The Sacrifice of Following Jesus

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?

Amen

What Would We Have Done?

Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 14, 2017

Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:1-10, John 14:1-14

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

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.  Amen.

In first-century Judea, there were problems.  First and most pressing was the problem of the Romans.  The Romans, who had conquered their country and ruled it with an iron fist.  The Romans, who imposed heavy taxes on ordinary people and used the money to build huge palaces and fund the very army that was oppressing the Jewish people.  As if that weren’t bad enough, the Romans were monotheists who wanted everybody else to worship their gods.  So while technically they allowed the Jewish people to worship their own God, the true god, they also pressured people to worship Zeus and Hera and Athena and all the rest.  They mocked Jewish customs and beliefs, and under this pressure many people turned away from their heritage.  Everything that had once made Judea great was under siege, and people were abandoning the very core of what it had always meant to be Jewish.

And then came along this new sect of Jewish people, who followed a guy named Jesus who had stirred up a lot of controversy.  And after his death, they … didn’t go away.  They declared that God had raised Jesus from the dead.  Worse than that, they claimed that this Jesus was God’s own son!  They worshipped this Jesus as God!  While still claiming to be good Jews!  Now, as any Jew could tell you, there is only ONE god, and that God is the Holy One of Israel.  There is no other God.  To claim otherwise was blasphemy.  And here are these people who still claim to be Jewish, who still claim to worship the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, who brought them home from exile, and yet they ALSO worship someone else?  Sure, they claimed Jesus was the Messiah sent by God, that he was part of the God their people had always worshipped, but that was ridiculous.  This whole business of worshipping three people—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—it was nonsense.  No matter what these Jesus-followers claimed, they must be pagan polytheists, just like the Romans.  The good and faithful people of God knew what God wanted of them, and it wasn’t this.  They knew who God was, and it was not this Jesus dude.  They knew what God wanted them to do, and it was to resist pagans and all who tried to turn people away from the worship of the one true God.  They believed they knew what God wanted with such fervor that they could not see the new thing that God was actually doing in their midst.

And so they put Jesus’ followers on trial for blasphemy, starting with Stephen.  They couldn’t protect themselves from the Romans, but by golly they could get rid of those Jesus-freaks.  They were so certain that they knew what God wanted that it never occurred to them to wonder if God might be doing something new.  They were so certain they knew how God worked in the world that when God took an active and direct stand in front of them by giving them Jesus and raising him from the dead, they looked at God’s redemptive work in the world and saw only the work of evil, trying to destroy God’s people.  God spoke his Word to them directly, and they couldn’t hear it because they were so certain they already knew what he would say.  I read this story, the story of the first martyr, and I want to believe that in that time and place I would have been Stephen, faithful to God even to the death.  But I have to ask myself, would I have been the crowd?  Would I have been one of the ones who was so certain I knew what God wanted that I attacked the people who were actually doing God’s work?

This is something that has happened throughout history.  God sends people to spread his work and do his will, and when it doesn’t fit into the nice neat assumptions people have about God, they reject it.  They say, no, God couldn’t possibly work that way.  In ancient Israel, people who worshipped God killed or attacked or imprisoned God’s prophets for pointing out the sins of the people.  In the first few centuries of the Christian era, people who worshipped God killed the followers of Jesus like Stephen in our reading today.  In medieval England, Christians burned people at the stake for distributing Bibles in English.  In 16th Century Germany, Christians killed Reformers for trying to bring new life to the church and get rid of corruption.  Every time God has sent people to do a new thing, to breathe new life and salvation into the world, a lot of God’s people have rejected it, at least at first.

This is something we should be wary of.  We live in a time of great upheaval and change.  Things are not ever going to go back to the way they used to be fifty years ago.  Some of the changes are good, and some aren’t.  But as we decide how to respond to all this change, we should be careful to remember that God is at work.  I guarantee you God is working in the world to bring his Word and his love to all people.  And it may look like what we’re familiar with, but it may not.  What God is doing in us and around us may fit our expectations, or it may surprise us.  It is not our job to dictate what God can and can’t do, what is outside the boundaries of what God can want to do.  When people—even deeply faithful people!—try to do that, they have often been wrong.  Just as Stephen’s attackers were wrong in our first reading.  They weren’t evil people.  They were devout followers of God genuinely trying to do what they believed God would want.  But they were so caught up in their own expectations of who God was and what God wanted that they couldn’t see what God was actually doing right there in front of them.  And so they killed Stephen.

But even if we get things wrong, even if we mistake what God is doing in the world or blind ourselves to his actions, that doesn’t mean there is no hope for us.  Even if we go as far astray as anyone possibly can, God can still reach us.  There was a man there, when they killed Stephen, named Saul.  Saul was a deeply faithful follower of God.  Saul loved God, and Saul had studied the holy Scriptures, and Saul believed with all his heart that killing Stephen was the right thing to do.  After Stephen’s death, Saul went and attacked other followers of Jesus, too, and that wasn’t enough so he went to other cities to persecute the followers of Jesus there.  Saul was consumed with hate for those he believed had betrayed God.  But Saul’s hate was not the end of the story.

One of the cities Saul travelled to in order to persecute Christians was Damascus.  But on the way there, God struck him blind and gave him a vision.  I have no doubt that God had tried to reach Saul before, that God had tried to turn him away from the path of violence and hate, but it wasn’t until God struck him down on that Damascus road that Saul realized what God truly wanted of him.  God struck Saul down and gave him a vision, and then sent a follower of Jesus to open his eyes.  And Saul realized what he had been doing, changed his mind, and became a devout disciple of Jesus Christ.  Saul was the one who followed God’s call to go out and spread the good news of Jesus to Gentiles, not just to his fellow Jews.  While preaching to the Gentiles, Saul used a Gentile version of his name—Paul.  That’s right, the guy who wrote most of the letters in the New Testament, whose words we read in worship almost every Sunday, he started out not only opposed to Jesus but actively working to kill Jesus’ followers.

God works in mysterious ways.  And God does things we don’t expect and could never have predicted beforehand.  God is constantly working new ways to bring his love and salvation to the world.  We don’t always understand what he’s doing; we don’t always like it.  Sometimes, we let our own expectations blind us to what God is doing.  When times of change and turmoil come, may we be like Stephen, open to God’s will and faithful to the last.  But if we find ourselves in Saul’s shoes, may God give us the same grace he gave Saul: to turn us around, give us hearts for God’s love, and send us forth to be God’s hands in the world.

Amen.