Lectionary 29B, October 21, 2018
Isaiah 53:4-12, Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Gospel of Mark, although the first Gospel written, was first completed about 70AD, forty years after Jesus’ death. At that point, John was still alive, although James was not. He’d been killed in the year 44AD, the first of the Twelve Disciples to be martyred. Peter and Paul had also been killed by then, and Jesus’ brother James, and Stephen the Deacon, and others. So when this passage was first read aloud in its present form, and those first listeners heard how James and John had requested power and glory beside Jesus in his kingdom, and been given a call to serve and die instead, they understood it far better than we do today. They knew what service meant; they knew what giving your life away meant. The organized, widespread persecutions of Christians were yet to come, but it was already a dangerous thing to serve Christ, with consequences that could sometimes prove fatal. In the first few centuries after Jesus’ death, nobody became a Christian expecting wealth and power. The very idea would have been incomprehensible. If wealth and power are your goal, you do not choose to join a group whose founder and leader died in the most humiliatingly painful way possible, a group made up mostly of poor people, women, foreigners, outcasts, slaves, and other unesirables. If power and influence are your goal, you do not join a group dedicated to service and submission. Power and influence are the ways of the world. They are antithetical to the Christian life.
Christians today don’t really get this. Christianity has been the religion of the powerful for so long that we can hear Jesus’ words condemning worldly power and the behavior of the powerful, and not connect it to anything about our own behavior. We are used to power, and we don’t know what true sacrifice is. Or true persecution. I’ve had faithful Christians tell me that Christians are being persecuted because people say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” We Christians are fast losing our cultural power, it’s true, but being less powerful is not the same as being persecuted, and many Christians today follow James and John’s belief from our Gospel that power is something Christians should seek. We give lip service to serving others, we give lip service to “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” but we don’t really know what it means.
So let’s look at what Jesus meant, and what that looked like in his life and the lives of early Christians. For Jesus, service came in two forms: earthly service, and spiritual service, although he didn’t really separate them out that way. For Jesus, they seem to have been all the same. He healed the sick and forgave their sins at the same time. He fed the hungry. He built community wherever he went, eating with sinners and religious authorities. All were welcome. If any had a need—physical or spiritual—that he could fill, he did. And if any criticized him for doing so, he rebuked them regardless of their power. He taught anyone who would listen, regardless of who they were or what they had done in the past. He loved them all, and welcomed them even when society objected. He offended a lot of people by eating with sinners and outcasts. He did it anyway, because loving his neighbors—ALL his neighbors—was more important to him than cosying up to the powerful. If Jesus had spent less time building community with outcasts and welcoming the downtrodden and more time upholding the existing social order, the authorities probably wouldn’t have felt so threatened by him that they chose to execute him. But if he had sought earthly power, he wouldn’t have been able to reach the people who most needed him—the suffering, the sinners, the powerless.
In a very real way, his suffering and his death cannot be separated from his service. When Jesus says he came not to be served but to serve, he wasn’t being metaphorical. Everything he said and did was a service to others. And it all culminated in his death. He died to save the cosmos from sin and death, he died to redeem sinners, he died to serve the very people he had served in life: all people, of every tribe and race and class and category. His suffering was not random, not the whim of a cruel and indifferent taskmaster. Jesus suffered and died so that we might live. This is not suffering for the sake of suffering. Jesus came that we all—every human being ever created—might have life, and have it abundantly, both in this life and the next. And he was willing to put in the work to make it happen, by serving people, body and soul, through feeding, healing, teaching, forgiving, and finally, by dying and rising again at Easter.
The early church followed Jesus far more closely than we do today. The early church didn’t seek power or wealth; the early church served. They fed the hungry, healed the sick, visited prisoners, and created communities in which nobody could lord it over anyone else. They weren’t perfect; they were still sinful humans just like us, and they failed often, but by and large they worked to create communities where all were welcome, where all could hear the good news of Jesus Christ, and where hungry people were fed, sick people healed, naked people clothed, lonely people befriended, and nobody abused or abandoned or neglected. And together, as the Body of Christ in the world, they did amazing things. Just as Christians have done amazing things throughout history whenever we have let go of our own selfish expectations and truly devoted ourselves to following Jesus no matter where he leads.
And, just as people had been suspicious of Jesus for his service, people were suspicious of those early Christians. Everybody wants power, or so the Roman Empire thought; so if Christians don’t seem to be seeking power the traditional way, they must be trying to overthrow the current order and set themselves up instead. So Christians were persecuted. Many were killed. But still they kept serving. St. Lawrence is my favorite example of the early church. Lawrence was a deacon, which means “servant.” He coordinated the church’s ministry in Rome. It was his job to go out into the city, figure out what poor people needed, and help them get it. He fed the hungry, clothed the naked, prayed for the sick and brought the medicine they needed. Lawrence did anything and everything he could to see that everyone in his city had what they needed. And, in so doing, he was publicly known as a Christian, and so when persecution started, he was one of the first brought to trial. Now, because he was the head deacon, Lawrence was also in charge of all the money the church collected for charity. And the judge knew that. So the judge said, “I’ll let you go, if you give me the treasure of your church.” Lawrence agreed, and said he would need a day to collect it. So the judge released him.
The next day, Lawrence returned with the treasure of the church: all the poor people he served. You see, Lawrence didn’t care for riches, or power; Lawrence cared for the grace and mercy of God. Lawrence knew that the Christian life is not about safety or security, not about power or wealth or glory, but about service. And when there is a conflict between the powers of this world and service to God, well, we’re not called to serve the powers of this world. He followed Jesus’ example, and like Jesus, he was executed. Legend says he was roasted alive over a griddle, and that his last words were “turn me over, I’m done on that side!”
We live in a much different world than those early Christians. Nobody here will ever be in danger of being executed for being a Christian. We won’t lose our jobs, or homes, or anything like that. We have it a lot easier than Lawrence did! And yet, we’ve forgotten what it means to truly serve. Like James and John, we’ve let the world’s love of power and glory guide our views and goals, instead of Christ’s call to service. We are seldom willing to follow Christ if it means going outside our comfort zone, or lowering our status, or dealing with people who are different from us. And I wonder, what would it look like if we changed that. What would it look like, if we put following Christ and serving the world at the top of our priority list? What would it look like if we stopped judging by the world’s standards of power and glory and wealth and influence?