Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

The Fear Factor

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Mark 10:32-45


One seminary professor thinks that he is familiar with these disciples.  Here is how he describes them:   “James and John McZebedee matriculated at my seminary again this fall. The "Sons of Entitlement," I call them. They are usually -- but not always -- young and white in addition to being male. They have typically grown up in the church, attended Christian colleges and majored in religion. They like to refer to their mental index of Theologians Worth Reading and readily scoff at those theologians they have not read (and so are not worth reading). They patronize second-career students, female students, minority students and those ministerial students who are without apparent academic ambitions. Their fathers are frequently pastors. It is possible, these Sons of Entitlement piously concede in candid moments, that God may be calling them to become professors or bishops. They are rather easy to dislike. . . . The Sons of Entitlement talk a lot -- preventing others from speaking -- and pose questions that are more like efforts at entrapment than genuine attempts to learn. . . . These students bristle at structure and deadlines; regular attendance; and real, rather than inflated, grades . . . Not too long ago, a student asked me during a final exam if he could write an essay on a topic of his own choosing rather than on one of the three possibilities provided by the test. When I explained that such latitude would be unfair to everyone else in the course, he replied softly, "No one else has to know." On another occasion he expressed interest in becoming a bishop. I bet he makes it.”[1]


Some of you may not have been aware that seminary students could be so competitive or seminary professors so cynical.  I’m sorry if this comes as a shock to you.  It is one way we might imagine James and John, as young students vying for position, or young adults aiming high on the career ladder.


This is not the first time they have had this conversation with Jesus.  The first time was back in chapter 8; 8:31 says “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  After that Peter tried to rebuke Jesus for even thinking like that, but Jesus rebuked Peter even more strongly and said, “Get behind me Satan.” 


They continued with their travels and a second time, Jesus foretold his death and this time, Mark says “they did not understand but were afraid to ask him.”  Immediately after that, they started arguing about who was the greatest. 


And now, in chapter 9, Jesus tells them for a third time what he is anticipating in Jerusalem and this time,  James and John make their request which makes the others mad and then they argue again.  It is as if none of the Twelve are listening.  Jesus has told them three times that he is going to die an awful death and they don’t understand.  So we could think that they are incredibly competitive.  Or we might begin to think that they’re just not very bright. 


The Zebedee brothers say, “Hey Jesus, if we ask you for something, will you do it for us?”  It sounds like a childish way to ask, trying to get Jesus to promise something before they say what it is.  Then they ask for what they anticipate will be the places of honor, to be his left and right hand men.  They want something, something big, but they don’t really know what they are asking.  Jesus says. “Can you drink the cup that I drink?  Or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”


Baptism recalls the beginning of his adult ministry.  The cup points ahead to the last supper and his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Let this cup pass from me.”  Jesus is saying, “Can you undergo what I am undergoing?  What I have undergone?  Can you endure what is coming in my future?” 


And the confident, but clueless, Zebedee brothers say “Yes we can.  Bring it.” 


I wonder how Mark’s first audience reacted when they heard this part of his gospel.  Did they laugh at their foolishness?    Were they embarrassed for them?  Apparently Matthew can’t bring himself to admit that James and John actually made this request.  According to his gospel, it was their mother who asked on their behalf.  Of course, by the time the gospels were written down, everyone knew that the places of honor on Jesus’ right and left went to two bandits, crucified by Rome on either side of Jesus.  Which is obviously not something anyone would ask for.

So we can see these disciples as primarily competitive or primarily dull, dim-witted, or an embarrassment, but I think there is one more key to understanding them.  In verse 32 says, “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”


They are on the road to Jerusalem.  Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem.  He is walking ahead of them, determined to do this thing and they are following him, but they are afraid.  Perhaps they understand more than we give them credit for, more than Mark gives them credit for.  They know enough to be afraid. 


