TITLE: Where Were James and John? SCRIPTURE: Matthew 27:11-54
Where were James and John when Jesus was crucified? James and John were the two brothers whose mother earlier asked Jesus to allow them to sit at Jesus' right hand and left hand when Jesus came into his kingdom.
At least that's the way Matthew reports it. Mark leaves out the mother and has the two young men asking Jesus directly for the privilege of sitting at his right and left hands.
If you have ever attended formal staff meetings, you know what James and John were asking. In those meetings, the chief executive sits at the head of the table, flanked by his or her most important lieutenants. The rest of the staff diminishes in stature as they move further from the head of the table. Then there are the people who don't even warrant a place at the table -- whose chairs line the wall.
In meetings like that, there are often small but important symbols of power. The boss's chair is probably taller than the rest, and the lieutenants' chairs the next tallest. The boss might have a carafe of coffee, and the lieutenants might be privileged to share it. They drink out of china cups. The rest of the staff has the paper cups that they brought into the room.
So it isn't any mystery what James and John wanted. They wanted honor. They wanted power. They wanted to sit on Jesus' right and left so that Jesus would turn to them for help with big decisions. They wanted the other disciples to have to look up to them. James and John, along with Peter, had been Jesus' inner circle -- and James and John were looking to keep it that way.
But when Jesus entered into the most important phase of his work on this earth, James and John were nowhere to be found. Matthew tells us that when Jesus was arrested, "all the disciples deserted him and fled" (26:56) -- all of them -- Peter, James and John, and all the rest. They cut and ran. After Jesus is arrested, Matthew never again mentions James or John by name.
The Gospel of John tells us that the disciple whom Jesus loved was present at the cross [John 19:26-27], and some scholars think John was that disciple. Whoever that disciple was, he was more courageous and faithful than the rest.
So who got the honored seats on Jesus' right and left when Jesus started his most important work? Two thieves! Matthew says,
"Then two bandits were crucified with him,
one on his right and one on his left" (27:38).
So while James and John were off hiding somewhere, two bandits occupied the places of honor beside Jesus. Most artwork pictures Jesus on a tall cross and the two bandits flanking him on two shorter crosses -- the place of highest honor and the two next-highest places. There is lots of irony in Jesus sharing his crucifixion with two bandits, isn't there! But it was fitting. Jesus spent much of his life in the company of sinners and other marginal people. He always got along well with such people. Now they joined him in his dying hour.
Another question! Where was Peter when Jesus was crucified? Peter was the leader of the disciples -- the most prominent of all the disciples. Earlier, Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him, but Peter said, "Never!" But the last mention of Peter in Matthew's Gospel is when a cock crows and Peter suddenly remembers his triple denial. Matthew says, "And (Peter) went out and wept bitterly" (26:75). That's the last time Peter's name is mentioned in Matthew's Gospel.
There are other ironic touches surrounding Jesus' crucifixion. You will remember, of course, that Peter had two names -- Simon and Peter. Did you know that it was Simon who carried Jesus' cross to Golgotha? Did you know that it was Simon who helped Jesus along that terrible road? It was Simon, but not Simon Peter. It was Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus cross -- Simon of Cyrene. Eugene Boring, who wrote a commentary on the book of Matthew, says:
"That a stranger named Simon is forced to carry Jesus' cross
emphasizes the abandonment of Jesus' own disciples,
especially the one named Simon" (Boring, 489).
Another question! Where were the rest of the apostles when Jesus was crucified? We don't know. We know only that they deserted Jesus -- that they fled.
You can't really blame them, though. They had pinned all their hopes on Jesus. They had thought that he was the one. They followed him along dusty roads from one village to another in the expectation that they would occupy seats at his table when he came into power. But then they had seen him arrested, and they could tell what was coming next. The story was over. And so they ran. They ran for cover.
I should acknowledge, however, that not everyone abandoned Jesus. There were three women at the foot of the cross when they killed Jesus. Matthew identifies them as Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. He identifies the third woman at the foot of the cross as the mother of the sons of Zebedee. The sons of Zebedee, of course, were James and John. The mother of James and John had asked Jesus earlier to allow her sons to sit at his right and left hands in his kingdom. Now she saw Jesus begin the most important part of his work -- with a bandit on his right hand and another bandit on his left. I wonder what she thought.
