Sunday, August 24, 2014

Who's the Greatest?

Who’s the Greatest?

Gospel for St. Bartholomew’s Day: St. Luke 22: 24-30

24 And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.
25 And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors.
26 But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
27 For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth.
28 Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations.
29 And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me;
30 That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

My brother and I came to the supper table fussing the way that brothers do. My mother said to us, “Y’all need to stop. Your daddy’s grandmother just died.” Immediately we realized that our bickering, which was never right, was especially inappropriate at that moment
St. Luke tells us about similarly inappropriate moment of contention among the Apostles.

1. The Kingdom of Contention
We read in today’s Gospel that “there was also strife among them, which of them should be accounted greatest.” What is surprising about this is where and when it happened. Jesus and the disciples were in the Upper Room. They had just celebrated the Passover feast which Jesus transformed into the Lord’s Supper. Soon Jesus and eleven of them would go out to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus would pour sweat and pray in agony that he might be delivered from what lay ahead.
We may be tempted to look back and ask how they could have argued among themselves at a time like that and to think we would never have done it. It would be wise for us not to jump to that conclusion.
They did sense that something important was about to happen. With the Jesus’ kingly ride into Jerusalem just a few days before they probably were thinking, since they had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, that he was going to establish the Kingdom of God. He had said just a few minutes before during the meal that he would not drink the Passover wine again till the Kingdom came. Perhaps it was just about to happen.
That would mean the restoration of the Jewish kingdom and of Israel’s glory. In the Kingdom there would be positions to hold, power to exercise, proximity to Jesus the Messiah to enjoy. So an argument broke out about which one of them was the greatest and who would have the most prominence in the Kingdom.

This is not the first time they showed such concern for personal prestige. Just before his transfiguration Jesus had said some of them would live to see the Kingdom of God come. Then on the Mount they had seen him in his glory talking with Moses and Elijah. Not long after, when they were traveling together, they began to argue about which was the greatest. When they arrived at their destination, Jesus asked, “What were y’all discussing back there on the road?” They were embarrassed and said nothing.
Then, not long before Jesus’ triumphal entry, James and John got their mother, who was probably Jesus’ aunt, to ask Jesus if one of them could sit on his right and one on his left in the Kingdom. When the other disciples heard about it they got indignant that James and John were jockeying for the two most important places in the kingdom.
Pride and envy were strong in the disciples. Position, prestige, and power were persistent concerns among them. These things inevitably lead to bickering and contention.
Jesus, though his soul was already troubled, showed remarkable patience with them. He might have rebuked them sharply, but rather he pointed out to them where you would expect to see the kinds of concern they were showing.
This is what is you expect among the Gentiles – that is, in the kingdoms of this world - not in the Kingdom of God. In worldly kingdoms kings lord it over their subjects. That is true today as it was then. Dictators of all sorts are concerned with keeping people under control, with imposing their wills on their citizens. Even in democracies like ours much of politics is focused on influence, status, and power.
Worldly authorities also want to be praised as benefactors of the people, even when they are stealing from the people. They want the reputation of bestowing great benefits on their citizens. This, too, is true even in our system of government in which politicians remind us how they bring home the bacon and of all the good things they accomplish for us. These kinds of things are inevitable in worldly governments, even the good ones.
What should shock us is when we see these things among God’s people in the church. St. Paul wrote of those who preached the gospel “from envy and rivalry.” St. Peter thought it necessary to warn presbyters not to domineer those under their charge. St. John wrote of a controlling church leader named Diotrephes who “likes to put himself first.”
It is a healthy thing for us to ask ourselves some questions about our homes, our lives in the church, and our relations with one another. How important do I think I am? How much do I need recognition? How much do I care about my reputation? Am I jealous of others? Do I have to have my way? Am I motivated by concern for my position, prestige, and power?
Jesus pointed his disciples to the Gentile rulers, and he points us to the kingdoms of this world, and says, “But ye shall not be so.”

