Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pentecost 16 Sermon -- Mark 9:30-37 (LSB Proper 20B)

September 20, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran ChurchMechanicsburg, PA

Jesus sat down and called the Twelve. And He said to them: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”

The disciples of Jesus follow Him down the road to Capernaum. But it is no silent trip. A heated conversation takes place. Claims and counterclaims are made. Each of the Twelve makes statements about the greatest among them—whether each one lays claim to the title or renders judgment about another’s boast. Disagreement is found all the way to Capernaum.

Of course, the Twelve do not argue in front of Jesus. No, they attempt to keep out of earshot. But Jesus knows about their discussion: “They came to Capernaum. And when [Jesus] was in the house He asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.”

Such an argument is not to be found among Jesus’ followers. It is especially so for those who are to be leaders among Jesus’ people. What motivates any argument about who is the greatest? Is it not pride, jealousy, envy, covetousness? But these are not virtues; they are the worst of vices. Listen to what James said about them: “If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”

James’ words accurately depict what transpired among the Twelve on their journey to Capernaum. Even in the presence of Jesus, there was “disorder” and “vile practices” with the Twelve’s argument. So it will be in this congregation of Jesus’ followers if jealousy and selfish ambition rule the day. James’ words describe the terrible aspects of that disorder: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”

But Jesus provides the way out of the morass created by His disciples. He provides the answer to the argument they had, just as He provides the solution to the same arguments that run through this congregation. Who is the greatest? Jesus tells them: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus’ answer turns the argument on its head. The Twelve’s discussion about greatness did not involve taking the last place or service. And yet, Jesus says that is how one becomes first.

“If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” This criterion is clear and total. First place is only given when an individual is last and is a complete, perfect servant. But that criterion is unattainable. Who can be last of all? How is that calculated? Every time a new individual is encountered, must there be an immediate ranking, like the football polls? And just who does that ranking? Who can be servant of all? There are individuals who will never be met. How can they be served? Jesus’ answer is given, but the Twelve cannot meet its criterion and neither can you.

Yet, Jesus does provide the solution to the Twelve’s argument about greatness and to our conflicts which stem from bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus speaks about Himself. He is the greatest. He is first. He meets the criterion. And He had told the Twelve about it on the road to Capernaum before their argument had even begun: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And when He is killed, after three days He will rise.” That is how Jesus is last of all and servant of all.

Jesus’ prediction of His death and resurrection shows His humility and exaltation. Though the Eternal Son of God, Jesus puts Himself under the Law and the limitations of earthly life. Though Ruler of all, Jesus allows Himself to be betrayed by one of His disciples and condemned by a Roman governor. Though the Source of life, Jesus lets Himself be killed. For by these actions, Jesus becomes last and the perfect servant, carrying the guilt of the world, offering Himself as the sacrifice for past, present, and future humanity. But by these actions, Jesus becomes first: “after three days He will rise,” being exalted by the Eternal Father and placed as Head of the Church, having dominion over all things.

Jesus’ answer to the Twelve’s argument about greatness shows that His disciples’ question had no foundation. None of them was greatest. None of them would be first. For they all were disciples—students and followers. They all had a Master. They were all subservient and inferior to Jesus, so none could be called the highest. And all would be served by Jesus’ sacrificial acts, so their status was the same.

This is true for you also. Each of you as Jesus’ disciples and recipients of His salvation has the same status. None is greater than another. Certainly, there are earthly ranks and arrangements. In that sphere of life, one can measure greatness. As the Church exists partially as an earthly institution, there are ranks in it: We have bishops, senior pastors, head deacons, congregational chairmen, council and board members. But in the spiritual realm, there is One who is first—Jesus Christ—and His disciples are all peers with each other.

Such a concept is not in the thinking of the world. Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition are, just as James wrote. But the measure of greatness that Jesus gives comes down from above. It stands in contrast to the Twelve’s argument and the discord that creeps into this congregation, like it crept into the community that James oversaw. As you have received Jesus’ teaching and through it the Holy Spirit has delivered salvation to you, so this wisdom from above has been made yours.

So James exhorts you based upon Jesus’ teaching: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. . . . The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” Jesus’ wisdom bears His characteristics. And so will all who have been given that same wisdom and act according to it.

That is what you are called to. “Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” are the opposite of that calling, since they are “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” The Twelve’s argument on the road to Capernaum is not an example to follow. But the Greatest One has taken the last place and has served them and you, so that you may share in His salvation. He calls you to follow Him and to live in the wisdom He has given to you, a life of humble obedience.

So live according to the true and good way of life that Jesus provides. James speaks about its penitential and humble character: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you.”

Acknowledge your sinfulness—your bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, pride—and all that flows from it, including the discord in the Church that it sparks. Admit that you need Jesus’ service and receive it, just as you do this morning, hearing divine words that give life and transform your will and actions. Then live among His followers, knowing that you are all equally guilty, but equally forgiven by Jesus, your Master.

Led by the Spirit of God and what He delivers to you, you will abide in divine wisdom, acting upon it in this congregation of Jesus’ believers. You and every single disciple of Jesus have been redeemed because of what happened for you: the Son of Man was delivered into the hands of men, was killed by them, and after three days rose again. You have that status, because by these acts of service for you, Jesus became first and has given you the way of life. That life is led in the meekness of His wisdom: humility that leads to eternal exaltation.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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