Jesus said to [James and John]: “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at My right hand or at My left is not Mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
James and John ask for what they think they want: “Grant us to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left, in Your glory.” But their request goes beyond their understanding. What they desire can be given, but the cost of it can be great. This is what Jesus shows in His response: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Jesus’ response shows the cost required to possess the place of honor in His glory.
The exchange is reminiscent of someone who may look at a Purple Heart medal, admire it and desire that they would be a recipient. Does such a person know the cost? Or remember the scene from the movie The Right Stuff where Gordon Cooper and Gus Grissom, the new test pilots, enter the aviators’ bar near Edwards Air Force Base and boastfully claim that their pictures will soon be up on the bar wall. Only when the bartender tells them that the pictures are all dead test pilots do they understand the cost. Such an honor can be given, but the cost of such an honor is very high.
So James and John ask Jesus for places of honor. They are faced with the question from Jesus: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” But in response, they say: “We are able.” And with that comes Jesus’ promise: “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at My right hand or at My left is not Mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Jesus’ promise is that James and John will suffer the things that He suffers. For that, they will receive a place of honor as God the Father determines to give. Whether it will be at Jesus’ right or left hand is not determined by Him, but will be awarded by His Father.
Today, July 25, is when the Church remembers St. James the Elder and his martyrdom. For in those events, the promise of Jesus is fulfilled. Through his martyrdom, James drinks the cup that Jesus drank and is immersed with the baptism that Jesus underwent. This would come years after Jesus had made His statement, but come it did. As the apostles performed their duties as Christ’s sent ones, they faced opposition. Some was minor, but other opposition even threatened their life.
For James, the persecution from Herod would fall in that latter category. The historian records: “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.” Just as the rulers of
The promises made about James’ fate came true. Drinking the cup that Jesus drank, James became the first of the Twelve Apostles to be martyred for believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. He endured what followers of Jesus are asked to do in our day: “Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death? Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” For in keeping this faith, this confession of who Christ is and what He has done, salvation is found.
James’ martyrdom did not keep him from receiving that salvation. James’ martyrdom was not an expression of divine wrath against him. To the contrary, James’ death was his passing into everlasting life. It was the fulfilling of everything good for him. As the Church remembers the martyrdom of one of the apostles, it rightly hears the Apostle Paul’s words: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” Called away from his nets and fishing business by Christ, James fits this category. And the fate of those who are called according to Christ’s purpose is sealed: “Those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.”
That greater fate is what hangs over this entire remembrance of James’ martyrdom. Though James suffers the worst that can be imagined—the loss of his earthly life—he still receives a blessed end. Why is this so? Because the powers of the world cannot overcome the One who is greater than them. This is the point that the apostle makes: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or sword? . . . No in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” The same Jesus who loved James and called him to follow overcame death through His own resurrection. He has authority over all the powers of this world. Despite the worst they can do, Christ’s desired goal for His people shall come to its fulfillment.
And this is where the martyrdom of James stands as a statement of what shall happen to us. Like James, you have been called according to Christ’s purpose. Called by Him, you have been justified by Him. And as you have been justified by Christ, you shall be glorified by Him. That glorification takes place at the end of all things. But until that time, there is much that occurs. And much of what occurs is not pleasant. What Paul describes is quite accurate about what humanity faces in this world: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, sword. And yet, everything that we face cannot overcome the power of Him who loves us.
Because of Christ who died and rose again, we are “more than conquerors through Him.” Glorification for the martyred James comes because Jesus has been glorified in His resurrection. Likewise, glorification for you and me comes because Jesus has been glorified. It results from what Jesus has done for us: “the Son of Man came not be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” It is through His service that Jesus is able to benefit those who follow Him. Only through His drinking the cup before Him and His being immersed in the baptism of God’s wrath against sin can Jesus answer those things which afflict His people.
But that is precisely what has occurred. Jesus became your servant, your slave. He drank the cup of wrath for James, for the other Twelve, and for you. He did so, not in ignorance, but knowing exactly what it would take. He was clear that He would give His life as a ransom for you. And so like James did, you can follow in the footsteps of Jesus. You already have in part: for you have died and have risen with Christ in your baptisms. Now you may continue to do so, just as God has known, working all things together for good: “For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
The sufferings of this world can conform you to Christ’s image. It was so for James. James trusted in His Lord Jesus, just as His Lord had trusted His Father’s will that all things would together for good for Him. You also may trust Him. For you know what the outcome is. You know that Christ’s sufferings led to His glorification in resurrection and ascension. You have the example of the apostles to follow. And you have the great promise: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Receiving the place of honor may require great suffering, even martyrdom itself as it did for James. But the reward is there for all who do so, for Christ is greater than the world and His love shall never be severed from you.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.