The cup of suffering

I think it is fair to say that any parent wants what is best for their children. In today’s Gospel reading, its perhaps no surprise then that we learn how the mother of Zebedee’s sons (James and John) came with them to Jesus and asked him if they could sit at his right and left in his kingdom.  After all, to sit at the right and left of Jesus would be to sit in a place of honour.

The thing is it can be very easy for us to become so focussed on one thing only (in this case the status of her children) and in doing so lose sight of the bigger picture.  Where, for example, would the rest of the disciples sit?  We have to remember that in the previous chapter in Matthew’s Gospel we learned how Jesus had already said to the twelve disciples that when he was on his glorious throne, they would sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28)  They already had their promised places of honour.

Jesus had also made many references to the suffering he would have to endure and by association the suffering his disciples may have to endure too.  Jesus’ response in today’s reading speaks into the suffering that he was to endure and reminds us (as it will have reminded James and John) that in following him we are to follow his example of service and sacrifice and take up his cross.  That can be costly, and it can involve suffering.  We only need to think of the persecuted Church across the world, especially in places like North Korea, where Christians may be killed for the faith in Christ that they profess.  So, Jesus asks James and John “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”  It is almost as if he is saying to them “Are you sure you know what you are letting yourselves in for?”

I don’t know if you have ever noticed, but when the Bible mentions something more than once it tends to be because it is important.  When I was reflecting on this morning’s Gospel reading it struck me that there are three main accounts in Matthew’s Gospel that mention a cup…each time of real significance.  We heard the first of those accounts in this morning’s reading.

The second account is one that we remember each time we approach the Lord’s Table to receive communion – the last supper.  “27Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:27-29)

The third time is one of the most poignant times when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane “36Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”  (Matthew 26:36-39)

I ask you to hold those last two accounts in mind as we look more at our Gospel reading today as we explore what is so significant about the cups that Jesus refers to.

Throughout the Old Testament the cup is often used as a symbol of God’s wrath or judgment. The books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah all speak of a cup of wrath and judgement.  Yet we also find the Psalmist crying out, “I will take up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:13). And of course in Psalm 23, we are all familiar with the cup of blessing and the picture of the cup overflowing in abundance.  So, the symbol of the cup carries with it pictures of both wrath and redemption, of judgment and blessing.

In Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, the cup symbolizes the pain, degradation, and death that Jesus knew was required of him. The cup that was before him then was the cup of wrath or judgement for the sins of the world.  He prayed that the cup might pass undrunk, but Jesus knew that he had to choose to metaphorically drain that cup to its dregs.  In His humanity, Jesus could wish that this cup of judgment—the one that everyone except Him deserved for the breaking of God’s covenant—would pass over Him. Yet, as the obedient Son of God, Jesus knew that the cup of blessing could only be poured out for the salvation of many if He would first drink the cup of God’s judgment on all humanity.  It is this same cup that Jesus was referring to in our reading today. No wonder then that Jesus asks James and John if they can drink the cup he was going to drink.

By drinking the cup his Heavenly Father placed before him, something astonishing was accomplished.  In Gethsemane and subsequently on the cross Jesus transformed the cup of wrath into the cup of life, salvation and blessing. It was at the Last Supper that this transformation was predicted, a place where the cup of the new covenant or salvation, is presented for all to partake of. This is something that we might be reminded of every single time we approach the Lord’s Table to receive Communion.  It is only through Jesus and what he has accomplished that we realise that God will bestow on us a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. We will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendour. (Isaiah 61:3)

There are times in life when we might find that we too have to metaphorically drink from the cup of suffering.  Today we remember St James’ day, and thinking specifically about him Jesus will have known what fate would eventually befall him.  James was put to death by the sword for being a follower of Jesus, upon the command from King Herod Agrippa I of Judaea.  Discipleship is a journey that involves learning, and James had many opportunities to learn. As one of Jesus’ inner circle, James witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37, Luke 8:51), the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2), and Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33, Matthew 26:37).  But the price for following Jesus and the nature of transformation and salvation were lessons James also had to learn, mindful that any present suffering he might endure would pass, that his testimony might encourage and inspire others and that ultimately he would be with Jesus in heaven.

In thinking about the cup of suffering, the Dutch Catholic Priest, professor, writer and theologian Henri Nouwen said “Can we hold our cups and claim them as our own?  Can we lift our cups to offer blessings to others, and can we drink our cups to the bottom as cups that bring us salvation?  Keeping this question alive in us is one of the most demanding spiritual exercises we can practice.”  The life, testimony and martyrdom of James makes it clear that in his case the answer was yes; he was prepared to take up his cross and give his all for Christ.  He had learned the lessons and learned them well.  We can too.

Whatever challenges you may face in life I pray that every time you approach the Lord’s Table you might be reminded and encouraged by what Jesus accomplished, and of the great faith of James who in giving his life for Christ went on to take hold of that cup and claimed it as his own.  In taking up our cup, we are not alone and through Christ we might enter into a deeper place of grace, transformation and growth.

There are two main barriers to us being prepared to take up that cup.  The first is pride.  James and John wanted to sit at Jesus’ left and right hand in heaven.  They wanted status and power and at its root there must have been pride.  That’s why the reading ends with Jesus saying “It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 

The second is fear.  Fear of letting go, fear of trusting in God, fear of stepping out in faith.  Part of that involves putting others first.  We are called to live self-sacrificial lives.  We are called to drink those cups of hardship to the dregs, that in God’s grace and mercy become for us the cups that bring us salvation.  It is part of dying to self.  It is embarking on that path of humility.  It is saying to God “I am prepared to pay the price.  I know that no matter what I am struggling with, you never leave me and heaven is my true home.

Can we lift our cup to bring blessings to others, and can we drink our cup to the bottom as a cup that brings us salvation?  When you drink from the cup in Communion, remember the transformation that Christ accomplished.

James was unswerving in his faith, even to the end.  Whatever hardships he had to endure he will have remembered Jesus’ words.  In his life, and testimony we can see in Christ that transformation from suffering to salvation.  Let us hold fast together, and like James keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

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