Sermon for Proper 24, Year B October 21, 2018

Isaiah 53:4-12                                     Psalm 91:9-16                    Hebrews 5:1-10                                 Mark 10:35-45

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading ended with Jesus saying, “Many who are first will be last, and the last shall be first.”  Today, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”  Then he says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Some preachers focus on the final part of this passage, “the Son of Man came . . . to give his life a ransom for many.”  They focus of Jesus dying for our sins; they speak of the promise of life everlasting IN HEAVEN offered to us by Christ.

I, however, believe we should focus on Jesus saying, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”  This coupled with “Many who are first will be last, and the last shall be first,” and with “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all,” applies to our live on earth.  Jesus’ willingness to die for the sins of humanity should, I believe, be viewed for what it is – an example of what it means to devote our lives completely to what we believe.

Jesus lived his life for others and when we study his life, we can learn from his example.  Jesus lived a sacrificial life and we, too, can find fulfillment in our lives by living in service to others, not trying to be first, but willing to bring up the rear, making sure that others do not get lost along the way, this gives our lives meaning.  Being a servant to all needs to be our focus for living in faith – not avoiding hell by celebrating Christ’s death.

So, let’s consider our lesson from Isaiah in relation to Christ’s death on the cross. It is one of what is referred to as the suffering servant passages.  Part of it is used in our liturgy of the stations of the cross when we remember the trial, the torture, and execution Jesus suffered.  “Surely, he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”  This tells the story of a servant, who lived long before Jesus, who was unjustly treated, beaten severely, and Isaiah says, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases . . . and by his bruises we are healed.”

Biblical scholars have suggested that the very sight of this servant was enough to shock others into being more humane in their treatment of their own servants.  Some theologians have also suggested that the crucifixion of Jesus, a beloved preacher and prophet, was such a shock to his followers, that his message of love for our enemies, respect for others, and caring for others began to change the world.

Our wonderful St. Paul’s is named for a man who violently opposed Jesus’ followers until the resurrected Jesus came to him on the road to Damascus and asked, “Why are you persecuting me?” Paul’s experience of the risen Christ transformed his life from one in which he persecuted Christians to one in which he was willing to die for his devotion to Christ.

A documentary I watched on the History Channel went so far as to suggest that Christianity is a worldwide religion today because of Paul.  It was Paul who preached the good news of Jesus Christ outside of Israel.  It was Paul who shared the love of Christ throughout the Middle East, parts of Europe, in Greece, and in Rome.  In his letters, Paul urges us to treat others as children of God – even people who persecute us, he says to bless them.  Like Jesus, he faced violence without drawing a sword or swinging a fist.  Paul is a good example in the Bible of Christ’s mission being fulfilled.

Jesus came to transform lives, not to pay for our sins as if only his death would pay the penalty for our sins and gain our admission into heaven.  I do not believe Jesus came in order to focus all our attention on the afterlife, rather I believe Jesus came to teach us that we are all part of God’s kingdom, we are all connected to one another, and how we treat others makes a difference.

The shock of seeing the suffering servant beaten beyond recognition, the video of firefighters, paramedics and police officers racing toward danger, into the Twin Towers on 911 – seeing the horror of what one person or group can do to one another, and seeing the unselfish acts of heroes can stop us in our tracks and cause us to re-evaluate our lives. Human nature may cause us to think of ourselves first, but seeing these things makes us want to be better – to follow the example of Christ by putting the lives of all of humanity ahead of our own.

We do not necessarily have to place ourselves in harm’s way in order to live a sacrificial life.  Each day we make decision that affect others – decisions about how we spend our money, how we spend our time, and how we respond to others.  These decisions reflect our priorities.

When I first started attending St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, it transformed my life and helped me to make better decisions and become a better person – less self-centered.  Why?  As people were going forward to receive communion, I used that time to reflect on my week and my decisions.  I began to focus more and more on how I responded, or should respond to people, and this time of prayer and reflection helped me to begin responding to people who had let me down with love.  Now, don’t get me wrong – I often did respond in anger when love was needed, but this time of prayer and reflection helped me to realize I no better than others.  I could see them as people who, like me, had a knack for messing up. Consequently, I am far less judgmental today than I once was.

In today’s lesson, James and John, asked Jesus for places on honor in his kingdom, they wanted what we all do from time to time – they wanted to be first.  Jesus did not respond to their self-centered request with anger; instead, he says, “You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.”

They may not have known what they were asking, but we know the extent to which Jesus was willing to go to teach us a better way.  We have seen the horrors of humanity by groups that devalue the lives of others who disagree with them.  We have also seen the better nature that comes from people who put others first.  How then, might we answer Jesus when he asks, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  Are we willing to put others first?

Let us pray.

Loving God, you have graciously provided us examples of how to live the life you intend for us to live.  Help us, we pray, to have the strength and courage to respond to others with love, to give of ourselves, and to make sure that others do not get separated for our group.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen