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.

Psalm 23 – Trust and Rest

Rest

In this sacred season of Eastertide on the Church Calendar, Christians deliberately spotlight on what new life is and how it can bring transformation from fearing adversity to believing God through the adversity; from wondering where the heck my needs are going to be met to trusting in God’s willingness to provide; from worrying about the future to resting in the present.  Psalm 23 is just the right message for both the season and our world circumstances of pandemic and hardship.

Because of the psalm’s familiarity, some might only associate it with funerals and miss its relevance for the here-and-now. That would be quite unfortunate because this is a beautiful poem of trust which is prescient for us to face the vicissitudes of faith and life on this earth and be able to rest in the field of God’s benevolent kingdom.

Therefore, I am offering here my contemporary version of this most famous of psalms for the Church:

Jesus is my Pastor, and I lack absolutely nothing because of it.

My merciful overseer is watching me while I rest secure on a nice soft bed of grace;

             he leads me into an unhurried life; he is thawing out my cold anxious soul.

He leads me in all the right ways for the sake of his great name.

Even though I get lost and find myself in a dark alley,

             I really have no fear of evil;

for I know God is with me,

             his Word and Sacrament – they are more than sufficient to comfort me.

I have a big ol’ appetite and hunger for you, God,

             and you satisfy it,

             even though I have enemies within arm’s length;

you encourage my mind with joyous thoughts,

             so that my heart overflows with hope.

I am quite sure that goodness and mercy will follow me for a lifetime,

             and I will live in peace despite any adverse circumstances my whole life long. Amen.

Click The Lord’s My Shepherd by Stuart Townsend as we find rest for our souls.

Isaiah 25:6-9 – Celebrate!

village in front of the mountains
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels.com

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken. 

In that day they will say, 

“Surely this is our God;
    we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
    let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.” (NIV) 

Mountains are a prominent and symbolic part of Holy Scripture. Abraham sojourned to a mountain where the pinnacle of faith was exhibited. The Law was given on a mountain. Elijah met God on a mountain. Jesus preached the most famous sermon ever on a mountain. From such references, and more, we routinely refer to extraordinary events as “mountaintop experiences.”  

The mountain is a great contrast and antithesis to the valley of death below. It signifies God’s power and reign over all earthly rulersOn the mountain we enjoy a great feast of the soul, not to mention an actual meal full of celebration. After all, food and celebration always go together in God’s kingdom. 

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Whenever healing and/or emancipation happen, it is time for celebration. To celebrate significant events, and even to ritualize them so we remember them, is not only wise – it is much needed and vital to how we are wired as humans. The lack of celebration creates spiritual amnesia. When we need support in the future, we don’t recall the mighty acts of God. Yet, if we consistently practice celebration, the redemption experienced in the past is constantly fresh, like a sumptuous meal which is always before us. We can eat of it anytime we want. 

Banquets are rightly associated with hospitality, generosity, and fellowship. Meals in the ancient Near East culture were much more than utilitarian; eating together was (and, frankly, still is in most parts of the world) a deeply spiritual event which communicates acceptance, encouragement, and love to one another.  

God is the ultimate host. He throws the best parties. God ensures that there is plenty of food, fellowship, and fun. God’s joy knows no bounds. In the middle of a world beset with sadness, loss, and grief, God’s boundless generosity swallows up people’s disgrace and mourning. At God’s Table, no one cries alone; everyone is comforted; nobody walks away hungry; and, every person is waited upon, no matter who they are or where they have come from. Indeed, there is always room at the Table. 

Through Christ’s resurrection, “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Death no longer has any power to control, humiliate, or shame us into submission. Death’s threats are emptyThe Grim Reaper’s teeth have been pulled and his scythe has been broken. He is the party-pooper who is barred from entry. Conversely, there is life and abundance for all who ascend the mountain and feast with God at his Table. The invitation has gone out. The Table is spread. We need only to come. 

