Sunday, October 21st, 2012, the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)
First Presbyterian Church Vancouver, WA
By Nick Silvey, Ruling Elder
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”
Those are powerful words from Jesus are paradigm-changing words. What could Jesus possibly be saying in that verse for our gospel reading for today? Isn’t it the greatest among you at the top of the ladder? Doesn’teveryone else follow the person at the top? No, Jesus is introducing a new theme on what it means to be a leader – you must be a servant to all first, than you can lead and others will follow your example. For the third time in the gospel, speaks to his disciples about his passion. And for a third time the disciples miss the point entirely. Do you recall the disciples’ reaction the other times Jesus predicted his death and passion? The first time followed Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah promised in the Hebrew bible. Jesus responded “Get behind me Satan”.
The second time occurred in a traveling discussion about which one of the disciples was the greatest. At that point in the gospel the disciples were still clueless about the purpose of Jesus’ ministry, his teachings, and mission.
Which brings us to today’s gospel reading. Here, Jesus predicts his death and suffering for the third time. James and John believed in their selfish human minds that this was the best time to ask Jesus special for places of honor in his coming glory. But when the other disciples heard what James and John asked Jesus of they all become angry and jealous. Possibly, they weren’t angry that James and John asked Jesus, but that they did not think of it first. This is like quarrelsbetween siblings fighting over their parents favor. The disciples think that in Jesus’s coming kingdom he will have a list of cabinet appointments, based on a human patronage system.
Can it be that, through their human frailty, the discples were so ignorant of, or blind to Jesus’ teaching and predictions? Isaiah wrote, centuries before, about a Suffering Servant. The words in Isaiah’s prophecy are spoken from the point of view of those who had seen the suffering servant, but who failed to grasp the meaning of it until he was gone. 500 years before Jesus’ time the words in Isaiah’s prophecy declared that the suffering of the Servant, his humiliation, his dying had accomplished redemption for the guilty, for sinners. Why couldn’t the disciples of Jesus have made a connection from the message of their scripture between the suffering Servant of Isaiah and Jesus? How often is humanity doomed to misunderstand the meaning of suffering in this way? To this day, do we not understand fully what Jesus’ death and suffering really mean?
For centuries the church has been debating the real meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. There have been many theories proposed by theologians, and systematic theologies written. But do these really get at what Jesus was teaching about in the gospels? Or do they miss the point entirely just like James and John? Intellectually I think those help us gain knowledge and academic understanding of scripture. I feel they help the untrained, like me, gain knowledge about how to explain Christianity, Presbyterian beliefs and theology, Christology, theology, and so forth. But do all those academic endeavors and intellectual understanding really help us spiritually understand Jesus’s teachings? Or get us closer to God? I believe they don’t entirely. What gets us close to God is being part of a community of faith like this one where we serve each other as servants and follow in Jesus’s footsteps. Christianity as a whole is termed The Way – which means we follow in Jesus’s footsteps, along the path he leads us.
We do this by being servants to each other, by washing each other’s feet and taking up our crosses and following him. Here is a description from a Catholic blog on the meaning of foot washing:
“…we have the reason that Jesus himself states for washing the disciples feet. They are to see this as an example to follow. They are to embrace humility at all times, and to serve one another. As St. Augustine writes: ‘as [man] was lost by imitating the pride of the deceiver, let him now, when found, imitate the Redeemer’s humility.’” 3
This is the humble act of the Christian, set against the pride of the world. Foot washing is the best example in the bible that I can think of for an image of what it means to serve one another. This humility that Jesus showed us is what every leader should do for others and for their followers. The greatest leader is characterized by humility and grace. And through that humility and grace people follow them.
As we get closer to Jesus’ passion on the cross, it becomes apparent that the disciples are not going to go all the way to the end with Jesus. Christ will have to do his suffering and passion on the cross alone just like the suffering servant did in Isaiah. And this is with no guarantee that this will be remembered behind his death; especially in light of the fact that the disciples are missing the point! The gospel in a few words is uttered by Jesus to the disciples in response to their request in verse 45: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Alone or with a crowd, he is going.
To borrow an illustration for our very own Rob Elder, “Some hymnals in the old days used to contain a hymn titled ‘Jesus Demands My All.’ In one old Methodist edition of the hymnal an asterisk appeared next to the title of this hymn, so that as the worshipers read ‘Jesus Demands My All,’ their eyes dropped to the bottom of the page where the words next to the footnote read, ‘For an easier version, see #438.’”
Those densely minded disciples were sure, in their self-centeredness, that there was an easier version. This problem, this self-centeredness is not a unique problem to the disciples. This self-centeredness happens at some point to all people, regardless of their faith. This dense mindedness, this self-centeredness has always been around in human nature, the church, and throughout the world. We, the dense minded, have never been in even step with Jesus’s teaching or God’s commands. The Hebrew scriptures are a prime example of not being in even step with God. That is why God sent so many prophets to help bring the people closer to him. But even the Hebrew’s were, and are, dense minded as we are. History, human nature, repeats itself. It’s a vicious cycle.
