It happened in one of those quiet moments when nothing much was going on. Peter whistled while he mended a net. Bartholomew picked at his sandal. The other guys were talking in small groups.
Jesus was sitting apart, looking north up the Jordan River. He was wondering about the man who used to live in the tombs on the south shore of the Sea of Galilee. The people around there used to call him “Crazy Joe”.
After Jesus healed him, Crazy Joe wanted to join up. He wanted to become a disciple and go with them in the boat, but Jesus made him stay and make peace with his own people.
“Stay here and tell everyone what God has done for you.”
It was the right thing to say and do, but he couldn’t get Crazy Joe out of his mind. As they sailed away, Jesus was the only one who looked back. Crazy Joe was standing on the shore with his right hand out, as if he might still touch Jesus. He got smaller and smaller, but he never put that hand down.
James and John slipped away from the others and approached Jesus. “Teacher, will you do us a favor?”
“Um, maybe. What kind of favor?”
“Okay, well, uh… John and I, we know that you’re going to have your own kingdom, here pretty soon. We’ve heard you talking about it. When that happens, we’d like seats of honor, you know, at your right and left side.”
James licked his lips nervously and glanced at John, who nodded his approval and then spoke up himself.
“Yeah, that’s what we want. Seats of honor for the Sons of Thunder, you might say. I mean, we’re always there for you, right? Right?
Jesus didn’t reply, but John didn’t seem to notice.
“So anyway, we just want to be right there with you when you come into your own.”
Jesus smiled. It was impossible to be angry at such a childlike request.
“Hmm. Interesting favor. Walk with me.”
They moved a few steps farther away from the others, and then Jesus stood face-to-face with both of them.
“You don’t know what you’re asking. I’m not angry with you for telling me what you really want, but you can’t possibly know what it is that you have asked. Do you think you are able to drink from my cup, the one that will be given to me in Jerusalem? Are you ready for that dose? Do you think you are ready for the baptism I will receive there?”
For a moment James and John were silent, as if they were really hearing him, but then they puffed out their chests and put on a look of bold confidence. James spoke for the two them, with John nodding.
“Absolutely, Jesus. No problem. Whatever you need, you got it. We’ll always be there for you.”
That last phrase echoed over and over in his mind with the voices of a thousand people. “Always be there for you. Always be there for you. Always be there. Always be there.”
That’s what people promise, and that’s what people want. “I’ll always be there for you,” and “Please always be there for me.”
He looked north again, up the Jordan. That’s what Crazy Joe wanted. He wanted to be with Jesus for always. He turned him down, and now Crazy Joe’s voice haunted him. “Tell them the truth, even if it hurts. You told me the truth. Remember?”
Jesus looked at the two men facing him and loved them. He lifted his hands, cupping them over the place where neck meets shoulder. They imitated his embrace, and the three of them made a little triangle of arms and faces.
“Listen to me now. You WILL drink from my cup and you WILL receive my baptism. In time, both of these will come to you.”
James and John grinned and looked pleased; Jesus groaned.
“Don’t smile. You…Look, one day you will come to understand what my cup and baptism are. And on that day…Well, on that day I’ll make sure you have what you need. I won’t be there, but you won’t be alone.”
The Sons of Thunder both nodded, then James spoke. “So, what about those seats of honor? I appreciate all that stuff about sharing your cup and whatnot, but we were mostly interested in the seats.”
“Yeah,” John said. “What about those seats?”
Jesus laughed. It was a relief to move to a lighter subject. “Oh yeah, the seats of honor for the Sons of Thunder. You wanted the best seats in the house. Bad news, boys. I’m not in charge of the seating arrangements. Those seats are already reserved – have been for quite some time.”
Peter’s deep, bellowing voice startled them all. They had not been aware that he had walked up and heard the end of their conversation.
“Jesus, what the hell’s going on here? Tell me I’m hearing things, cause it sounds like these two assholes are trying to get the best seats in your kingdom.”
Peter told the others what he had heard, and the quiet conversation of three friends turned into a squabbling mess of angry men. Jesus sighed and then waded into the middle of it all.
“Stop it! Dammit, stop everything. Sit down! Peter, sit your ass down. Maybe I should have taken Crazy Joe and left the lot of you back there on the south shore.”
He pointed at them. “See? You See? This is exactly what I DON’T want. I don’t want my people fighting over positions of power. I don’t want you arguing over who is better. Can’t you see how…ridiculous that is when we are surrounded by God’s love and Spirit? I don’t want it to be like this. I want…. I want….”
His voice trailed off and he stood staring. He saw Crazy Joe, this time back in the tombs, clothed and in his right mind. Crazy Joe, sitting by a grave, telling a woman who used to be afraid of him about the day Jesus changed everything.
Thaddaeus spoke up. “Um, what DO you want?”
Jesus turned and looked at them, his eyes making contact with each. “I want the greatest of you to be marked not by power, but by service. I want you to be backwards and upside down. I want you to be big by being small, rich by being poor. I want you to gain your lives by giving them away.”
“I want you to be like Crazy Joe, having nothing but your story and needing only that. I won’t always be here, you see. I won’t and yet I will. When I’m gone and you aren’t sure what to do, just tell your story.”
“Just be small in the world and tell everyone what God has done for you.”
(Real Live Preacher Dramatized Version)
The book of Acts tells us that James was the first of the twelve to die in the name of Christ. Church tradition holds that John outlived all the other disciples and died as one of the last living links to Jesus.
Their deaths framed the apostolic period. One received the baptism of death and the other the cup of leadership.