We Are Able, With God's Help

A bearded man holds a chalice of wine, contemplating whether he might drink from it.
James contemplating drinking from the cup.

Today is the Feast of St James the Apostle, also known as "the brother of John" or "James the Greater", distinguishing him from other men named James in the Bible. James is prominent in the story of the Transfiguration of the Lord, being one of the disciples privileged to witness Christ in glory on the mountainpeak.

James also appears in a story in Matthew's version of the Gospel. His mother asks Jesus to promise that her sons, James and John, will be seated at his right and left sides one day. The conversation that follows reveals much about the calling of Christ, the desire of disciples, and human nature:

The mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’

When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Matthew 20.20-28)

I am fascinated by the immediate willingness of James and John to say that they are able to drink the cup that Jesus will drink. They don't know what they cup contains; they haven't even asked. Perhaps they are eager for the glory that their mother is requesting for them and think anything is worth the price. Perhaps they assume that the cup Jesus refers to is one of blessing and they are eager to join him. Perhaps they are simply good disciples, willing to do whatever Jesus asks of them. Jesus responds with some concern that they don't fully understand what they are asking for or promising to do.

In Christian life, we are asked again and again to make promises to commit ourselves to Christ's way. Baptismal vows, confirmation vows, wedding vows, ordination vows, and so on. Vows are made by one group of people and are affirmed by the community witnessing them, always including a promise from the community to support these people in their new life. These promises are also almost always made with some version of "I will, with God's help." We acknowledge from the outset that this life and its demands are beyond any of us, so we commit to living it out in community and with God's loving assistance.

Our communities strive to prepare people for these major life milestones. Before baptizing someone, I do my best to meet with them (or their parents) several times, to discuss what it is to live a Christian life, to make sure that they understand what these commitments mean, and so on. Preparation and care are important, but they are also limited. At some point one must do the thing to develop a real understanding of how it works and how best to do it going forward. To use an analogy, if one wants to be a singer, one can read books on vocal technique, on performance practice, on music theory, the history and development of different singing styles, one can listen to endless recordings. But, at some point, if one is to be a singer, one must open one's mouth and make some sounds. And, no matter how much study has been done, the first sounds will almost certainly not be what the singer expected or intended.

To be a Christian is to regularly be thrust into unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations. We know what the guiding principles for a response to the situation ought to be because we've made our vows to live them out, but faced with a call to actually do it is a daunting thing. We've made the claim that we are singers and now we've been pushed out on to a stage to make some sounds. God calls us to cooperate in God's plan for creation, to share in God's cup, and we stand up and say "We are able!" Just like St James.

And just like Jesus with James, God knows that most of this Christian life is beyond us, if we're left to it ourselves. Which is why we make these promises as communities and why we always admit, from the outset, that we can't do it on our own.

Like James, we are able. With God's help.

Andrew Rampton

Andrew Rampton

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