Jesus’ Call to Servant Leadership – October 21, 2018
Who here would rather be greater than lesser? Who would like to be somebody? Who would like to be important? Who would like to share in the counsels of power? Don’t we all long for that recognition and that place of prominence? Certainly two of Jesus’ disciples did. The brothers James and John came up to Jesus, in what looks to me and any reader of the Bible as a most singularly inept time to ask such a question right after Jesus for the third and last time has told them that he is leading them into Jerusalem where he expects to be arrested, condemned to death, tortured and killed (and they choose that moment), to ask him to do them a favor. What is it? Jesus asks them. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” James and John, these two brothers, who Jesus called “sons of thunder,” wanted to be guaranteed a place of prominence in Jesus’ future Kingdom. How little they understood that the place where Jesus was glorified was the cross. And those granted the place at his right and left hand were two common criminals. And how little they understood that the place of prominence in Jesus’ kingdom was not a place of power and prestige over others, but the place of servanthood. As Jesus patiently explained to them,
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42b-45)
The letter to the Hebrews, in today’s Epistle lesson, describes what Jesus did upon the cross as a priestly sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. In offering himself this way Jesus showed himself to be God’s penultimate high priest. Hebrews calls him a “high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” Melchizedek is described in Genesis 14 as a priest of the most high God long before there was a Hebrew people or priesthood. He receives tithes from the Patriarch Abraham. He suddenly appears from Salem, the City of Peace, and blesses Abraham. Tradition esteemed Melchizedek as eternal, with no beginning and no end.
I have a pastoral ministry with someone in the psych ward of a nursing home who calls me frequently. He likes to call me his “high priest.” Sometimes when he calls from the very public phone I can hear him yell at his neighbors in the hallway, “shut the blank up; I’m trying to talk to the high priest here.” I try not to let his title for me go to my head! Well, one thing I know that I’m not is a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Perhaps a parish priest at his or her best is something like the ordinary high priest described in Hebrews as able to deal gently with the congregation because he or she is subject to the same weaknesses that they are. It is not a role one presumes to take on, but a function of leadership and blessing that comes as a result of a specific call from God.
Jesus, as the once and for all times High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek, does not perform his sacrifice in anything resembling human glory, but in the messy, painful agony of dying upon an instrument of torture. And he doesn’t die to himself alone but to make atonement for the sins of the whole world. Only Jesus can make this offering, for only he is the Son of the Living God. But the remarkable and wonderful thing about Jesus’ self offering, is that he doesn’t give himself as one is infinitely above us, or as a superior who does something generously for us, but as the Son of Man who identifies fully and completely with us. He is that servant that he himself described in today’s Gospel lesson who chooses to be among us as one who serves and empowers his followers.
The great Reformation theologian Martin Luther was deeply offended with the notion that salvation was a transaction that the Church could offer or sell. One of his key ideas is that Christ’s priesthood did not belong to a chosen few, but to all believers. In other words salvation wasn’t a possession of the Church to be dispensed. No, salvation is a free gift bestowed by Christ on all who are open to receiving him. The gift of salvation and life in Christ is not something to be conferred only by the ordained, but is available to all, through faith. All believers are called to be part of Christ’s enduring priesthood. This important theological construct is called “the priesthood of all believers.”
And how do ordinary people enter this priesthood of all believers? What is their ordination, if you will, to that priesthood? In our baptisms we are enrolled into the priesthood of all believers. According to our lesson today from Hebrews the three qualities that distinguish Jesus as the High Priest, are call, humility and obedience. Those are no less the three things that mark us in our baptisms.
Each of us is called and embraced as God’s adopted son or daughter. We are called to receive Jesus as our Savior and follow him as our Lord. We are called to be God’s own chosen and blessed people. But none of us receive that call by virtue of anything we have done to deserve it. It’s not because we were cute or virtuous or born to the right family, but simply because God chose us, as God chooses all people, to receive his love. That is our call by faith alone in a love and grace that is wholly undeserved.
In this passage from Hebrews, Jesus calls us to kneel not in humiliation but in humility. We are, by God’s grace, imperfect priests, called and chosen by God through baptism to claim God’s image in us, to become one with the perfect priest Jesus – the lowly one who offers loud cries and tears on our behalf, the gentle one who models reverent submission to the empowering love and grace of God. (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, “Pastoral Perspective” by Susan B. Andrews, pg. 184)
So, that also is our humility. What is our obedience, but to love and follow in the path that Jesus himself lived and taught? As he taught his disciples today to follow him not through self aggrandizement but by serving others in his name.
As Jesus stretched out his arms in love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace, so we who bear his name are invited to stretch out our arms in loving embrace of all that Christ loved and reconciled. The priesthood of all believers is nothing less than the continuation of Christ’s work on earth in us – however imperfectly we embody his love.
James and John wanted to have an important and central role in Jesus’ mission and to share his glory. It may have seemed like especially bad timing to ask their question after Jesus told them of his coming suffering and death, but in fact it is in union with that high priestly sacrifice that James and John and all Jesus’ disciples – past, present and future – find their true vocation.
Artist and architect of public gathering spaces, Milenko Matanovic, wrote that he dreamed he was in jail, observing an execution. The prisoner was kneeling, baring his neck to the sword. Just before the sword touched the neck it slowed and turned sideways and touched the shoulder of the prisoner gently with its flat side. What had begun as an execution turned into a ceremony of knighting, marking not the end, but an initiation into a new life. The sword, the very thing that can destroy us, became a source of learning and blessing. (Homiletics Online, 10/19/97, “The Double Cross”)
So, too the instrument of Jesus’ execution became a source of blessing for us. The story of our deserving execution to receiving instead initiation into a new life, to joining the priesthood of all believers, is told in our baptisms. So, we need to go back to that initiation again and again and renew our calling.
I invite you to stand and turn with me now to page 415 in the BCP to renew your initiation into the priesthood of all believers.