I can almost hear Jesus laughing to himself at the audacity of his close disciples, James and John. Instead of coming to Jesus with listening ears, with questioning minds, with teachable hearts, James and John come to Jesus with marching orders: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Well, Jesus may have been among his disciples as one who serves, but that doesn’t mean he was there to be bossed around!
Perhaps with some bemusement, Jesus asks, “What is it you want me to do for you?” James and John ask for a huge share of Jesus’ glory. They want seats of honor right next to Jesus at the messianic banquet. Jesus responds to their request with a question of his own: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus wants to know whether James and John are prepared to swallow everything that Jesus must swallow, and to immerse themselves in everything poured out over Jesus as servant and savior of the world. James and John are very confident that they can drink their share of Jesus’ cup, and they say, “We are able.”
But then Jesus changes the whole focus of his disciples from pursuing glory and a place at the heavenly banquet to drinking their share of his cup. Jesus knows that drinking the cup that he drinks won’t be nearly as easy for them as they expect. In fact, even Jesus has a hard time drinking the cup that has been set before him. But drinking the cup set before us is the hard work that Jesus asks us to do.
How can we prepare ourselves to drink the cup that Jesus drinks? I think we can start by drinking the cup of our own lives that God has given to each of us. Throughout the Bible, the cup given to us represents three main things. First, the cup contains the blessings that enrich our lives. Second, the cup contains the judgment of God on our unjust ways. And third, the cup contains the suffering that we each experience over the course of our lives. Each of us receives our own mixture of blessing, of challenging judgment, and of suffering that we can choose to drink fully—or not. As we prepare ourselves to drink a share of the cup of Jesus, we can practice by drinking the cup set before us.
The good news is that our cup often holds tastes of God’s goodness. The Psalmist praises God for the contents of his cup, saying “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage” (Psalm 16:5-6). The Psalmist’s cup is his trust in God, and he experiences God as a source of a secure dwelling place in this life. Another Psalm praises God after recovery from illness. The Psalmist is so grateful to have survived, to be alive in this world, and to have experienced God’s bounty. In response, the Psalmist says that he’ll raise a glass to God, saying, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:3).
When we find good things in our cup, when we recover from sickness or losses, can we really drink these in? Savor them to the last drop? Lift our cup to God in thanks and celebration? This joy and gratitude is part of preparation to drink from the cup offered to us by Jesus.
Our cup also contains things that are harder to swallow, though. One of these hard-to-swallow things is the judgment of God for our share of the world’s injustice. The Psalmist calls this a cup of “foaming wine” that the wicked will have to drink down to the last dregs (Psalm 75:8). In the book of Lamentations, this cup passes to people who have “shed the blood of the righteous” (Lamentations 4:13, 22). The prophet Habbakuk warns that “the cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around” to those who show wrath to their neighbors (Habbakuk 2:15-16).
This cup contains a fierce judgment on the ways that we harm or fail other people, and for the ways that we turn from the love of God toward the worship of material things. When we drink from this cup, we accept accountability—responsibility for our share in the suffering of others, and for our betrayal of God’s ways. We choke down the consequences of failing to live as God’s people, until God mercifully takes this cup from our hands.
But there is still more in the cup that God offers: the suffering that we will experience in this life. The suffering in this cup is not deserved. Perhaps it’s the result of a clear injustice, or simply a disease or loss or disaster for which there is no reason. But when we drink from this cup, we experience suffering with the hope that it could deepen our love for and dependence on God. It’s this cup that Jesus asks his Father to remove from him, but which he finally accepts (Mark 14:36).
We all have our own cups to drink, our own portions of this life. And our cups will all contain a different mix of blessing, judgment, and suffering over the course of our lives. We all get a different brew. Sometimes the cup is forced on us, but oftentimes we can choose whether we will fully drink our cup with thanksgiving, with repentance, and with acceptance.
Drinking the cup of our own lives is just the beginning, though. Jesus also invites us to drink from his cup—the cup that he asks James and John whether they’ll be able to drink. James and John think they can drink the whole thing in one swig. In reality, most of us probably can’t handle more than a sip from this cup at a time.
A drink from this cup may increase our share of suffering. But it may also cause our own cups to overflow with blessing, for this is the cup that is served to others, poured out for the life of the world. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” asks Christ. With less over-confidence than James and John, but with thankful, repentant, and accepting hearts, we can say with these disciples of Christ, “We are able.”