✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
When it comes to religion, we fallen human beings tend to get it all backwards. We think that God created the world so that He would have people to serve Him and wait on Him (as if He needed anything), when in fact He created the world and humanity so that He might serve people and wait on them with His good gifts. We think that church is about what we do and give to God to keep Him pleased with us, when in fact church is really about what God does and gives to us because of Jesus, in whom the Father is already well pleased with us. And when it comes to our good living and our good works, we tend to think that those deeds are to be directed upward to God, when in fact they are to be directed outward to our neighbor.
We see an example of this with James and John in the Gospel. They were in Jesus’ inner circle. Along with Peter, they alone had witnessed the transfiguration on the mountain. They were His closest disciples. But James and John came to think that their standing with Jesus was based not on His choosing of them but on who they were and what they had done for Him. And so with this self-sufficient attitude they come to Jesus to try to cash in on their good works. “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” Imagine talking to Jesus like that! I can just picture the smirk on His face when He heard that–sort of like when a person today prays, “God, I’ve stuck with you all these years; I’ve lived the best way I know how. It’s time for you to come through for me now. Do this or that for me.”
Jesus easily could have blasted James and John right then for their self-focused religion and their presumptuousness and conceit. But instead He says, “Hmm. What do you want me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand the other on Your left, in Your glory.” They figured Jesus was going places. And they were hitching their wagon to Him. They wanted to be first in line. They aspired to be His top advisers and top power brokers when Jesus got to be in charge. This is like those today who use religion as a means for self-advancement and self-fulfillment. It’s not so much about loving God as it is a way to have a successful and happy life. Church is just part of the formula of getting where you want to be in life. It’s one of things you’ve got to do to get blessed in this world.
Jesus was indeed going places. But James and John didn’t grasp where it was that Jesus was going, even though He had just told them. Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus there is referring to His suffering and cross. He would drink the poisonous cup of judgment against the world’s sin. He would be swept away in the cold flood of death. There were two people who would be placed at Jesus’ right and Jesus’ left hand–namely, the two criminals who were crucified with Him. They were the ones for whom those places had been prepared.
James and John wanted to be with Jesus in His glory. But it is Jesus’ glory to die for miserable sinners in order to save them. It is His glory to lay down His life that we may live. It is His glory to be the God who is love, who gives Himself completely for us that we might be drawn in to His loving embrace. Referring to the time of His death, Jesus said, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. . . And if I am lifted up from the earth [on the cross], I will draw all men to Myself.”
If you want to share in Jesus’ glory, then, you must share in His death. You must die to yourself and your desires. You must become like a death-row criminal before God, with no merit or worthiness of your own, with nothing to give and everything to receive. You must be emptied of your righteousness so that Christ may fill you with His righteousness and His life.
Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” God doesn’t need your service; He’ll get along just fine without your good works. Besides, what can you truly give to the God who is the Creator of all things and the source of everything good? Jesus came not to get something from you but to give something to you, to give His life as the ransom price for your soul.
For you were kidnaped, captured by the devil and the power of the grave. They demanded a price that neither you nor any other creature could pay for your release. In time you would have been executed by your abductors and given over to eternal death. But Christ came to pay your ransom. He paid not with gold or silver but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death. He offered His life for yours. In this way He not only set you free, but in the end He annihilated and destroyed your kidnappers by the power of His resurrection. All this He did purely by grace, as a gift, for you.
So make sure you don’t get it backwards. By nature we want to receive from others and give to God, right?–have others serve us while we do our personal, spiritual thing for the Lord. But in Christ we get it right: we receive from God and give to others. You need not spend all your time trying to please God; you are already pleasing to Him in Jesus. The thing that truly makes God happy is for you to trust in His goodness and to believe in His Son in whom He is well pleased. The true worship of God that glorifies and pleases Him is faith, simply to receive His love and forgiveness and life and to extol and praise and give thanks for these gracious, unmerited gifts.
Jesus gave up His life at Calvary, and now He gives out His life in preaching and the Sacraments. That’s why what we’re doing now is called divine service–Gottesdienst in German, God’s service. That term puts the focus on the primary thing, namely, that Christ Himself is here serving you. Jesus is still the One who comes not to be served but to serve, to give Himself to you for your good, your redemption.
And here’s a key point from today’s Gospel: Jesus’ servanthood doesn’t stop here in church. It continues through you out there in the world. Just as God uses ordinary things like water and words and bread and wine to give His saving gifts, so also He uses ordinary Christians in your ordinary stations in life as a means by which He serves the world. In this sense, you Christians are God’s Sacraments to the world. Christ is present in, with, and under you His people to show forth His love to the neighbor. Jesus is active through you to serve others.
Martin Luther famously put it this way: Christians live outside of themselves. You live in God by faith, and you live in your neighbor by love. By faith you get to stand in Jesus’ place and receive His righteousness as your own. By love you get to stand in your neighbor’s place and make his needs your own. Faith looks up to God and offers Him nothing; love looks down to the neighbor and offers Him service. A Christian receives God’s Service in church and then gives God’s service to his neighbor in whatever stations of life God has put him.
So if you want to know what God wants you to be doing, consider the callings into which God has placed you–as a husband or wife, as a parent or child, as an employer or employee, as a ruler or a citizen, as a preacher or hearer. Then apply “Love your neighbor” to those specific divine callings. Then you will see all the ways in which He desires to serve others through you. No longer will His command to love be bland or generic but specific and concrete. It will sound more like this: “Be an efficient, hardworking, and thorough employee or student.” “Be honest and fair in your business dealings.” “Listen carefully to the sermon; give a proper offering.” “Make your bed, and help with the dishes.” “Pay your taxes.” “Take time to listen and talk to each other.” “Be there for your children, speak about the Word of God with them, teach them about Jesus the Savior.”
In your various vocations and stations in life, ordinary and mundane though they may be, Jesus is still giving His life for the world through you who are members of His body. He calls you to offer up your bodies as living sacrifices for the sake of one another. As your sinful nature is put to death in acts of service, Christ works life and good for your neighbor, just as He worked the ultimate life and good by offering up His own flesh for sin on the cross. Through His Church, Jesus continues to be the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve.
There is one final benefit to this understanding of vocation and service, and that is that it always drives us back to Christ. For the more we see what we are called to do in our daily duties, the more we recognize how far we have fallen short of our callings and how much we need Jesus’ forgiveness. This teaching reveals how the sinful nature hangs on to us and doesn’t want to honor the spouse or wipe the child’s runny nose or give 10% in the offering plate or work hard for that miserable boss. The doctrine of vocation drives all self-righteousness out of us and leads us to repentance where we are again nothing but beggars with empty hands ready to receive the service only Christ can give.
Jesus told James and John, “You will drink the cup I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized.” So it is also for you. You have been baptized in Christ’s baptism, cleansed by His death. And today He again gives you to drink of His cup. Because it was a cup of judgment for Jesus, it is now a cup of mercy for you, the cup of His own life-giving blood. Receive it gladly. Live in the freedom of Him who gave His life as a ransom for you. His life is yours.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