October 18, 2015 – The 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24B
Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
You may listen to the audio of this sermon here.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, well, either I don’t want learn my lesson, or, for some reason, I can’t.
This morning’s gospel lesson comes on the heels of Jesus’ third prediction of his passion and death, and, even though they’ve heard it three times, James and John don’t seem to have gotten the message. “See,” Jesus said, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and [there] the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” And what did the sons of Zebedee say in response? “Um, Jesus, since we’re headed into the royal city,” they asked. “we’re wondering if you would promise to do something for us.” Seems kind of foolish, doesn’t it.
And that is precisely the point. This is third time in Mark’s gospel account that Jesus predicted his death. And, each time, one or more of the disciples reacted as if his message had no bearing on them at all. And, like clockwork, every time the disciples reacted incredulously, Jesus responded with a rebuke. The first time, Peter pulled Jesus aside and said, “This will never happen to you Lord,” and Jesus said to him, “Get behind me Satan!” The second time, the disciples began to argue among themselves over who was the greatest among them, and Jesus called them out, saying, “Whoever would be first among you must be last of all.” And, finally, this third time, James and John made their woefully tactless request, so Jesus gathered the twelve together and said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Since Mark seems to want to tell us the same story not once nor twice but three separate times, I’m beginning to think that this isn’t just a passage about two dunderheaded disciples but an attempt to hit me over the head enough times for me finally to get the message: if I want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, I must become like him. I must learn to serve others in his name.
But that doesn’t sound so hard, does it? If following Jesus means serving others, we can make this work, right? We love to help others. We’re good at that. We can knuckle down long enough to get our merit badge in community service. We can rack up a ton of service hours tutoring at Banks-Caddell or helping out at the Free Clinic. Plus, who doesn’t love serving others as the host of a big party? I can walk around with a tray of cocktail weenies if you’re willing to refill people’s half-empty glasses. That sounds like fun. And what about a mission trip? There’s a good idea. There’s nothing more fulfilling that pilling a bunch of eager helpers into a plane and flying them around the world so that they can serve others in the name of Jesus. Surely that’s what he meant. We will have earned our star-laden crown and seat of honor in God’s kingdom in no time! Then, we can go home and put our feet up. “Jesus,” we’ll say, “when we’re done with this whole servant-of-all-thing, will you please make sure that the banquet that awaits us in heaven is even better than we could imagine?”
We think that Jesus is asking us to serve others, but he’s not. He’s asking us to become servants. He’s not inviting us to take on a ministry or to help those in need. He’s asking us to become slaves of all. Following Jesus isn’t an occupation; it’s a transformation. Being a disciple isn’t a pursuit; it’s an identity. If we are going to belong to Jesus and take part in his kingdom, we must be made like him. We must become the lowly servant that he was and is. But how will we ever do that?
In my childhood, I was brought up by a woman named Francine. She wasn’t at our house every day, but most days she was there when I came home from school. My mother was busy teaching piano lessons, so, Francine, as she folded another basket of laundry or mopped another floor, asked me how my day was. She took care of me and my brothers, and she took care of our house. She loved all of us, and we loved her, but, still, we could never know how much she gave for the sake of others because, when the day was done and her work was finished, she went home and did it all over again, taking care of her children and taking care of her house. I thought servanthood could be measured by how often I volunteered to help others, but there are many people in this world who know that service never ends. They are the ones who do not wear it as a uniform or count it in hours worked or dollars spent. They live it and breathe it and sweat it and sometimes die knowing nothing else. They are the ones who know what it means to become like Jesus—to be slave of all.
Being a Christian isn’t about doing nice things, treating others with respect, serving the needy in Jesus’ name, or crisscrossing the globe to offer extravagant acts of charity. Being a Christian means being like Christ, and being is a whole lot harder than doing. The disciples didn’t get it, and we don’t get it either…because this is not a lesson to be learned but a lifestyle to be lived. Jesus beckons us to become the servant of others and to become the slave of all. But we cannot do that on our own. We cannot choose that identity for ourselves. Instead, we must surrender. We must die with Jesus, with the one who gave his life as a ransom for many. We must die to this life and be reborn not as triumphant egoists, who wait to inherit the riches of heaven, but as simple, lowly slaves whose every breath and every act is an emptying of the self in devotion to our Lord.
We must become like Christ, but that is not something we can become on our own. Jesus, himself, must remake us in his image. We must let him bear in us the marks of the nails and the scars from the crown of thorns. All that we want for ourselves must be crucified along with Christ. Like him, we must give up everything in order to become a true servant—a slave of all. Don’t trade the riches of this life for treasures in heaven. Give them up so that you might be reborn as a slave to all and discover what heaven really is.