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Can You Drink the Cup?


My wife Becky almost always prefers to give and receive surprise gifts for birthdays and Christmas. I, on the other hand, like to make birthday and Christmas gift lists from which my family can choose a gift. Well, last year, on my birthday, Becky got me a gift that wasn’t on my list, but it was the perfect gift for me. The gift was the beautiful, stoneware, chalice and paten for serving Communion (pictured above). I have been using it to serve Communion at our 4:30 service ever since.
This was a beautiful and perfect gift for Becky to give me because it is symbolic of so many things in my life. It is symbolic of my role as a pastor. It is symbolic of Communion, which is always very meaningful to me. It is symbolic of the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples, and thus, in a way, it is symbolic of my relationship with Christ.
In our Gospel reading for today, we are going to hear about another chalice, another cup, that is also deeply symbolic. Listen for God’s word to you from Mark 10:32-45….
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. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 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.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The Cup of Life

I would like to focus with you today on the question Jesus asks of James and John in this passage: “Can you drink the cup?”

Jesus has just explained again to his disciples that he is going up to Jerusalem where he is going to be killed.
You know how some people just have a knack for saying the wrong thing at a somber moment, or when someone is grieving? James and John seemed to have that knack. At this very moment, right after Jesus explained that he was going to die, James and John asked if they could sit next to him in his coming glory.

I think Jesus responded as politely as he could under the circumstances. He said to James and John: “You don’t know what you are asking.” Then Jesus asked them a counter question: “Can you drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus was referring to the cup of suffering that would be his.

William Barclay explains that Jesus was using a Jewish metaphor here:

It was the custom at a royal banquet for the king to hand the cup to his guests. The cup therefore became a metaphor for the life and experience that God handed out to men. “My cup overflows,” said the Psalmist (Psalm 23:5) …

Therefore, the cup that Jesus talks about here represents life. What has God poured into the cup that is your life?

Henri Nouwen has written very eloquently on this verse in his devotional book, Bread for the Journey. He says…
“Can we drink the cup?” is the most challenging and radical question we can ask ourselves. The cup is the cup of life, full of sorrows and joys. Can we hold our cups and claim them as our own? Can we lift our cups to offer blessings to others, and can we drink our cups to the bottom as cups that bring us salvation?
Keeping this question alive in us is one of the most demanding spiritual exercises we can practice.
Holding the Cup

Not only has Henri Nouwen written on this question in Bread for the Journey, but he has written an entire book on this one question. His meditations on this question have been so meaningful to me, that I am using his thoughts as the outline and substance of my sermon today. After talking about the Cup of Life, Henri talks about Holding the Cup….

We all must hold the cups of our lives. As we grow older and become more fully aware of the many sorrows of life – personal failures, family conflicts, disappointments in work and social life, and the many pains surrounding us on the national and international scene – everything within and around us conspires to make us ignore, avoid, suppress, or simply deny these sorrows. “Look at the sunny side of life and make the best of it,” we say to ourselves and hear others say to us. But when we want to drink the cups of our lives, we need first to hold them, to fully acknowledge what we are living, trusting that by not avoiding but befriending our sorrows we will discover the true joy we are looking for right in the midst of our sorrows.
How are you doing at holding the cup of your life? Did you know that you can ask for Jesus’ help to hold your cup well? The same Jesus who drank the cup of suffering for you and for me can help each of us to hold the cup of our lives steady.

Lifting the Cup

Secondly, Henri Nouwen talks about Lifting the Cup…

When we hold firm our cups of life, fully acknowledging their sorrows and joys, we will also be able to lift our cups in human solidarity. Lifting our cups means that we are not ashamed of what we are living, and this gesture encourages others to befriend their truths as we are trying to befriend ours. By lifting up our cups and saying to each other, “To life” or “To your health,” we proclaim that we are willing to look truthfully at our lives together. Thus, we can become a community of people encouraging one another to fully drink the cups that have been given to us in the conviction that they will lead us to true fulfillment.

It is one thing to hold the cup of our lives steady. It is another thing to lift the cup of our lives with joy and transparency. Jesus, who lifted up the cup of his life that all people might be drawn to him for salvation, can enable us to lift the cup of our lives in joyful service to others.

Drinking the Cup

Thirdly, Henri Nouwen talks about Drinking the Cup….
After firmly holding the cups of our lives and lifting them up as signs of hope for others, we have to drink them. Drinking our cups means fully appropriating and interiorizing what each of us has acknowledged as our life, with all its unique sorrows and joys.
How do we drink our cups? We drink them as we listen in silence to the truth of our lives, as we speak in trust with friends about ways we want to grow, and as we act in deeds of service. Drinking our cups is following freely and courageously God’s call and staying faithfully on the path that is ours. Thus our life cups become the cups of salvation. When we have emptied them to the bottom, God will fill them with “water” for eternal life.
What is God’s call upon your life? What has he called you to drink of life’s experiences? Each of us may be somewhat unique in our calling, but Jesus can help us, no matter who we are, no matter what we are experiencing. Jesus can help us to handle all that this life throws at us. Jesus can help us to drink our cup of life to the bottom.





Emptiness and Fullness

This all may sound unduly negative. I remember that in the community where we lived outside of Pittsburgh there was a Catholic Church called “Mother of Sorrows”. I used to think that was the most depressing name for a church that I could imagine.

But Christianity has this in its favor—Christianity does not try to cover up the painful, the sorrowful, side of life. Christianity faces the negative side of life head on, because Jesus faced it head on. And Christianity offers something more. As Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Jesus helps us to drink the cup of life with both realism and optimism.

Allow me to share some concluding thoughts on this from Henri Nouwen. Henri says,
Emptiness and fullness at first seem complete opposites. But in the spiritual life they are not. In the spiritual life we find the fulfillment of our deepest desires by becoming empty for God.
We must empty the cups of our lives completely to be able to receive the fullness of life from God. Jesus lived this on the cross. The moment of complete emptiness and complete fullness become the same. When he had given all away to his Abba, his dear Father, he cried out, “It is fulfilled” (John 19:30). He who was lifted up on the cross was also lifted into the resurrection. He who had emptied and humbled himself was raised up and “given the name above all other names” (see Philippians 2:7-9). Let us keep listening to Jesus’ question: “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” (Matthew 20:22).
Let me close with the words of another poem, by Martha Snell Nicholson, that my father often used to quote:

One by one He took them from me,
All the things I valued most,
Until I was empty-handed;
Every glittering toy was lost.
And I walked earth’s highways, grieving,
In my rags and poverty.
Till I heard His voice inviting,
“Lift your empty hands to Me!”
So I held my hands toward heaven,
And He filled them with a store
Of His own transcendent riches,
Till they could contain no more.
And at last I comprehended
With my stupid mind and dull,
That God could not pour His riches
Into hands already full!

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