We are a people who should open our services of worship, our homes, our lives – not with self-centeredness but with a servant’s heart, a willingness to serve others before ourselves. We open our worship services with a prayer of confession because, often, when Jesus has demanded our all, we have looked instead for an easier version, we offer him only the part we don’t need or no longer want. We begin our worship by confessing about ourselves the very thing that is here manifestly true of the disciples: we rely on our own strength and understanding and we are rendered helpless. Yet even for us — even in our falling short — with the way prepared for us by Jesus, nothing can block our access to the throne of grace. The Son of Man suffered…as a ransom. That is the kernel of good news in the midst of this news about suffering. 
In my undergraduate courses of psychology at Washington State University Vancouver, I have learned various things about human nature. I have learned about different disorders, different theories of human nature, the science about human behavior. I have also learned of different forms of therapy that help people deal with their behavior – that is outward, and their disordered thinking – this is on the inside. What my faith has taught me over the years is that God, as in psychotherapy, changes both the inside as well as the outside so the person is fully transformed.
In the church the confession of our need for the saving work of Christ makes things on the inside much different than they would be otherwise. Psychotherapy tries and does this for people in talk therapy – which therapy has shown in research studies to be very effective in transforming people’s lives. But through Christ’s saving work, no therapy can be effective as that. Christ is truly the only person that can transform us to live fully no matter what science says. By means of to our confession we can be opened by God’s costly grace to become a different kind of people, a different kind of fellowship from any we can find anywhere else. This church has had that impact on me. Whenever I go anywhere else for worship other than our own worship service or a Presbytery worship service – I do not feel the presence of God fully. I feel this has to do with the impact those fellowships have on me.
Outside the church we may encounter some who assume that our churches, our ministry, our fellowship together is probably organized around a conservative, bible thumping, and judgmental orientation. Sometimes, of course, they are right – as we can see in the news and all over the internet in regards to extremists and fundamentalists. There is a lot of maneuvering for advantage, jostling for power that goes on in churches all the time.. But when churches are at their best, our friends are wrong, no matter how things in the church may look from the outside, “things look different on the inside.”
Jesus said, in our reading for today in verses 43-45, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them…But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…” Without a doubt, from a typical American opinion, things do look precisely different on the inside of the church.
Jesus separates greatness from the ways we are accustomed to thinking about it, and in this we are no different from the disciples. We are accustomed to thinking that greatness rests in those who exercise authority, who call the shots, who make the tough decisions, who own the business and give the orders. We think greatness is about getting the Nobel Prize, about earning a PhD, gaining an endowed chair at a prestigious university, or even about becoming President. We think that greatness means being sought after for expertise in one’s field, about earning millions of dollars, gaining that position in a job we have always wanted, or even within the church being a session member – by earning power over others. Jesus says it in as few words as he could: “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant…” This instruction is so critical to understanding Jesus’ ministry, such a key to being a disciple, that the gospels record it no less than eight times.
What does it mean in our time to take up servanthood? Our cross? To follow Christ fully? Among other things it means setting self aside in order to take up the cause of others, the cause of Christ. Never perfectly, never fully, for we are not capable of perfect servant hood like Christ. But with the recognition of Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice on our behalf on the cross, we can take up the duty of service, of servant hood, in joy.
At our best, we are a servant church, not a church filled with people competing for the best position in our organizational structures. At our best we find Deacons, Ruling Elders, former pastors, members, friends of the church in the fellowship of our church moving throughout the community day after day, calling on the sick, visiting the homebound, seeking out those in the hospital who need a friendly smile and a word of encouragement, and by serving others through our garden. At our best we are a church that provides food through FISH, our garden, FEAST, that supports Habitat for Humanity, that supports ministry to the homeless, multicultural ministry and world missions, our youth mission trips, the bereavement committee taking care of the grieving, the hospitality team taking care of visitors, taking offerings for peacemaking and justice, and that goes out of its way to serve others without any prospect of return.
At its best, our church’s ministry enters the lives of those of the un-churched who come to our doors and those who are sent out to serve, our visitors, our members that hear the word made new. At our best, we invite other cultures to share the word of God in a new way as with Mending Wings, with Jonathan Tingume, Dr. Carolyn Weber, and with Koang Diet. At its best, the church imitates Jesus and is a servant church. At its best, no matter what those on the outside may think, things do look different in here, we are called to a ministry of servanthood, in the name of the One who, though he is the Christ, is the servant of all.
 Psalm 19.14 with adaptations
 Think Small by Rev. Rober J. Elder, 10/19/2003
 Taken from <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godandthemachine/2012/04/washing-of-the-feet/> on 10/18/2012
 Think Small by Rev. Rober J. Elder, 10/19/2003
 Think Small by Rev. Rober J. Elder, 10/19/2003