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A Growing Understanding
March 27, 1988


Hi! My name is James. I was one of Jesus' original twelve disciples. I was invited to come here this morning and share some of my reflections, and my growing understanding, of the time I spent with Jesus. I've had lots of time to reflect on the three years I spent with Jesus. Those three years were the highlight of my life. My brother and I were really privileged to spend those three years with Jesus. We thought we were really special, and I'm afraid it went to our heads.

Jesus thought we were special; after all, he chose us, along with ten others, to be his "Special 12," his disciples. But, I didn't understand what it meant. No way! I was way off base. I was so dense. What Jesus was really about took so long to sink in!

Let me tell you my story, and you'll see what I mean. Would you like to hear it? You can read it out of the Book, but I understand you folks like to hear these accounts first-hand.

My brother John and I (my name is James) were fishing. That was our job. We caught and sold fish in partnership with Simon, whose name Jesus changed to Peter. John and I owned a boat and Simon Peter owned a boat. One morning we were washing our nets after a night of lousy fishing. We usually fished at night. Jesus was speaking, and there were so many people wanting to hear, they crowded against him, practically backing him into the lake. So Jesus got into Peter's boat, and asked if Peter would push him out into the water a short way, so he could sit in the boat and talk to the people.

After Jesus had finished speaking, he told Peter to take the boat out a little further and let the nets down. Peter laughed and told Jesus we had been fishing all night and had caught nothing. "Man, they just aren't biting!" But Jesus insisted that he try again, so Peter figured what could he lose. Well, he put down the nets, and caught a whole school of fish. There were so many fish he couldn't pull the net in by himself. He hollered for help, so my brother John and I jumped in our boat, and went out to help. There were so many fish, we filled both boats so full they started to sink!

We were astonished. Peter was actually a little afraid. What kind of man was this, who could even control fish! Jesus said to us, "Don't be afraid. Come, follow me, and I will make you a new kind of fisherman. From now on, you will be catching people instead of fish." And you know what? We left everything, just dropped everything, and followed him. I wanted some adventure in my life. I wanted to give my all to a cause. I wanted to make my life count.

Did I feel special! Wouldn't you? My father, Zebedee, thought we were nuts. John and I were the sons of Zebedee. We didn't have surnames in those days, like you do. Jesus called us the sons of Thunder. We did everything together. We grew up together, played together, went into business together, and then we followed Jesus together.

And when Jesus named his "Special 12", we were included. Can you imagine how special I thought I was; but, oh, I had so much to learn. Those were the days--great days, huge crowds, miracles, healings, and we three who were in business together--Peter, John and I--were often singled out by Jesus.

One time Jesus took the three of us to the top of a mountain. It proved to be a profound spiritual experience. We climbed a mountain, high above everyone. There was no one else around. It was a beautiful day, clear blue sky, a few clouds, a gentle wind, a refreshing day, not too hot. Jesus wanted to pray. Often he felt the need to get away from the crowds, and go on a retreat with his close friends. Like I said, we three were his close friends. We were real special.

Well, there we were on top of the mountain. Jesus was praying, and suddenly, his robe got whiter and whiter. It just glistened in the sun. There was an aura, a white light, all about him. He was changed, transformed, transfigured--there doesn't seem to be a word for it. Then two figures appeared and began talking with him. We just knew they were Elijah and Moses. We stood there with our mouths open, not believing this was happening. We were awe-struck, dumfounded. Then a voice spoke out of a cloud, really a voice. It was not a figment of our imagination, for we all heard it, plain as day. We all couldn't have the same dream at the same time, could we? No, we heard this voice out of the cloud distinctly and clearly say, "This is my beloved Son; listen to him." And then, suddenly, everything was back to normal. The figures disappeared; the glistening, shining, bright light was gone. Jesus told us not to tell anyone, which I was glad to do, for who would believe us? And how would I explain it? You know, I really believe it was at that moment Jesus really understood why he had come. Things came together for him as he realized the full impact of his coming, and he then began sharing with us what was going to happen to him, which we didn't understand.

Another time Jesus chose Peter, John and me to be with him on his last night on earth, when he went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. He asked us to go with him further into the garden, and to wait with him while he prayed. He wanted us to be with him. He wanted his close friends nearby. He knew what was going to happen to him, but we didn't understand. I feel so ashamed when I recall how we fell asleep. There he was praying, praying so hard his sweat was like drops of blood; there he was agonizing over the turn of events, agonizing over the future of his cause, agonizing over his probable death; and we fell asleep. I still feel ashamed.

