And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem…. (Mark 10:32-45)
It was a time of growing apprehension among the disciples. It was a time of determination on the part of Jesus, and the disciples were clearly amazed and even afraid at what must have been the determined look on Jesus’ face as he walked ahead of them.
In a similar passage, Luke tells us that “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). That’s how Luke begins to narrate that final journey to Jerusalem. The Greek text reads: τὸ πρόσωπον ἐστήρισεν τοῦ πορεύεσθαι εἰς Ἰερουσαλήμ. The highlighted verb is στηρίζω, which is a very strong word, meaning “with firm intention.” Can you picture Jesus at the head of the line with this firm intention on his face, his πρόσωπον? No wonder the disciples and the rest of the followers were ‘amazed’ and ‘afraid’ in Mark’s narrative. The disciples were amazed and afraid at what must have been the determined look on Jesus’ face as he walked ahead of them.
James and John were two of the three who formed the inner circle of Jesus. They’re already fantasizing their special status, when Jesus will set up the new administration, and they will sit right next to Jesus in the cabinet room! The third member of the inner circle, Peter, has already been put in his place by Jesus, in chapter 8 of Mark, when Peter tried to stop Jesus from talking about a Cross, and Jesus called him Satan: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.” And as for James and John in today’s reading – well, two men did end up on either side of Jesus. But they were not James and John; they were the two thieves crucified with Jesus! Only God can come up with such irony and such a smack in the face of all human pretensions and ambitions for power. Only God the all-powerful can manifest God’s true nature in weakness and self-abasement; in such kenosis!
James and John are today’s Christians. We love power, we want to sit in high places. The patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople are in daily competition to see who is Number One and the real leader of the Orthodox world. We read this Gospel every year on the last Sunday of Lent. Do we ever hear what Jesus says? “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Oh my, what a contrast to that sentimental Christianity that is so popular. I can’t help but think of all those nice Christians who look down on everyone who is not like them, while thanking sweet Lord Jesus with their bumper stickers. How wonderful that he gave his life for me. What? You mean this is not just about him, it’s also about me? Doesn’t Jesus know I have a job, a family, a home that I’m still paying for? And that’s usually where the message of Jesus gets buried.
Yes, there must have been a very intentional, determined look on Jesus’ face as he and his disciples walked to Jerusalem. Mark tells us that the disciples ἐθαμβοῦντο (amazed) and ἐφοβοῦντο (afraid). Can you remember the other time in Mark’s Gospel where we hear that same verb, ἐφοβοῦντο? At the very end: … ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ (Mark 16:8), just as we read it at every Pascha, at midnight, right before we sing “Christ is Risen” for the first time. The women who went to the tomb of Christ on that first Easter morning found only a young man all in white telling them that Jesus was risen. They ἐξεθαμβήθησαν (were amazed) – from the same verb as ἐθαμβοῦντο. So at the end of Mark’s Gospel we have the same reaction: amazement and fear. Make no mistake, we are dealing with cosmic events!
Jesus did not go up to Jerusalem to be crucified so we can have a beautiful annual Holy Week. He didn’t die so we can use crosses as jewelry. He didn’t rise from the dead so we can eat Easter eggs and say Christos Anesti for 40 days. Those are all nice things to do and wear and eat. But they miss the terrifying impact of Christ’s Passion. The disciples were amazed and afraid to see Jesus walking to Jerusalem with such determination. They didn’t yet understand that the fate of the world hung in the balance. The judgment of the world was about to be settled. It was a cataclysmic time.
Are we amazed? Are we a little afraid even? If not, we are missing the meaning of it all. Yesterday I sat with one of my favorite parishioners, someone who brings light into my life. And later I shared emails with another parishioner, reminiscing about three people who illumined my life years ago in this parish but who are no longer with us. The light that shone forth from the tomb of Christ illumines the lives of countless among us. And one person filled with light can bring out the light that’s also in me and in you. ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ indeed. Let us be amazed and yes, afraid, at what we commemorate. And let’s leave the high and mighty to figure out who is Number One. Let’s look to Jesus on the Cross, and there find the light that comes from the greatest love the universe ha ever known.
(The above was preached in a longer format as a sermon on Sunday, April 18th, which was the fifth Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church.)