Bishop Peter F. Hansen
The Cup and the Sword
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the Feast of St. James, July 24, 2022
“Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able. And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup.”
CAN YOU drink from the cup Jesus drank from? In His day, to drink from a certain cup meant following a fate, walking a path, receiving your due. It may mean a glass lifted to the victor to celebrate winning. It may be a bitter cup of death, treachery, the hemlock for Socrates. Your cup the fate for you to drink. You might refuse it, but should you?
The sons of Zebedee were being promoted as key players in Christ’s kingdom. There’s nothing more ironic than a person already destined for greatness who tries to be honored, using a lower road to the place he’s already got to. Eve’s temptation was to become as a god, knowing good and evil. The fact is, she was already like God, bearing His image and likeness, ruling the planet with her husband—she didn’t need anything.
James and John were brothers in a fishing business. John was the beloved disciple who wrote mystical truths and deep teachings of Jesus. Of James we hear little until the day Herod Agrippa decided to persecute the Christians. Herod’s family were only part Hebrew. The Jews looked down on him, regarded him as foreign. He wanted to earn their favor. He arrested the Apostle James, then had him publicly executed by a sword. The Church lost its first Apostle by martyrdom.
The killing of James and Deacon Stephen caused panic in Jerusalem. Fear drove the Church into other lands, settling in cities like Antioch, where they were nicknamed “Christian.” Saul and Barnabas were commissioned to spread Christ’s kingdom by sailing west.
The death of St. James was not fruitless: it set forward a great missionary era of expansion for the new Church. From its cradle in Jerusalem, the Church went through northern Africa, east to Persia, north to the steppes of Russia, west into Greece and Mediterranean Europe. One legend has St. Joseph of Arimathea sailing to the southern shores of Great Britain to bring Christianity to England before the end of the 1st century.
Are you able to drink the cup? James and John were brash young men, traveling with Jesus. Their mother came along, exhilarated by the teaching of the Master, knowing somehow that his earthly sojourn was coming to a glorious conclusion. Knowing Jesus would bring about a new and glorious Kingdom, Mrs. Zebedee pled with Jesus, “Could my boys sit at your right hand and at your left in your kingdom?” Her idea was a picture of royalty, a central throne with flanking seats for the most trusted servants on either side: the second and third places in the Kingdom is what she was foolishly talking about, and Jesus took her request seriously.
“You don't know what you’re asking,” Jesus said to James and John. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” They guessed it was a large question, but had no idea how large. Jesus was about to be crucified, to bear the sins of all the world on Himself. He won His seat over Creation by suffering more than any human ever had. There would be a similar fate for anyone who sat at his right or left. “Are you able?” He asked them. “We are,” they answered.
Jesus was called by His Father to come to earth to make this great sacrifice for us. He knew the price of His obedience. But as He gathered disciples, He learned the bitter taste of asking another to go and die. Like a field commander at war, sending men he knows like brothers to almost certain death—take that hill, remove that threat, save others by giving up your own life. It’s one thing to do it yourself. It’s quite another to ask a friend to go out and die. Jesus asked James and John, “Are you able to go in my name and die?”
“We are,” they answered, not knowing what they meant. The field commander answered, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.” That may have disappointed the young disciples. They’d gambled their lives for stature, but only managed to volunteer for a dangerous mission with little likelihood of survival. Their greatness, if any, would be posthumous.
But the irony I mentioned before, like that of Eve, was that these Apostles already had seats reserved around the throne of the Lamb. His brother John would see James, Peter, Matthew and other faithful Apostles seated around God’s throne, worshiping and throwing golden crowns off their heads at His shining feet. Those chairs were reserved. Their commitment to sacrifice would only add laurels to their brow.
James and John did not share the same end. James was the first Apostle martyred. John was the only Apostle not martyred. John’s cup was to live the longest and be jailed on the isle of Patmos. God honored him with the visions recorded in Revelation. James first, John last, but both are honored with seats around God’s throne. Not a bad cup.
The cup for many has been a sword. Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He goes on to describe the severing of families over Him, breaking strong ties as one person believes in Him, and a brother or sister or parent rejects and hates you for it. Today such family breaks happen in more countries and among more people than ever in history. Moslems are coming to Christ more than in all 14 centuries since Mohammed led his armies out from Mecca. For the converts, the cup is more bitter than we know. Americans are fairly easily cut off from families, as our culture and economy allows personal freedoms unknown elsewhere. In Middle East cultures, to be divorced from your parents, sisters and brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles is to be homeless, unemployed, and nameless. To claim Jesus for them is a cup with a great cost. And yet we ask it of them, brave ones. Jesus must be the answer to the violence of the Middle East, for there is no other.
Boys and men like swords. Not to get Freudian about it, but the idea of a long blade flashing about and extending one’s arm three feet with the power to slice an enemy grabs our imagination. I have bought four swords given from the police chaplaincy to police officers we deemed worthy of special thanks, citing Romans 13 that the officer holds God’s authority and does not bear the sword in vain. Rom 13:4
Swords are cool. Jesus said things good and bad about swords. At the close of the Last Supper, He said the Apostles would now probably need swords, and they produced two of them. Later that night, however, when Peter tries to defend Jesus from the arrest team by brandishing his sword and cutting off the servant’s ear, Jesus rebukes him, saying, “Put up thy sword into its sheath: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” The cup and the sword—that cup cannot be set aside by the use of the sword. Jn 18:11; Mat 26:52
What is your portion? We live in a land that is growing ever more and more hostile to Christianity. We see strife among believers. We see churches giving up the traditions of our fathers and mothers, the moral compass of former generations, the commandments of God enshrined in Scriptures. To simply stand up and tell it like we’ve always known it to be is no longer a popular position and may get you marginalized, marked out, falsely accused, rejected and socially martyred.
Yet we have freedom still in this land to speak the truth in love. If we do, we might rescue some from this slanting ground beneath us aiming to off-balance us and send us hurtling downward. Forces arrayed against the Gospel have always existed, but today they have unsheathed their bitter swords, bright steel against the sword of the Spirit, setting powerful weapons at us to silence the unwelcome words of those who are in love with Christ.
Can we maintain our witness, even in the face of ridicule? Can we speak the truth in love, even though it cost us our social status, our reputations, and a few friendships? The cost to us in this land truly is still small when we seek to drink the cup that Jesus sets before us.
If we do not drink that cup today, what price will be exacted of the faithful in a day yet to come? Can you envision an America where espousing age-old Christian truths and values is illegal in the public sector, even such an America where gatherings like this one are declared illegal assemblies? That actually just happened in Covid. Was it a test case? Could you be arrested for Christ?
Such is the cup this day for many in other lands. And they do it. They witness. They drink that cup. They die by that sword, often a scimitar, curved, heavy, sharpened to a razor’s edge, recorded on video and broadcast to the world.
The cup and the sword. We are witnesses to some of the most barbaric acts of any century, and some of the bravest testimonies ever, the blood of saints, today in the mountainous passes of Afghanistan.
There are many kinds of martyrdom. One may be to live beyond all your friends and relations in a world so changed you are tempted to give up your faith.
Another may be to face false accusations that you may never be able to defend yourself against.
Still another can be simply to be the brunt of every joke, never taken seriously, to be overlooked at all times, treated as a fool. Your cup may look very differently from mine.
But it’s the cup of Jesus, if we are willing to take it up and to drink. He calls it His Blood, and it would be hard if that cup truly resembled blood in sight and taste. But because we take it in faith, we sense the sweetness of an amber wine, and the comfort and approval of our Savior.