“Listen up, you guys. Huddle up. Get close. Come here. Pay attention. I have something important to tell you. Let those other guys move on ahead; this is only for your ears. This is one of the most important things I’ve ever told you.”
One word of Matthew’s Greek – idou – carries all this freight, and the NIV doesn’t even bother to translate it. Other English versions do though: “Look! See! Listen! Behold!”
While walking to Jerusalem, perhaps with a larger group, Jesus takes His twelve hand-picked apostles aside and, once more, gives them the skinny, the scoop, the news: “We’re going to Jerusalem; but you already knew that. When we’re there, the chief priests and teachers will get their hands on me. Someone will hand me over to them. Someone will betray me. Then our Jewish enemies will hand me over to the Romans, the goyim, so that they can mock and scourge and crucify me. Under Pontius Pilate. But on the third day I will be raised up from the dead.”
Betrayal. Beating. Death. Resurrection. Jesus hits ‘em with the big stuff, the plan of salvation, the Second Article of the Creed. But they aren’t really listening. Jesus drops this bomb and two of them – James and John – send their mother to Jesus with a request, “Make us the greatest in your kingdom.”
These two disciples, and their mom, try to sort out an answer to the question the disciples have wrestled with for quite some time, “Which of us is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Undeterred by Jesus showing them a child and saying, “He’s the greatest, be like him,” or Jesus rebuking them when they try to turn the mothers away with their babies, James and John try to sneak their way into the top spots. Not even the parable Jesus just told, the one about how the workers in the vineyard all get paid the same no matter how long they work ends this discussion. No wonder Jesus had to say all the time, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” or, as in this instance, “Whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”
We run into a whole host of problems in this text. First, it’s the pettiness of human thought. Jesus drops the crucifixion and resurrection bomb on them, and all they can say is: “Who’s the greatest?” Then the disciples come and try to get Jesus to swear a foolish, Herod-like oath. Mark’s parallel account of this moment makes that clear, quoting James and John: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Who of us would give out such a blank check? Yet the disciples ask that of Jesus. Of course they do, because they know the petty nature of what they’re about to ask.
But before the presumption, let’s examine that pettiness some more. Jesus drops the salvation bomb, it explodes among them, and the apostles are like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, just give us some money already, Dad.” They act just like that prodigal son, who, having been cared for by a loving Father, just wants his money with no questions asked so He can go get high and meet chicks.
It reminds me of a scene from The West Wing, a show about a President and his staff. The president reveals to one of his staffers that he has hidden his multiple sclerosis since before the election, and instead of first asking, “How are you, Mr. President? Are you okay?” The staff member explodes over the betrayal he feels.
Likewise, the disciples hear about betrayal, death, and resurrection, and blow right by it, because now that they have a private moment with the Lord, now that they notice him talking about resurrection, this is a good time to reserve the best seat in the heavenly restaurant. For them. They don’t even have the courtesy to blurt out Peter’s, “No, Lord, this shall never happen to you!” or Maundy Thursday’s, “Betrayal? Who’s going to betray you? Is it me?” They care only about rank and order, privilege and power. Not God’s, theirs.
It’s not too far a cry from how we hear the Word. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the body, life everlasting, yeah, yeah, yeah, but what about here and now? What are you going to give me now, Lord? I could use a job, a promotion, some more money. I need you to send vengeance on my enemy over there, could you do that for me please?”
So much of the writing that comes from the evangelical wing of American Christianity (which you find in your local Christian book store) is like this. They blow by Jesus dying for our sins, the forgiveness of sins, the need for forgiveness that is our sin, and get right to how you can have your best life now, how you can bless your marriage, your family, your career, how to get God to do all those things for you. Not that having a blessed life, marriage, family, or career isn’t important, it’s the pettiness of putting them above forgiveness, above death and resurrection.
Think back to the catechism when it talks about what Baptism means in our daily lives, like the life of little Charlie Haag being baptized today. “Baptism means,” Luther writes, “that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance, and that all its evil deeds and desires be put to death. It also means that a new person should daily arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” The Christian life isn’t about first and rank and power and privilege, it’s about death and life. Dying to sin, rising in Christ. Luther quotes Paul in Romans 6 on this point, “We were therefore buried with him through Baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may life a new life.”
This is what the apostles should have been talking about: “What does death and resurrection mean, Lord?” And then Jesus could have told them what we heard in Romans 8 today: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.”
And then there’s Romans 14: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The disciples wanted to talk about being the ones ruling, the great, the important. Jesus says, “You have no idea what you’re talking about.” This is the pettiness, which we transition into presumption. These two disciples presume upon God to ask for power. No surprise, James and John asked Jesus to call down fire from heaven upon some recalcitrant Samaritans. This inflamed the other ten, not because of the nature of the question, but because James and John and their mom asked first.
But Jesus calms them all down. “Not so with you.” Jesus didn’t speak in imperatives. He didn’t say, “Don’t do this.” He says, “You will not be this way. You are not this way. You don’t operate in the same way that the great ones of the world operate. You serve, because you are salt and light already.” Or, as He’ll put it in a few days in the upper room, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.”
Jesus takes their petty and presumptuous request, their intra-apostolic argument, and answers the question they should have asked: “What do you mean death and resurrection? What does this mean for us?” And He answers: “It’s about service. My service. To you. 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.”
God comes to serve. The great One became our servant. The First of all things, the Alpha, the Omega, the Beginning, the End, He became our slave. He served us throughout His life, wrapping that towel around His waist and washing His disciples feet, showing them the full extent of His love. Then, in the betrayal, the suffering, the mocking and scourging, the suffering and death, paying the ransom price for our sins, giving his life for the many. Then rising. Conquering sin, death, and hell itself. Conquering our petty presumption. Sending out His Spirit to do that very thing in our hearts, as Paul said repeatedly in Romans 8: Christians “do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit”; we “have our minds set on what the Spirit desires”; our mind is “controlled by the Spirit and so “your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.”
Jesus dropped the game-changer on us. He puts an end to all our petty presumption which is just our sinful nature trying to grasp after power and rank and privilege which we have neither earned nor deserved, nor cannot. And worse, it’s always at the expense of others and the glory of God. It always leaves Lazarus out licking his wounds while we eat; a sure ticket straight to hell.
But then comes Christ: “I didn’t come to be served. I came to serve. I came to serve you. I came to ransom you from your sins. Like the sun rising, I have come to give you light and heat and warmth. Like the winter and spring rains I water the earth. I water you with life everlasting, with sins forgiven, with new hearts. I came to serve; to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house, maybe not at my exact right or left, but in heaven, with me.” He went to Jerusalem to do that. For you. Amen.