Matthew 20:17-28 – On Being a Servant

Jesus bronze sculpture washing feet
Bronze statue of Jesus washing Peter’s feet, Pittsburgh, Texas

Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling, asked a favor of him.

“What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (NIV)

Today’s story from the Gospel of Matthew is the very description of not being on the same page. There were two variant responses from Jesus and from everyone else because there were two different agendas.

Jesus was quite clear about how things were going to shake out. Torture, insults, crucifixion, and death was ahead for him. The disciples and the mother of James and John missed the memo on this. Christ’s words went way over their heads. It could be the disciples simply did not hear what Jesus was saying to them (repeatedly!). It is more likely that the message of Jesus got filtered through an existing agenda of how they believed things ought to go.

The disciples, along with a lot of other Jewish folk in the first century, were looking for a Messiah in the mold of King David – a strong leader who would come and beat up the Romans, exert all kinds of power and influence, and establish an earthly rule over all the people they don’t like. Submission to torture, humility before the very people they detested, and being killed by them were not factors into the disciples understanding of leadership and government.

Much like the powerful Aslan who had a thorough understanding of the world’s deep magic and submitted himself to the White Witch and death in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – Jesus knew what he was doing while everyone else seemed clueless about the true power which exists in the universe.

So, let us be perfectly clear about what that power really is: Grace. Yes, grace. Powerful, resplendent, subversive, scandalous, and radical grace. Mercy was the missing factor in the disciples’ agenda. Jesus is not like other rulers. He does not operate by throwing his weight around to forcefully impose a crushing my-way-or-the-highway kind of rule (even though, ironically, he is The Way). No, Jesus freely and unabashedly uses grace with its merciful tools of humility, gentleness, kindness, goodness, and love to introduce and establish a new kind of rule which is not posturing for selfish power.

Power, authority, and the positions which go with them are to be used for the common good of all persons. To be in any kind of leadership is to be a servant of grace for the benefit of humanity and the world. And, if Christ’s disciples had looked a bit closer into their Old Testament, they might have noticed, for all his power and authority, King David trafficked in grace. When David was at the pinnacle of power his first act as King was to look over the kingdom and see who from the family of his enemy, the former King Saul (who was into the power thing for himself) was around so he could show grace (2 Samuel 9). It was typical of ancient kings to secure their rule and power through killing-off rivals and former family members of previous kings. Not so with David. And not so with Jesus.

Wherever there is posturing for position, preening for power, and a pestering for privilege – there you will find everything grace is not: reliance on making and calling-in favors; overinflated egos; unrealistic expectations; suspicion; judgment, arrogance; an insistence on recognition; compulsive control over everything and everyone; unilateral decision-making; shaming of others; hoarding of resources; coups; in-fighting; hatred; and, a demand of rights. We in the western world may not be in the habit of offing leaders and killing others to consolidate power, yet, we still too often rely on violent speech and language, partisan policies, and good-old-boy systems which are foreign to the way of Christ. In contrast to this, grace exists.

Grace is the deep magic which resides within the universe.

Wherever grace operates, there you will find the heart of a servant: attending to the needs of all persons; freely consulting and collaborating with others; focusing on responsibility; loving discipline; embracing accountability; pursuing truth; sharing power and resources; encouraging others; giving generously; and, looking for ways to show mercy.

In this Christian season of Eastertide, the Church focuses on exploring new life, and new ways of being with one another and the world. The old life is consumed with unmerciful uses of position and power. New life brings a shift to a gracious means of wielding such authority. Yes, it will likely bring some short-term suffering. It will hurt. Grace, however, results in a longevity of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. True service is being a servant of grace.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Click Make Me a Servant by the Maranatha Singers and allow it to be our prayer today and everyday.

Isaiah 59:15-21

            The “bystander effect,” or “bystander apathy,” is a social psychology term that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. In other words, in experiment after experiment over the past fifty years social psychologists have found that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.  For example, researchers Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin staged an experiment in 1969 around a woman in distress. Seventy-percent of the people who were alone called out or went to help the woman after they believed she had fallen and was hurt, but when there were other people in the room only forty-percent offered help.
 
            It’s far too easy to stand with our hands our pockets when there are other people around to serve and to do what is just.  “When the LORD noticed that justice had disappeared, he became very displeased.  It disgusted him even more to learn that no one would do a thing about it.”  Our rationalizations for not becoming involved are legion:  “Someone else better qualified than me will do it.”  “But what if I screw up?”  And the ever-present “I’m just too busy” are all ways to justify ourselves into not doing the work of justice in the world.
 
            If we are apathetic to the needs of others less privileged than ourselves, then we must come back to the Old Testament prophets and give them a very serious hearing.  The prophet Isaiah lets us know that none of us are anonymous; we have all been given gifts as the people of God in order to serve the greater good.  The Lord dispenses his grace and glory primarily through active people who eschew being bystanders in the world.  God inevitably gets noticed in the public square when his people are attentive to his justice.
 

 

            Just God, you care about the people of this world receiving the things they need to live and flourish well in life.  Inspire and empower all of your people, including me, to spread a spirit of service in our local communities and churches, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Example of Christ

 
 
John 13:15 – “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
 
            When I am thinking about a particular Scripture passage and reflecting upon it, one of the things I often do is write out my own translation of the verses with some explanatory comments.  I also often place them in a more contemporary context.  I do this because I want to feel the original force and even scandal of the message.  As we think about the ministry of the church, we are to follow the example of our Lord Jesus.  So, here is the Gospel of John 13:1-17….
 
It was just before the biggest and most important feast of the year, Passover.  Jesus knew that it was finally the time for him to face the cross and die for the world’s sins.  Having spent the past three years loving his followers, he now wanted to leave them with a clear demonstration of his love that they would never forget.
 
The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already gotten a hold of Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus to those who wanted him dead and gone.  But it was all according to plan.  Jesus knew that his heavenly Father had given him all authority because he was his Son, and he was ready to do what needed to be done to secure salvation and return to his rightful place at his Father’s right hand.  So, Jesus got up from the meal, rolled up his sleeves, put an apron on, and ran a sink full of hot water.  Jesus told the servants to take the night off, and He began taking the dishes from the dinner table and started washing them, taking care to do all that waiters and dishwashers would do.
 
When Jesus came to take care of Simon Peter’s dishes and serve him dessert and coffee, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to serve me?”  Jesus replied, “I know you do not understand why I am doing this since it seems like something that is beneath me to do, but later you will look back on this night and understand completely what I am doing.”
 
“No,” said Peter, “this is not right – you are the Master and this is not what well-respected Rabbis do – you are only disrespecting yourself and making us all look foolish. You are not going to take my dishes and wash them.”
 
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash these dishes and serve you, you are not going to be able to follow me anymore and you will have no part of what I am doing in this world.”
 
“Well, then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “if that is the way it really is, then don’t just wash the dishes – come on over to my place and clean out the fridge and scrub the kitchen floor!”
 
Jesus answered, “A person who has had a decent meal needs only to wash the dishes so that he can enjoy the freedom of hospitable relationships with me and those around him.  And all of you here have had a decent meal, though not every one of you.”  For Jesus knew that Judas was only picking at his food in anticipation of betraying him.
 

 

When Jesus was all done washing the dishes and serving his disciples, he took his apron off, rolled his sleeves back down, and returned to the table.  He looked them all squarely in the eye and said, “Do you understand what I just did for you?  You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so, for that is exactly what I am.  So, now that I, your Master and your Teacher have washed your dishes, you also should wash one another’s dishes.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  I am telling you the plain truth that no follower is greater than the one he follows, nor is a preacher greater than the one he preaches about.  Now that you know that it is your task in this life to provide humble loving service, you will have God’s stamp of approval on your life if you quit thinking about how to have and use power for your own purposes, and start thinking about how to use the power and authority I am giving you to love other people into the kingdom of God.

Free to Serve

 
 
I am not into arm-twisting when it comes to recruiting volunteers for service in the church.  And whenever someone thinks I am being “soft” on people by not making them feel guilty, I respond with conviction:  “That kind of approach is not consistent with the gospel of grace.”
 
Yet, that does not mean we ignore guilt because only true guilt can lead us to grace.  We all have times when we feel guilty.  Guilt in and of itself is not a bad thing.  Guilt is the response of the conscience to things we have done or left undone.  Guilt is the conscience telling us that we have done something wrong or have not done the good we know we ought to have done.  It is what we do with the guilt that determines the trajectory of our Christian lives. 
 
There are several ways we can respond to guilt.  We can rationalize our guilt and not accept the truth about what we have done.  When we use phrases like “it’s not my fault,” “it’s only wrong if I get caught,” “I didn’t hurt anybody,” “they deserved it,” and “it’s not that bad,” then our conscience can be seared like a hot iron so that we eventually do not feel guilty.  The result is of this is always hardness of heart.
 
            Another inappropriate way of dealing with guilt is the opposite of denying guilt; it is to hyper-focus on the guilt by feeling ashamed.  There is a difference between guilt and shame.  Guilt feels bad for actions done or not done.  Shame feels bad for who I am, as if I am incapable of being good.  Shame believes I do bad things because I am bad and deserve the consequences.  In other words, shame is really false guilt.
 
            The result of shame and false guilt is always one of two responses:  either we become inactive through feelings of discouragement and defeat; or, we become hyperactive by working like crazy to feel better and hope that the guilt and shame go away.  It is to impose a certain penance upon yourself in order to cope with the dirty feelings of guilt.
 
            But the good news is that every one of us can have freedom from guilt and a clear conscience because of Jesus Christ.  If we have been victimized in the past, we no longer have to feel ashamed as though we caused or deserved the violence done to us.  If we have said or done some truly egregious things that displease God and damage others, we no longer have to live with the regret and guilt on our consciences.  If we have failed others and God by not living up to who we ought to be, we no longer have to live day after day with our consciences bound with guilt.
 
            Here’s why we experience freedom and a clear conscience:  Christ has obtained eternal redemption for us by his blood (Hebrews 9:11-14).  Back in the Old Testament sacrificial system, the high priest would enter the temple/tabernacle to offer animal sacrifice.  Once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) he would enter the Most Holy Place.  The Ark of the Covenant was there.  The priest would slaughter the heifer and take some blood and sprinkle it on the altar. 
 
There were all kinds of rituals to perform in order to access God, and even then the sprinkling of blood only outwardly took care of cleansing the people.  But when Jesus offered himself once for all, the curtain that separated the Most Holy Place from the people was torn from top to bottom.  The way has been opened for not only an outward purification, but an inward cleansing of a guilty conscience so that we might now serve the living God with freedom and confidence.
 
All are now welcome at Christ’s Table.  There are no hoops to jump through.  There is only a radical hospitality that accepts everyone who comes to God by faith in Jesus.  We are holy because of the blood of Jesus Christ.  We can now serve God with joy and not serve him in order to gain spiritual brownie points and assuage our guilt. 
 

 

Service in the church needs to be motivated not by feelings of guilt but by a deep awareness of grace.  When we are overwhelmed with grace, to serve is to love God, which is the very thing we become eager to do.  So, when recruiting volunteers, take the route of inspiring grace in others, not guilt, for we are gloriously free in order to serve.