Just a Lowly Servant
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
October 18, 2015
Mark 10: 35-45 (CEB)
35James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37They said, “Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left when you enter your glory.”
38Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink the cup I drink or receive the baptism I receive?”
39“We can,” they answered.
Jesus said, “You will drink the cup I drink and receive the baptism I receive, 40but to sit at my right or left hand isn’t mine to give. It belongs to those for whom it has been prepared.”
41Now when the other ten disciples heard about this, they became angry with James and John. 42Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. 43But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. 44Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, 45for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”
I read this week the story of Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona. CCOJ, as it is more commonly known, is a Lutheran church which, at its peak, worshipped around 13,000 people in a weekend. What’s interesting about this church is that even when so many thousands of people were worshipping on the church campus every week, and new people were visiting in droves, the pastor discerned that something wasn’t right. He called in a consultant to work with the staff and leaders of the church. Through a long and painful process, what this team discovered was that even though things were going well and thousands of people were worshipping at CCOJ, there was no community. The people who were there, including many of the staff were simply consuming what CCOJ produced, rather than entering into the deep relationships which foster growth as Christian disciples and help us nurture our relationship with Christ.
Once this discovery was made, the Community Church of Joy shifted its focused. There was a major staff reorganization as the focus was shifted from producing quality goods and services to producing quality disciples. For many who worked and attended CCOJ, the transition was too much, they wanted to continue to consume; they didn’t want to make the sacrifices necessary to foster discipleship. So they left. Attendance dropped as the church shifted from a dispenser of religious goods and services where people came to get and consume, to a missions station, where people are launched to give. Though they still worship in the thousands, CCOJ has never made it back to its peak days, but the pastor adamantly insists that it is a better church now because it is a church which fosters loving and healthy relationships in the community of God, empowering people to be out in the world serving as Christ’s disciples.
In our scripture passage this morning, we are reminded that as Christ’s disciples, we are charged not with being the most prestigious (fill in the blank…person, congregation, so on…), but with being imitators of Christ, and these are two very different things. As the leaders of Community Church of Joy learned, simply seeking to be the “biggest” and the “best” is an empty way of being church. And the same is true for each of us individually. The “place of honor” in God’s kingdom is not a “bling-y” throne of glory where we “lord it over” everyone else. Instead, it is a place of lowly servanthood, where we seek to serve others and lift them up as greater than ourselves. Remember, when Christ entered his “glory”, it was on the cross, and to his right and left…lowly criminals, thieves. He came to GIVE his life as “a ransom for many.” Indeed, the sons of Zebedee did not know what they were asking.
I’d like to talk for a moment, if I may, about the nature of our culture. We are, in so many ways, taught that power, prestige, and possessions define who we are; bigger is better, the one with the most toys wins, etc. etc. So we selfishly consume with the hope that we will “get ahead,” or at least “keep up with the Joneses.” And this attitude spills over into our spiritual lives as well. We pursue faith only to the extent that we believe we will gain what we want, which is eternal life. But eternal life does not come without sacrifice, without death even. Remember how Christ made life possible; it was through sacrifice, through death that Jesus was raised to life. We want to have Jesus without the cross, though. We want life without death. Like James and John, we want glory but without the sacrifice. To us, salvation is about getting to heaven, but to Christ discipleship is about how we live our lives NOW, and that means servanthood and costly self-sacrifice.
As we heard earlier in the service, Paul says to the Philippians, “…[I]f anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.” James and John lost sight of the pure. Their thoughts got all caught up in worldly things. Pride got in their way, and they lost sight of true discipleship. We have to keep our minds focused on Christ; on the way Christ lived his life and on the way Christ died for all people, then we must emulate that self-sacrifice. We have to spend all our energy on being disciples, not just believing in Christ because we learn very clearly today that those are two separate things!
CCOJ learned that the best church is not one with the most talented band, or the most prestigious children’s programs. They came to understand that just because a church gives people what they want doesn’t mean the people are getting what they need. The best church is one that is transforming lives and making true disciples of Christ. In the same way, our best life is not a life that is all about ourselves, but a life which is lived in service to others. Real transformation happens through servanthood. We are our best selves when we live for others, when we serve others, when our lives are all about making other’s lives better.
There was a time when being a servant was a low status in life. Of course, it still is, really. Think of the servants in our society; the waiters and waitresses, the hotel maids, and so on, and think of their lot in life compared to the managers and CEOs. But in this passage from Mark, as Jesus speaks with his disciples, we learn that it is the servants who will be exalted, lifted up as the greatest. This is what we should seek. This is what we should desire. There is nothing great about being appointed by Jesus to sit at his right or at his left. Such positions are only meaningful in worldly governments. But God’s Kingdom is not of this world, and in God’s kingdom, it is the simple, lowly servants who are exalted.
Think about it this way: A 2011 poll asked teenagers to identify the person they admire the most as a role model, other than their parents. (The study intentionally excluded parents as role models because previous studies have shown that teens have high regard for their parents—or else they feel pressured to list their parents as role models.) Here’s the list of the top role models for teenagers: 37 percent answered that their top role model was a relative (other than parents). Eleven percent pointed to a teacher or a coach, nine percent—a friend. Six percent said a religious leader they know personally, and another six percent said an actor or a musician. Five percent listed an athlete, four percent a political figure, and another four percent mentioned a high-profile faith leader. The final one percent covered a wide range of figures from business leaders to authors to scientists.
This survey shows what I think many of us know to be true. There are certainly prominent leaders and “stars” that we admire, but for most of us, the people we love and respect the most, the people with the most meaning and impact in our lives, are not the ones with the trendiest clothes and the most expensive cars, not the ones with the most money and the most power. The people we lift up as “great” are the ones who visit us when we are sick, perhaps bringing some warm chicken soup. It’s the people who hold our hands and pray with us when we are facing trials and tribulations. Greatness in our personal lives is not measured by the world’s standards. Jesus turns our world upside down! In the face of Jesus’ proclamations, we have to surrender all our ingrained ideas of honor and dishonor, of power and weakness. “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you.”
So what is our way? What are we to do with this? Well, first it has implications for our personal lives. Our aims, our priorities, our pursuits, they need to change. We have to keep our thoughts on what is pure and holy. When we are caught up in selfish consumption, we need to ask ourselves over and over again, “Is this really necessary?” When we are focusing all our time and energy on moving up the ladder or keeping up with the Joneses, we need to do a check-in; “Is this what life is really all about”? When we are hungry for power or recognition, we need to look around us and see how our dogged pursuit of power might be hurting other people.
And as a church, there are two things we need to keep in mind. First, as Community Church of Joy learned; being a great church doesn’t necessarily mean being the biggest church with the flashiest programs, it means being a church where lives are transformed as people become disciples of Jesus. But if we expect other people to live as disciples, we have to live that way ourselves. We have to follow Jesus’ instruction to “lower” ourselves, and to put others first. Which leads me to the second implication for the church—it’s not about us. The business of the church is inviting people into a life-giving, transformative relationship with Christ the Savior, and the only way that happens is by putting the needs of others before our own desires, spending our energies on ministries that aren’t necessarily for our benefit, and focusing the bulk of our attention on serving those who are outside the church. It doesn’t have to be fancy and flashy, the work we do just needs to be humble. This is all Christ asks of any of us.
“Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all.”
May it be so. Amen.