In the joy of your Son, Jesus Christ, through his mighty resurrection and in expectation of his coming again, we offer ourselves to you, Almighty God, as holy and living sacrifices. Together with all your people everywhere and in every age, we proclaim the mystery of the faith: 

Christ has died! 

Christ is risen! 

Christ will come again! 

Send your Holy Spirit upon us, we pray, that the bread which we break and the cup which we bless may be to us a sacred communion, a holy celebration of Christ’s body, blood, and victory over death. We declare: 

God has spoken! 

God has acted! 

God has provided! 

May you gather all into your hospitable and abundant kingdom; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy SpiritOne benevolent God, now and forever. Amen. 

Click Celebrate Jesus to keep the Easter songs coming in this season of celebrating new life.

1 Peter 1:13-16 – Be Holy

ChurchLight

Therefore, your minds must be clear and ready for action. Place your confidence completely in what God’s kindness will bring you when Jesus Christ appears again. Because you are children who obey God, don’t live the kind of lives you once lived. Once you lived to satisfy your desires because you didn’t know any better. But because the God who called you is holy, you must be holy in every aspect of your life. Scripture says, “Be holy, because I am holy.” (GW)

 This is the Christian season of Eastertide. It is a time with a focus on new life in Jesus Christ. God did not save us only for a future life; believers are delivered from sin, death, and hell to also be holy in all we say and do in the here-and-now. The life of the Christian is to be characterized by holiness.

Everything comes down to God. As God’s image bearers we are to reflect God’s character in all things. Unity, harmony, love, and peace always exists within the triune God. Therefore, we, too, are to be characterized with these same qualities. We are to be holy because God is holy. Just as God separates himself from evil, wickedness, impurity, and all that is wrong in the world – so, we are to live a holy life separate from everything that creates and fosters division, hate, abuse, oppression, violence, pride, greed, theft, gluttony, avarice, adultery, and the host of human sins which bedevil the world. God is not at all okay with racism, favoritism, gaslighting, bullying, selfishness, hubris, and all kinds of crimes against humanity which destroy both creature and creation.

Thus, holiness of life involves both a separation from immoral and unethical thoughts, words, and practices; and, a connection with integrity and righteousness which becomes thoroughly grafted into daily life.

The Israelites of the Old Testament had a clear understanding of holiness. In fact, an entire book is devoted to holiness of life: Leviticus. The Apostle Peter drew from Levitical law when addressing the expectation of a holy life:

“I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44, NRSV)

“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2, NRSV)

“Set yourselves apart for a holy life. Live a holy life, because I am God, your God. Do what I tell you; live the way I tell you. I am the God who makes you holy.” (Leviticus 20:7-8, MSG)

The ancient Israelites, through a series of regulations about what to wear and not wear, what to eat and not eat, how to relate to one another, etc. were continually reminded of God’s holiness. The importance of a pure life free from the drag of unholy living is the Levitical aim. Rather than following the crowd into mob action that damages people and property, holy living goes against the grain of popularity to seek purity of life.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8, NIV)

We are not to slide away from our new life in Christ when the going gets hard. That means holiness involves Stay at Home orders, to be separate, even though it is a rough economic hit. It means maintaining social distancing, to have separation between each other, even though it goes against how we have always operated. Holiness means finding creative ways of connecting to one another, making a living, and promoting the common good of all persons. Holiness doesn’t involve impatience, tunnel vision, and allowing our shadow selves to call the shots. Holiness does involve expressions of love, peace, and unity – the very qualities that characterize God himself.

Confidence is born of trust in God’s kindness. Clarity of thought comes from immersing ourselves in God’s non-anxious presence. A holy life arises with the awareness and acknowledgment that God is with us.

Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that all my thoughts may be holy, as yours are holy.
Act in me, heavenly Father, that my actions, too, may be holy, as yours is holy.
Draw my heart to you, Lord Jesus, so that I love only what is holy, as you love what is holy.
Strengthen me, Mighty God, to defend all that is holy, as you are just and holy.
Guard me, triune God, that I may always be holy, as you are always holy.
Amen.

Click Take My Life by Scott Underwood as we express our desire to be holy.