Anyway, the reason I tell you about these incidents is to show you how special I thought I was. Not only was I selected out of all his followers to be in the "Special 12", but I was selected to be in his inner group of special friends. So you can understand how I thought I was special, and why John and I did a dumb thing. Keep in mind, please, we were dense. We really yet didn't know and didn't understand. Only afterwards and through the years is my understanding growing.

Actually the dumb thing we did was Mother's idea. You know how mothers are! They want the best for their boys. They fight battles for their boys. As I think about the incident, I get embarrassed; but you've all heard about it, so I may as well be honest and hope it will help you increase your understanding of Jesus.

My Mother took John and me to see Jesus. She knelt before him, which was a surprise to Jesus. She had us in each hand, keeping her boys close to her. Jesus asked her what she wanted. She said, "When you come into your kingdom, when you come in your glory, let these two sons of mine sit next to you, one on the right, and one on the left." You understand she wasn't just talking about the seating arrangement; she was talking about power. Those who sit beside the king have power. She was asking Jesus if John and I might be his prime ministers, or perhaps his Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. I was going to say "Vice President", but I understand the Vice-President in your system doesn't have much power--yet! Unless he can get elected president.

Well, John and I were embarrassed on one hand; but, on the other hand, we thought it would be nice to have the special places. After all, we had given up our fishing business. And because Jesus treated us so special-like, we thought we were being groomed for a big reward. But, we didn't understand. After all those years of traveling with Jesus, after all those years of listening to his talks, and gabbing with him around the evening campfires with a cup of wine, we still didn't understand.

Jesus looked at my mother, he looked at John, he looked at me, and said, "You don't know what you're asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" I suppose we should have asked, "What cup?" Or, we should have said, "Please explain further." But, we just glibly answered, "We are able." We figured we had been loyal. Whatever Jesus drank, we could drink. Whatever was dealt to Jesus, we could take. You see, we still didn't understand he was going to die. That's what he meant by drinking the cup. We missed the point.

You can imagine the reaction of the other ten disciples when they heard what mother had done! She had beat them to the punch, you see. They all had designs on the prominent seats! The Book says, "They were indignant at the two brothers." That's an understatement. Indignant! They practically killed us! But Jesus calmed us all down, and told us what his mission was all about, trying to help us understand.

Jesus said, "You know how the Romans rule their people. The leaders exercise high-handed authority, and lord it over their subjects. But that's not the way my kingdom will operate. There won't be any lords. There won't be any seats on the right hand, or on the left hand. In my kingdom, whoever would be great among you must be your servant. Whoever would be first among you must be your slave." Jesus was saying that those who are great in the kingdom, those who are great in the church, those who are great in God's plan, are those who serve, and give up their greatness. And then Jesus said, "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

I'm still trying to understand the full ramification of what Jesus meant. My understanding is growing. I wanted to be the prime minister. I wanted the power. I left my fishing job for the adventure, yes, but I had visions of glory. I had visions of making a name for myself. I wanted my name in lights. I wanted full recognition for all I had done. I had given up my business, and I expected to be rewarded. I was sure there was a pyramid structure in Jesus' kingdom with Jesus at the pinnacle, and I could see John and myself on the next level down. But, Jesus said there are no pyramids in his kingdom. There is no hierarchical structure. People are not organized according to pecking orders. Jesus is talking about a complete reversal of the way we usually operate.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the people hailed him as king and shouted "Hosanna!" But Jesus had not come to rule; he had come to serve. I was called not to rule, but to serve. I was called, not to be a prince among men, but a servant among disciples. I was called, not to be the prime minister in a hierarchy, but a servant of slaves, Samaritans, women, and other outcasts. I was called, not to lord it over outcasts and oppressed people; but to be their servant, to act on their behalf, not on my behalf. I was called, not to pride, but to humility. I was called, not to be lofty, but to be lowly. I was called, not to wealth, but simple living and sharing. I was called, not to consume, but to give. I was called, not to ease and comfort, but to danger and hardship. And, through it all, I was called to joy. What joy I experienced with Jesus--walking, talking, learning, partying, serving with Jesus! There is no greater joy than the joy that comes from following Jesus.

Where are you on your walk with Jesus? What is your growing understanding of what Jesus is calling you to be and do?

© 1988 Douglas I. Norris