2. The Kingdom of Christ
Jesus reminded the Apostles that the kingdoms of this world are kingdoms of contention because people in general and rulers in particular are obsessed with power and prestige. The Apostles showed the same spirit by arguing among themselves about which one was the greatest. And Jesus gently rebuked that spirit by saying, “But ye shall not be so.”
Jesus was saying, “You are concerned about your places in my kingdom, but in my kingdom we do not operate according to worldly concerns. For that reason, ‘Ye shall not be so.’ It’s different in my kingdom.”
But how are those who put their faith in Christ and follow him supposed to think and act? How are we to live together in our homes and our church? How should we relate to one another as fellow believers?
Jesus shows them and us. He turns the world’s values and the world’s behavior on their heads.
What is greatness in Christ’s kingdom? “He that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger.” Especially in the ancient world, age had its privileges. It still does to some extent. I can go to McDonald’s and order a “senior coffee” and pay 50 cents. I get $3 off the cost of a haircut. But this was much more pronounced in Jesus time. The lowliest person in the household or the synagogue or among the followers of a rabbi was the youngest. The youngest was supposed to defer to everyone older than himself. He was the one who was supposed to do the harder and more unpleasant chores. Things like washing feet.
But Jesus said, “Those who are great in my kingdom behave as though they were the youngest member of the group. Do you want to be great? Then forget about your status. Don’t think about your importance. Think as act as the youngest who has the lowest status, fewest privileges, and does the most menial work.”
Jesus adds, “(He) that is chief (among you),(let him be) as he that doth serve. For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat?” Who is the greatest at a banquet? Those who sit at tables? Or the waiters? It’s obvious that greater honor and privilege belongs to those who are waited on. 
I care about waiters – at least most of the time – because three of my sons worked as waiters before they began their careers. I know the kind of stuff waiters put up with and how let down they are when people expect them to meet their every need but do not follow up with an appropriate tip. I used to figure the minimum tip, but now I usually try to leave a generous tip.  But in the ancient world waiters were not employees who got paid an hourly wage and received tips. They were servants or slaves whose role in life was to serve their master and those he entertained.
So Jesus says, “Do you want to be the greatest in my kingdom? Do you want achieve the highest status? Then think like a bondservant, act like a waiter. Don’t expect others to do for you. Look for what you can do for others.”
Jesus clenches his point not by saying, “Now quit this arguing. Don’t you know I am about to die?” Nor does he say, “Now, Peter, James, and John, get off your high horses, and start doing the menial chores that we need done.”
No, he says, “But I am among you as one who serves.” He the rabbi, who was supposed to be served by his disciples, served them instead. This was characteristic of Jesus life. He served.
But Jesus is not just saying, “Look at the way I have served you and follow my example.” Do you know what a moralistic sermon is? It is a sermon that tells you what your duty is, makes you feel guilty, and then calls you to try harder to do better. But Jesus is not a moralist. He is a Redeemer.
He is pointing them to his greatest service. “For the Son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” He is speaking about his ultimate service and sacrifice, the cross where he paid the price of our freedom from guilt and condemnation by dying for us. That is what makes the difference in the kingdom. The atoning death of Jesus. The giving his life to save us from our sins.  His death gains the forgiveness of our sins and our reconciliation with God. This is what turns things upside down in his kingdom and changes the ways we think and act.
As St Paul put it, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who being the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, who took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and, being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
It is the saving servanthood of Jesus that frees us from the world’s obsession with prestige and power and turns us into servants.

3. The Kingdom to Come
Jesus shows us the kingdoms of this world are kingdoms of contention because people are concerned with who they are and what they can do. But the kingdom of Christ is a different sort of kingdom because Christ is a different kind of king. He calls us who know him to live in his kingdom as those who serve.
Now he tells them that there is a kingdom that will come. It will come when he comes again. One of the biggest mistakes the disciples made was to think that the Kingdom of God would be a Jewish kingdom and that Jesus was going to establish it right now. Even after his death and resurrection, at his ascension the disciples were still wondering if he was then going then to establish a Jewish kingdom. But the kingdom that Jesus came ultimately to establish is not centered around ethnic Israel, and it is not for this age.
Again Jesus might have sharply rebuked his Apostles for their inappropriate arguing about how important they were and left it at that. Instead he commends them and makes them a promise.
“You have continued with me in my temptations.” In Greek the same word is translated with two different English words: “temptations” and “trials.” The two concepts are related as every trial is also a temptation and every temptation is also a trial. But here most translations now use “trials” rather that “temptations.” What Jesus is saying is, “You have stood with me in all the trials I have faced in carrying out the mission the Father gave me.” It’s interesting that Jesus gives them this commendation when they are about to fail to stand by him in his greatest trial. But Jesus is patient and forgiving, and he knows that after they have had their weakness exposed he will restore and use them.
So he says, “My Father is giving me a kingdom that will be revealed at the end of the age. Then there will be glory. I have known that the destination of glory travels the road of humility and service – doing his will and accomplishing your salvation Now I am going to have you share in that kingdom and glory."
In the coming kingdom they will eat and drink at his table. This is the great banquet of fellowship and joy that fulfills our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The communion we have with Christ at his Table is a foretaste of the perfect communion we will have with him in his kingdom.
They will even sit with him as judges of Israel, and, as St. Paul would make clear later, of the whole world. Don’t worry about present prestige and power. That’s not our concern now. And, when the glory comes in the age to come, we will be transformed so that we can enjoy the prestige and power in the right way. We won’t be competing with one another; we won’t be jealous and envious toward one another.  We will rejoice in Christ’s glory and the rewards he gives to us – and equally the rewards he gives to others, too.

When Jesus disciples were expecting him to establish a worldly kingdom, sit on a throne in a palace, wearing a jeweled crown, servants at his beck and call and a powerful army to enforce his will, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around himself, picked up a basin, and knelt at each of his disciples’ feet and washed them. There was no servant and each of them thought he was too important to do it. Jesus did it.
They needed to learn, and we need to learn, that what embodies Christ’s Kingdom is not the palace but the Upper Room, not the crown but a basin, not prestige but a servant’s towel, not others bowing to us but we bowing before them and washing their dirty feet.

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