”
So what can we learn from all this Disciple drama? First, conflict is inevitable. Conflict is going to happen, even when we pursue things with the best of intentions. Our Rule of Life says in the chapter on the Challenges of Life in Community that “…tensions and friction are inevitably woven into the fabric of everyday life.” That’s everyday life, not biweekly or quarterly, every single day.
Second, conflict can be used to grow relationships. Jesus did not let his Disciples’ anger go to waste. Jesus was frugal. Jesus used the Disciples anger to teach them a lesson and bring them closer together. The conversion of our anger to something useful is powerful and transformative, and we absolutely need God’s help to do it.
Third and finally, God is always present in the midst of conflict. That is really good news. God does not go away when people are angry at one another. There is always room for prayer no matter how much anger is in your heart or in the air.
But please do not take my word for it, try it for yourself. Try praying for someone who really bothers you. This may sound like a terrible idea. I know it did to me the first time I heard this suggestion. Why would I pray for someone I do not want to see succeed?
But ask yourself what do you have to lose? Do you really want to spend any more time rehearsing arguments in your head? Try prayer instead. Amen.
Lectionary Year and Proper: Year B, Proper 24
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