When fear becomes our primary motivation, our behavior is not likely to be something we’re proud of.  What happens here?  The disciples start to lose the mission.  Their call is to follow Jesus and technically, they’re still doing that.  It says that they are behind him on the road to Jerusalem.  But they have tried to talk him out of his mission.  And when he teaches about serving others, about welcoming the kingdom by welcoming marginalized people, they switch to the paradigm they know, which is the paradigm of competing for the top spots and arguing about who is the greatest. 


In their fear, first they lose their sense of mission and then they turn on each other.  When fear is our primary motivation, our behavior is not likely to be something we’re proud of.  


Think about human history – many of the low points reflect fearful leadership or leadership that intentionally played on people’s fears.  I’m thinking about things like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, Japanese Internment camps within the United States, McCarthyism and the Un-American Activities Committee.  Actions motivated by fear are not the things we are usually most proud of. 


When fear becomes the primary factor, the disciples lose the mission and turn on each other.  That happens in churches too.  When churches become afraid for their own survival, the goal of balancing the budget and paying the bills gets confused with the mission of following Jesus.   If we are afraid that our church will die and our bottom line fear is “what will happen to me if I lose my church?”  then that is not so different from James and John thinking, “What will happen to us if Jesus dies?” 


We have a mission as a church, a mission to follow Jesus, to share the radical, expansive love of God with others.  We have that same mission as individuals.  And, of course, as individuals, we can be overcome with fear.  On Friday and Saturday, six of us were at the Mission Conference in Rome.  Ketly and Vital Pierre spoke on Friday night.  The Pierres are a husband and wife team who have been serving in Bluefields, Nicaragua with International Ministries.  Our EBC mission team worked with on the last two trips.  It was a great joy to meet them and hear some of their amazing life story.   They talked about their call to make disciples, and their prayer never to stay content with what they have accomplished (which is a lot) but to keep on growing and being used by God. After several years in Bluefields, they will be taking up new work in the Dominican Republic next year. They said, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.” 


“If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.”  Sometimes we are afraid of the challenge.  We don’t want to be changed.   And fear pushes us to abandon our own mission, our own calling from God. 


Jesus gave the disciples three opportunities to face their fears.  Three times he told them about his death and three times they chose not to listen, to create a distraction within their own ranks.  I wish they had chosen to face their fears, to talk it through with Jesus.  It probably would have been better for them if they had, but also, it might have given us more guidance about how to handle our own fear.  


In other places, Jesus did say some things about fear.  He said, “Have no fear, little flock, it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  And “Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me.”    His actions speak as loud as his words.  He modeled for us, courage in the midst of fear.  He modeled submission to God’s will no matter what the cost. 


And even here in this exchange with the disciples, there may be a word of encouragement and blessing.  Jesus says, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.  Sometimes these words sound ominous or foreboding as if Jesus is promising

the disciples the same kind of suffering and death that he will experience.  But Charles Campbell, professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School, suggests that this might be an extraordinary promise.  He says these words could mean “You will not always be driven by your fears and your need for security.  Rather you will be empowered to take up your cross and follow me.  You will be faithful disciples even to the end.” [2]


It’s a great promise to them and to us – we don’t have to live in fear.  We can live as faithful disciples, willing to accept the challenges even though they will change us. 


The writer of I John says “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”  Let me close with some words from that remarkable spiritual director, Henri Nouwen.  In his book, The Inner Voice of Love, he wrote “You will discover that the more love you can take in and hold onto, the less fearful you will become.  You will speak more simply, more directly and more freely about what is important to you, without fear of other people’s reactions. . . . The more you come to know yourself as truly loved, the freer you will be to proclaim the good news.  That is the freedom of the children of God.”[3]


Sisters and brothers, let us not be driven by our fears, by our need for security or approval or status.  Rather let us know that we are loved with infinite patience and mercy, truly loved.  Keep taking that in.  Hold on to it.  Revel in your freedom as children of God.  Amen.




[1] Stephen B. Chapman, “Sons of Entitlement,” The Christian Century, October 17, 2006, p. 20 http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3457

[2] Charles Campbell  in Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 4, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors,  (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009), p. 193.

[3] Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love, (New York:  Doubleday/Random House, 1996),  p. 74-75.