And Joseph of Arimathea was there. Joseph was one of the Jewish rulers, but unlike most Jewish rulers he was a follower of Jesus. After Jesus died, Joseph came to Pilate requesting permission to bury Jesus' body, and Pilate granted permission. Joseph and Nicodemus, another Jewish ruler, anointed and buried the body of Jesus -- buried it with honor -- buried it as if Jesus were a member of their family (27:57-60; John 19:38-42).
But the twelve -- the ones whom Jesus had handpicked to be his disciples -- were nowhere to be found.
I would like to make a couple of observations about that:
First, when the going got tough, the disciples lit out for the hills. As I said before, I can't blame them. I doubt that I would have done better. They didn't know the end of the story. They didn't know about the resurrection. They thought the story was already finished. They had watched the big screen flash "The End" -- and then headed for the exit.
Second, as we now know, the story was not over. Jesus' crucifixion was followed by his resurrection. That's when something really surprising happened. After the resurrection, Jesus met with the eleven -- Judas had committed suicide, so there were only eleven. And this is what I find surprising. Jesus didn't have a bad word to say to those disciples. He didn't say, "Shame on you!" He didn't say, "You were never any good." He didn't say, "You are all cowards." Listen to what he did say. He said:
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
And remember, I am with you always,
to the end of the age" (28:18-20).
Isn't that wonderful! Not only did Jesus not rebuke the disciples -- he treated them as members of his team. He handed them the ball and entrusted them to carry it.
That reminds me of a story that I heard about Thomas Edison. Edison invented the light bulb, as you know. As with all new inventions, the first copies are the most precious. They cost the most money to produce, and take lots of time to make.
According to this story, Edison handed the first light bulb to an assistant to carry to another part of the building. Along the way, the assistant stumbled and dropped the bulb, which shattered at his feet. The other workers expected Edison to fire the man -- or at least to shout at him and to humiliate him. But Edison didn't say even one unkind word. Instead, he went about the work of making another light bulb -- and then he handed that light bulb to the same assistant to carry to the other part of the building.
I love that story, because it is a story of pure grace. The Edison of that story is the kind of person that all of us would like to work for. The Edison of that story is the kind of person that I'd like to be.
But Jesus did it first. Jesus gathered the failed disciples around him and said, "Here's the ball. Run with it! The goal is over there! Now do it!"
I love that story even more than I love the Edison story, because it tells me that I can fail Jesus, and he will still love me. And I do fail. We all fail.
- Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Do we do that? When was the last time you prayed for someone who was making your life miserable?
- Jesus tells us that the most important commandments are to love God and neighbor. Do we do that? What have you done recently to show God that you love him? What have you done to show your neighbor that you care?
- By his example, Jesus showed us that he wants us to help people in need. He was always doing something for sick people -- for crazy people -- for down-and-outers of every sort. When is the last time that you did something like that? Have you ever done anything to help a homeless person or a hungry person?
- Jesus tells us to go and make disciples and baptize. Do we do that? When is the last time that you did something to spread the Gospel to an unbeliever?
In other words, where were you when Jesus was crucified? Where were you when the going got tough? Where were you when Jesus asked something really difficult of you? For many of us, the answer is that we were off somewhere hiding in the hills -- just like those first disciples did when Jesus was arrested.
But the Good News is that Jesus loves us anyway. He keeps pulling us back to our feet and patting us on the back and pointing us in the right direction. He keeps treating us as if we were prized members of his team -- because we are. And he keeps on loving us.
But I would like to point out one fact. After the resurrection, the disciples started getting their act together. After the resurrection, they got courage. After the resurrection, they started doing what Jesus wanted them to do. They didn't do it perfectly, but they did it.
The resurrection took place long ago. We celebrate it every Easter. We celebrate it every Sunday. We are reminded of it every time we see an empty cross.
As you reflect on the story of the crucifixion -- and the disciples' failure -- and Jesus' continuing love -- take heart! Jesus loves you! Jesus values you as an important part of his team. Jesus has work for you to do -- important work. Give that some thought! If you are doing what Jesus has called you to do, praise God! If not, get started. You will never do Jesus' work perfectly -- but Jesus doesn't need your perfection -- he just needs your heart.