Can You Drink the Cup?
Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, April 10, the Sunday of St Mary of Egypt
Today, on this final Sunday of Lent, we enter into the closing days of our ascetical journey. We've spent the past five weeks preparing ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually, and in this moment we can see that the end is in sight. In six days time we will celebrate Lazarus Saturday, and next Sunday we enter into Holy Week. It is no surprise, then, to hear Jesus state in today's Gospel passage: "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem." For it is this occasion in Mark's Gospel that Christ brings all the preparatory action of His ministry to a close, in order to begin His journey to the Cross. This makes for a very fitting beginning for us, as well, who will journey alongside of Christ to the Cross, as we make our way through Holy Week.
But something odd takes place in today's Gospel reading. And I might add… this oddity may be a point at which many of us can identify with the disciples. After announcing that they are headed toward Jerusalem, Jesus informs them of what will take place once they arrive. He states: "…the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death." Strangely, after He says this, James and John step forward, and make an odd request of Jesus: "Teacher," they state, "Do for us whatever we ask of you… Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." It's a very unusual response to Jesus having told them only moments before, that He's going to Jerusalem to die! And up to this point in Mark's Gospel, Jesus has already told them twice before, that He is going to die. So when James and John approach, with this request to sit at the right, or the left, of Jesus, in His glory, clearly they do not know what they are talking about. And we see this in Jesus' response when he says to them accordingly, "You do not know what you are asking." Jesus, of course, knows what they mean. But, if James and John actually knew what it means to sit on either side of Christ, when he comes into His glory… they might not have asked to begin with. So what is it they think they are asking? What does it mean to sit at the right, or the left, of Jesus?
In Jewish thought, to sit at someone's right is to be, essentially, the second most significant person in the room. According to the Jewish Talmud, "Etiquette commands that the most prominent person sit or walk in the center, the next in rank at his right hand, and the third in rank on the left." This is also consistent with the Rabbinical understanding of worship in ancient times. Aaron, as Israel's High Priest would sit at Moses' right hand when the Jewish assembly was gathered. And, we even see this very thing in practice today, while participating in the Divine Liturgy. The priest stands in the center, the longest serving deacon stands to the right of the priest, and the newer deacon goes on the left.
But for James and John in today's Gospel passage — their asking to sit at Christ's right or left, is not simply a request to be the second or third in rank after Jesus, but a request for power — the two of them are jockeying for positions of power after Jesus, whom they believe to be a conquering King. And in one sense, I think we can sympathize with them. Their whole lives they've been taught by the Scribes and other religious leaders that when the promised Messiah comes to Israel, He will come with power and restore Israel to it's former glory — to the good ol' days of King David — and throw off the oppression of their Roman occupiers. So, when Jesus says "Behold, we are going to Jerusalem," James and John take it to mean that this is their moment! The Christ, our promised Messiah, is heading into straight into our capital city to take Israel back, again, and when He does we are going to be the two most important people after Him!
And here is where I believe we can identify with the disciples. They clearly do not understand who the Christ is! The question I'm left to ask is, would any of us, had we lived in that time? Or perhaps it's better for us to ask, do we understand who the Christ is even today?
Next Sunday, when we into Holy Week and begin journeying with Christ to the Cross, remember that we are moving with Christ through each moment. We are not simply reenacting stories from the Gospel text as we progress through the week. And we're not pretending that we don't know what comes next as we go. So, next week when we watch Jesus make his way to Jerusalem, moment by moment, we stand as the disciples once did — and who do we think Christ is, as we watch these events unfold? Is Jesus the guy who merely died for our sins in order to save us from God's punishing wrath? Or do we believe Jesus to be the one who will save our "godless nation" from moral destruction, to make our country "Christian" again, so that we can uphold ourselves as righteous, and perceive everyone else to be wrong?
How did Jesus respond to James and John, when they perceived him as something other than who he IS… when they requested seats of power alongside of Him? "You do not know what you are asking," He says. And then Jesus really gets to the heart of it. He asks them: "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" They state that they can, of course, as each of us might also in that moment. But still, they do not know what it is they are agreeing to. To "drink the cup" is not simply a commitment to step forward each Sunday and to receive from the communion chalice, as we might imagine it. To "drink the cup" is a commitment to the way of Jesus Christ. And the way that Jesus comes into His glory, as we will witness during Holy Week, is through the Cross! Though they do not know it, James and John's request — to sit at the right and left of Christ when he comes into His glory — is to be positioned on either side of Jesus when He is raised up between two thieves on the Cross! So the question in this moment is very poignant here. "Are you able to drink the Cup?" — Are you?
To drink the cup, is to follow after Christ to the Cross. Jesus, gave himself voluntarily on behalf of all people. If we agree to "drink the cup" we voluntarily agree to do the same on behalf of all our fellow human beings. In doing so, we become, as the Apostle Paul states, "Crucified with Christ" that we may no longer live to ourselves, that Christ may live in us! And that we may, in turn, become as living martyrs on behalf of one another, for the sake of the Gospel. This IS the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If someone tells you otherwise, they're selling you a different Gospel, wrapped in modern pop theology.
It's no coincidence that we celebrated the life-giving cross only two weeks ago. It aligns perfectly with the preparatory themes we engage at this point in Lent. As Father Bogdan Bucur tells us:
"We cannot look at the Cross of Christ and not realize that this is the way in which God comes to us, and so this must be the way in which we come to each other. Not from a position of power, not using God as a means of inflicting violence, and of dominating one another — but in taking up our Cross and acting towards each other as disciples of the Crucified One." 
And here is the great paradox of it all. If we come to Christ, and to the the Cross, seeking power as James and John once did, we will lose. But if we seek to give up our lives, as Christ did, we find life! As Jesus teaches us: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
On this final Sunday in Lent, we honor the life of one particular Saint who encountered the Cross of Christ, and renounced her former way life in order to "drink the cup" of her salvation. As we leaned from Claire Koen a few weeks ago, St Mary of Egypt voluntarily chose to abandon her current way of living, and to deny herself, because she recognized the reign of God her midst. And it was through the Cross — which we see prominently featured on her icon — that she was able to bless and serve the other significant person in the story — Father Zosimas. Theologian Gayle Woloschak puts it perfectly:
"After seeing her body in the desert Father Zosimas repented of his doubts, awakening to his own spiritual self-satisfaction, and spiritual illness. He who thought himself a holy man, realized that he had encountered genuine holiness and perfect humility when he met St Mary. Through her he was able to see his own shortcomings, something he was not able to recognize on his own. She lead him to ... a turning about of his life from the spiritual illness of pride to a life of repentance." 
May each of us have the courage to face the Cross — to be raised with Jesus as He enters His glory — for the sake of one another, as we prepare for Holy Week.
 "Right and Left," Joseph Jacobs, Judah David Eisenstein. Accessed 04/06/2022. https://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12757-right-and-left
 Eruvin 54b. “Sefaria: A Living Library of Torah.” Access date 04/06/2022. https://www.sefaria.org/Eruvin.54b.18?ven=William_Davidson_Edition_-_English&vhe=William_Davidson_Edition_-_Vocalized_Aramaic&lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en
 Fr. Bogdan Bucur, “Orthodox Scholars Preach: Sunday of the Holy Cross,” presented by The Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, March 23, 2022, lecture video, 1:14, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KA27U8CpSfo
 Gayle Woloshak, “Orthodox Scholars Preach: Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt,” presented by The Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, April 6, 2022, lecture video, 5:38, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KA27U8CpSfo