Grace to you and peace, from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
Martin Luther, a reformer of the Church, wrote that in a treatise called On the Freedom of a Christian. “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
Well, that’s what you get with a Lutheran almost-pastor preaching in an Episcopal Church: lots of quotes from the sixteenth century that seemingly have nothing to do with today’s world. And historically, you may be right; this quote is often used to answer the philosophical question of free will, and has very little use outside of a Christian Ethics classroom. But for me, this quote sums up the whole Christian experience.
Throughout the gospels, particularly in Mark, we hear that Christ liberates us from sin and death for two purposes: to love and serve God, and to love and serve neighbor. We are freed to love and serve. Lord of all, subject to none; servant of all, subject to all.
Well, it’s clear that James and John, sons of Zebedee, don’t get it. They ask Jesus to do whatever they ask of him; at first, Jesus is inclined to agree. But then they make a bone-headed request: Let us sit with you, one at your right and one at your left, when you come into glory. And of course, Jesus shatters their dreams.
But if we look closely at this passage, we see two ways in which this exchange is ironic. First, Jesus’ words that “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,” tell us the goal of Mark’s entire gospel. This sentence illustrates that the reign of God is the opposite of human expectations. James and John expect Jesus to be the long-promised King of Israel, and they wish to become his right-hand and left-hand guys. But kingship in the reign of God is very different from an earthly reign.
This is even more complicated when we consider another irony in the passage. We have to look deeper in Mark to notice, the writer only uses those phrases “right hand” and “left hand” one other time. Remember that, during his execution, Jesus is crucified with two criminals: one at his right and one at his left. This means that, for Mark, Jesus comes into glory through death on a cross.
Well, it’s not enough for James and John, sons of Zebedee, to hang out with the Son of God, but they also want to be glorified with Jesus. Their human small-mindedness is preventing them from seeing how things work in the reign of God.
Yet, as Jesus goes on, we get a glimpse of the reign of God. That reign of God offers us all a new way of living, a way that takes the norms of our world and flips them upside-down. It shows us that, in order to be first, we must be last; in order to be great, we must be humbled. In order to be free of all, we must be servants of all.
Wouldn’t it be great if we weren’t as bone-headed as James and John, sons of Zebedee? But the reality is, this desire to be great is human nature. We want to be the best at our job, the first in the buffet line, seated in the highest place of honor.
To make matters worse, society as a whole tells us we need to be better, stronger, wealthier. The icing on the cake comes from the companies who sell us products by telling us they will make us even greater, better, or more attractive.
We should also remember that these tendencies aren’t limited to the secular world. The Church is guilty, too. We worry about how we’re going to continue, about how we can return to our glory days. Forget maintaining the status quo — we want to grow! We want the Church to regain its once-prominent status in society. All around us, in the Church and in the world, we think we need to be more, do more, have more.
So we ask God to make us great, and Jesus responds to us as he did to James and John, sons of Zebedee. You don’t know what you’re asking. The reign of God doesn’t work that way. In the reign of God, a Messiah isn’t glorified by overthrowing the oppressive government, but by suffering at the hands of that oppression. The powers of sin and death aren’t destroyed by some divine command, but by the divine’s own death and resurrection.
That flipping upside-down doesn’t only apply to Jesus and the disciples. It applies to us, too. It means that we don’t become great by obtaining possessions. We don’t assert our status by trampling on others. It means we become free from all by becoming servant to all. Our value is not based upon who we are or what we have done, but who God is and what she has done.
Throughout the gospels, Mark in particular, we see that Jesus is less concerned with greatness than he is with loving and serving God and neighbor. And in some ways, we see that Jesus would rather spend time with the people who don’t follow him, than with the people who do.
This tension is the reign of God. That’s what it means to be the Church; that’s what it means to be a Christian. Free lord of all, subject to none; dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
But that leads me to a difficult question. In the reign of God, where everything is turned upside-down, how ought we to live? The answer is both easy and incredibly difficult. We have to be willing to die to our old way of life. We have to try new things. We have to learn new ways to serve our neighbors. We have learn to hang out with those who aren’t like us.
And actually, if you’ll indulge me for another moment, I want to push this idea a bit further. Over the coming weeks and months, as we explore a ministry partnership between a Lutheran almost-pastor and an Episcopal congregation, I’m sure some of these questions will come up. How are we going to thrive? Where will God lead us next? How will this congregation be great again?
Well, here is one of my answers to many of those questions. It’s a really exciting time to be the Church! We don’t have to worry about how we’re going to continue, about how we will keep our head above water, about how we will return to our glory days. Those aren’t our worries because we worship a God who died so that we could live. We worship a God who brings life out of death. We praise a Messiah who gave his life as a ransom for many.
That means we can put all our energy into loving our neighbors. We can concentrate on meeting our neighbors and serving their needs. We can focus on going out into the community, rather than trying to get the community into this building. We can intentionally be perfectly free lords of all, subject to none, and perfectly dutiful servants of all, subject to all.
For if the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, we ought not be served, but serve. Amen.
This sermon was preached on October 18, 2015 while I was guest-preaching in an Episcopal congregation.