According to a recent headline, the total amount of human knowledge is doubling approximately every 13 months. And now, with the help of the internet, we are quickly on our way to doubling knowledge every 12 hours. By comparison, in 1900, it would take about 100 years for human knowledge to double in volume. We are now talking about a matter of hours. That statistic is mind blowing. But this new speed feels true even without statistics. We receive a constant stream of information. Our phones and even our watches buzz or ding with incoming messages and breaking news. The expanding source of new information is impossible to keep up with. And there are more and more notices trying to grab our attention. We have wearable technology that reminds us to breathe and track our calories and exercise. I love these kind of wellness metrics, but sometimes it’s a bit much. I find my smart watch to be, frankly, a little judgmental. If I’ve had a sedentary day at my desk, I’ll get a message in the evening that says, “There is still time to reach you move goals. Just go for a quick five-hour jog before bed!” With all of these messages constantly coming in, in our home we refer to the current state of affairs as being “over-notified.”
Now, clearly the increase of human knowledge and our access to it are breathtaking. Yet for all of our advancements, not everything can be googled, or googled well. There are some questions that cannot be answered instantly. There are some fears that cannot be soothed by scrolling on a phone. Take, for example, something as personal as a new diagnosis, or something as collective as climate change. Unknown futures of any kind cause us anxiety. We want reassurance, and we want knowledge of how it will go. We want information. But, sometimes what we actually need is wisdom. It would be easy at this point to launch into a tirade about the perils of technology addiction and what looks like our diminishing attentions spans. But, the problem of wanting quick answers to deeper questions is at least as old as today’s Gospel story.
As far as questions go, I think James and John get the award for the tackiest question in all of scripture. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus has just predicted his death and resurrection for the third time. Two disciples break the silence in what is perhaps the most awkward way possible. They approach Jesus with, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” They ask to be granted the privilege of sitting on his right hand and on his left in his glory. James and John seem to be flat-out avoiding the ominous subject of his own death that Jesus keeps bringing up. “Let’s talk about something more cheerful,” they seem to be saying, “about what it will be like when this is all over” (Robert Capon).
James and John come across as crass or, at least, clueless in their ambition. The irony is that there will be two at Jesus’ left and right – the thieves who will be crucified next to him. “You do not know what you are asking,” says Jesus in an understatement. But then, Jesus doesn’t lecture them about their awkward ambition or lack of sensitivity. He responds to what’s really going on.
Three verses earlier, Mark provides a major clue to unlocking the story beyond blind or dumb ambition. The verse reads, “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.” It turns out that James and John are scared. The road ahead is unclear. They know a crisis is coming because of Jesus’ unsettling predictions. And their fate as his followers is unknown. They want to alleviate their anxiety, so they ask him their question. How will it be for us? It’s a question we all ask, an anxiety that we all know.
I hear two remarkable things in Jesus’ response. The first is a promise, which isn’t that all will be well, but that Jesus will be with us. The language he uses here is strange and poetic, that of a shared cup and a shared baptism with him. That sounds like church to me, like sacraments. And it rings true. Out of the blue, a friend recently wrote a letter about how he has experienced the presence of Jesus here at Christ Church. I know what he means, as I have felt that, too. For all that goes wrong in our lives, in our world, and for all our subsequent anxiety, there is a holy presence with us.
The second amazing thing Jesus says to the disciples after their awkward question is that how we usually measure our worth or success is completely wrong. Maybe it’s from living in an over-notified world, but we worry about just about everything – the news, how well we will do, how smart or funny or good we are, how much security or health we have or don’t have, about whether we pray well enough or whether we get 10,000 steps in a day. Our devices keep us in that anxious and steady stream. To all of that Jesus gives this advice: those who want to be great must be servants. It’s counter-intuitive advice. But it’s true.
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Remember that he is on the way to the cross. Greatness for Jesus looks like the full offering of himself out of love. That’s the opposite of just about any way we try to measure greatness. The cross represents a love so profound that it cannot be calculated or quantified. You’re looking for some ground to stand on in your anxiety? asks Jesus. Look to that love. You did not earn it, nor can you earn it by working harder. But it’s yours anyway, a free gift. The cross is Jesus’ answer to a question that James and John didn’t even know how to ask very well. And that love freely and fully given on the cross is the answer to our own deepest and only partially articulated questions.
As an anxious lot, we will probably keep trying to measure indicators of how it will be for us. We want quick answers to our deepest questions, and we want to be notified immediately. Our wisdom does not seem to be doubling as quickly as our information. But Christ is patient with us. And since we will always want some kind of metric for the wellness of our souls, he went ahead and suggested a unit of measurement we can use. We can measure by the cross. If there is something for us to work on or to increase, it’s our own cross-shaped love for one another and for this complicated world we live in. We might just see results that resemble the rapid increase of human knowledge. Perhaps love itself will pick up the pace.