September 23, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“And they came to Capernaum. And when He 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.”
James wrote to fellow Christians about all sorts of discord that was among them: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” How true those words are! They describe the condition that befalls many groups of individuals. Think on what you have experienced or what you know about groups: corporations, fraternities, political organizations, families, even congregations. Each of them stresses a uniting bond that is meant to be developed and nurtured: business objectives, friendship, a platform, welfare, the mission of Christ. As the uniting bond is maintained, then the goals are met.
But what transpires when the uniting bond is not maintained? What occurs when individuals who belong to that group begin to pursue personal agendas or emphasize their own status over the groups’ interests? Discord, strife, and schism all arise. The division often rises because one or more individuals in the group believe that they are of better quality or worth than the other members. Their own desires should be met, whether that benefits the other people who are bound with them. That is what James speaks of: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”
And just what does that disorder look like? What are the vile practices that exist? James fleshes them out: “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.” The elder’s words give a vivid description of what boils up in the hearts of those who are full of jealousy and selfish ambition. Acting on those thoughts leads to the disorder and vile practices.
These are the issues that are present among you. They are the hazards that hover around you and the groups that you belong to, even in this congregation of people who belong to the Lord. It has been for millennia. In ancient Judah, the jealousy and selfish ambition of those who would not abide by the Lord’s ways and hear His prophets led to the plot of murder against Jeremiah. So you heard in the Old Testament Reading: “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, ‘Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.’” The same condition was found among the Twelve Disciples, as you heard in the Gospel Reading: “They came to Capernaum. And when He 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.”
Both of these narratives reveal the problems of jealousy and selfish ambition. The people of Judah wanted to be self-determinative, to decide what was good and righteous for themselves. It led to their idolatry and apostasy. The Twelve wanted to determine rank among themselves, to decide which of them was worth more or should be considered greater. And in both incidents, the jealousy and selfish ambition—sinful thoughts—led to discord and vile practices—sinful actions. And so it is for you, because of your sinful thoughts that lead to your sinful actions.
But what is descriptive about you—that reality of imperfection and sin and unrighteousness—is not descriptive about the Lord Jesus Christ. That is made clear in the Gospel Reading for today. What did you hear concerning Jesus? What description was given about His heart and mind? First, there was the statement about what He would undergo: “The disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee. And [Jesus] did not want anyone to know, for He was teaching His disciples, saying to them, ‘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.’” Jesus would be the victim of people’s jealousy and selfish ambitions. Yet, He goes to suffer that fate willingly. He undergoes humiliation as His desire to bring salvation to the world.
Second, you also heard about the response Jesus gives to the argument that His disciples were having: “He 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.’” Jesus speaks to the thoughts of greatness that the Twelve were having. He takes their thoughts about rank and honor and turns it on their head. Where is greatness found? Not in jealousy, but humility. Who will be first? Not the one following selfish ambition, but the one who follows the path of servitude. And in these words Jesus discloses His own character and the thoughts that will drive His actions. He will act in a way that does not breed disorder and every vile practice, but will bring reconciliation and virtue instead. For that is what Jesus’ life brings to this world and to humanity, what He brings to you.
Jesus’ statements to the Twelve reveal the wisdom that come from above. It is the wisdom that stands in contrast to the world. It stands in contrast to your own nature. And what is this wisdom from above like? This is what James writes: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” These are the words that speak of Jesus’ character. They tell of what He is like for you who are the very opposite. And there is a result of this: “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” That is the result of Jesus’ work that culminates in His offering Himself in humble sacrifice for you: the harvest of righteousness comes and is made to be yours by His making peace between God and mankind.
So the message comes to you this morning: Repent. Acknowledge your own jealousy and selfish ambition. That truth accurately describes you. Confess how you have engaged in disorder and every vile practice: “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.” What the Lord says stands true: “He yearns jealously over the spirit that He has made to dwell in us.” He is concerned about your salvation, especially for you who have been given His Spirit but who also manifest the existence of everything opposite of it.
But that message of repentance is coupled with more statements about the Lord’s character that He exhibits toward you: “But He gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” There is an answer to the jealousy and selfish ambition that plague you. It is the receipt of the grace that the Lord offers to you in the manifold ways that His Gospel is given. All is not lost; the Spirit’s work is wrought in you. And the great work that is accomplished by the Spirit is the bringing of Jesus’ character to you—the righteousness that flows from His humility, from His service, from His making Himself nothing so that you can possess His greatness.
Jesus has fulfilled His promise. What Jesus said would transpire has taken place: He was delivered into the hands of men who killed Him, but He has been raised to life on the third day. What Jesus said about greatness has been accomplished by Him: He has been last of all and servant of all. This was done for you. It was done to answer and remedy the jealousy and selfish ambition found in you. Where these are found, there Jesus’ compassion and humility have been placed. The harvest of His righteousness has been sown in you. It is meant to be yours. And it will be as you humble yourselves to be recipients of goodness in the ways that Jesus has instituted: Gospel preached, baptism administered, absolution offered, meal eaten.
This is how the Lord brings to pass the promise He has made: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” It is how you are changed: “Humble yourselves before the Lord and He will exalt you.” Let those be the words that describe you, as you receive the wisdom that Jesus had brought from above. As you receive what Jesus brings and the work that His Spirit produces in you, then you will not be full of disorder and every vile practice. Instead, you will be conformed to the image of your Lord: “peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” That is the condition that you will want to befall you and this congregation.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.