St. James, the Cupbearer
Text: Mark 10:35-45
St. James, Elder, Apostle
Cupbearers have a varied history in the Old Testament. It was a very important servant position in the ancient world. A position that required trust to the highest levels. There was the cupbearer whose dream was interpreted by Joseph while in prison. He was in prison for having lost the trust of Pharaoh. He would eventually work things out with his king and be reinstated. Then there was Nehemiah cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. He never did lose his trust, and was given the opportunity to lead the remnant of Israel back to Jerusalem.
And today we meet another cupbearer (of a sort) ... James the brother of John, a member of the inner trio of apostles to Christ and the first of the 12 to be martyred for the trust he had placed in Jesus. And his career as cupbearer would be mixed at best, by most people’s evaluations. “But, wait” you may be saying, “I thought James and John were fishermen?” “So when did he become a cupbearer?” It happened in our text when 38Jesus said to [James and John], “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?
That was the job of a cupbearer. To drink from the cup of the king, to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. To give one’s life (potentially) for the king. When Jesus asks James and his brother John about drinking the cup, He was asking if they were willing to die for Him. And that, exactly as James and John promised, is what happened to St. James the elder. As we read from Acts: 2[Herod] killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread.
Now, did James and John understand what they were agreeing to in being the Lord’s cupbearer? Did they only see it as a sign of wealth and power and sharing in the rich feast of Christ’s table? Did James understand, really and truly, what it means to be a servant of Jesus? Do we? Did any of the disciples? No, if the reaction of the other ten is anything to go by.
41And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. 42And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.
To be a follower of Christ is to be a servant of all. To be humble first and foremost. Being a servant or a slave is not very enviable, yet that is what it means to be His disciples. Christ and His concerns come first. And then because His concerns take precedence, so too does the welfare of every other person. First God and His Christ, then every other person, and last and only then comes the self. The ten were not ready for it. How about you? To be a servant for others is never easy, but those who humble themselves and serve others will receive special honour from the Lord. But even that honour is not what we often think.
For that special honour given to the most humble of servants is that we might share in our Lord’s suffering! 38Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”39And they said to him, “We are able.” And 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, 45For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
It is clear if you step back from your self-serving heart for just a moment, that the cup Jesus is speaking of is a reference to suffering and baptism here in this context clearly means death. To be a cupbearer for Christ is to be ready willing and blessed to suffer and die for His sake. Is that a potion you are ready to quaff? Could James go through suffering and death as Jesus would? Can we? And I understand that in asking the question all that could be said is Who in their right mind would say NO? But at the same time, Who in their right mind would want the answer to really and truly be yes? But the way of discipleship is always one of suffering and for some even martyrdom. To follow Christ is to deny ourselves, take up the cross and be willing to lose all for the kingdom already gained in Him.
And that last is the key! Jesus, the very Son of God humbled Himself to serve us and others. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary to place Himself under God’s Law. He humbled Himself to the point of getting down on His knees to wash the feet of His disciples. He humbly suffered the agony of hell as He hung from the cross under the weight of our sin heaped upon Him. He gave His precious life as a ransom for one and all that we might be saved! He drank the poisoned brew of our sin and death down to the bitter dregs so that He would die instead of us. The king becomes our cupbearer so we, like kings might be spared the pain of poison and death. By doing so we are forgiven and granted a place in the eternal kingdom, no matter our humble or troubled lot in this life.
For that is the final thing to know about servants. The good ones are rewarded. 37“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 40[Jesus said] 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.”
There ARE rewards for God’s faithful servants, like James. We have peace and comfort even in trials and suffering because our sins are forgiven and we are still beloved children of God through Faith in Jesus Christ. Not only that, there are the rewards of heaven ... we will sit and eat and drink with the Lord at His table, no longer as only trusted servants but as honoured guests! We will live in His home and sing His praises under His everlasting protection.
James got what he asked for. He was allowed to be the Lord’s cupbearer. He was blessed to live and suffer and die for His Lord. His life is a humble example for each of us who look forward to the fulfilling of Jesus’ promise: 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.