✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Our Lord Jesus once asked His disciples, "Who is greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves?" The obvious answer was the one at the table who's being waited on. Those of you who are Downton Abbey fans know that it’s not the cooks downstairs and the footmen and the maids and the butler who are the greatest, but the masters and mistresses upstairs who are being served. And even today in the world's way of thinking, the more people you have tending to your needs and doing what you want, the greater you are–the politicians and celebrities with their entourages, the successful businessman with dozens or hundreds of employees to carry out his wishes, and so on. However, Jesus then says, "I am among you as one who serves." In the kingdom of God, the ways of the world are reversed. It's not the one who receives the service but the one who gives the service who is greater. As it is written, "It is better to give than to receive."
That is how God is. That is what the Scripture means which says that God is love. God is by nature a giver and a server. Many people hold to the false notion that God created mankind in order that He might have creatures who would serve Him (as if God needed anything). But in fact it's really the other way around: God created man in order that He might serve man, breathing into people the breath of His life and pouring out on them all the blessings of His creation. God is glorified in giving Himself to man, not in man giving Himself to God.
So then, one could define sin as the refusal to be given to by God–to reject His gifts in the way that He wants to give them and to try to acquire them in your own way or by your own doing. That’s why the Pharisees received Jesus’ harshest condemnation; they didn’t want to receive what God was freely giving them in Christ. That's why it's such a wicked thing to push your good works and good living into God's face, as if by those things you could merit His favor. Doing that turns God into the receiver rather than the giver, the lesser rather than the greater. Besides, you can't give anything to the God who created everything, anyway.
So let it be clearly understood that, strictly speaking, you have not gathered here today to serve God. Rather, you are gathered here for God to serve you, to receive the forgiveness and life and salvation which He alone can give. The Lutheran reformers said that the highest form of worship is faith. And faith is nothing but given to by God. Faith humbly receives the gifts of the Lord, extolling them and glorifying Him with prayer and praise and song for being a gracious giver God. The true worship and service of God is to revere Him as the One who is greater, that is, as the One who serves, the One from whom all blessings flow.
It’s worth repeating: God doesn't need your good works; but your neighbor does. Your good living is to be directed not upwards but outwards to your fellow man. God serves you here in order that He may serve others through you out there. Therefore, when it comes to your daily lives out in the world as family members and citizens and workers, the words of Christ are also to be the words of you who are members of the body of Christ: "(I) have not come to be served but to serve."
However, you must admit that doing that doesn't come naturally. Your Old Adam would much rather be a receiver than a giver. You know very well how to handle relationships and manipulate things to get what you want. What's important to you is that your desires are being met, your goals are being fulfilled. Others can often be used to achieve those ends. Though it may be in subtle or subconscious ways, all people by nature seek to be served rather than to serve.
The Gospel gives a crass example of this. James and John come up to Jesus and with ignorant boldness say, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask. . . Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory." James and John thought that they could use their connections with Jesus as a way of gaining power and security in life. Like some people today, they were using religion as a means for personal advancement, as just another way of getting what they want out of life. They still didn't get what it meant to be a follower of Christ.
"You don't know what you are asking," Jesus says. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" "We can," they answer. Jesus says to them, "You will . . . , but . . . these places belong to those for whom they have been prepared." James and John were still thinking of Christ's kingdom as one of political power or glory. They didn't yet grasp that the real way of the kingdom of God involved a cross. It meant being humbled and being a servant on this earth. That's what Jesus was referring to when He spoke of the cup and His baptism, as He said in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Father, if it is possible, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but yours be done." What James and John were unwittingly asking, then, was to be participants with Jesus in His suffering. The places prepared at Jesus’ right and left hand were for the criminals crucified with Him. James and John would indeed suffer as followers of Christ. All of the apostles would be persecuted for the cross. In fact all, except John, would be killed as martyrs for the faith. But to be given places of honor in God’s kingdom was not something they could ask for or earn. They were gifts of God’s grace.
After this incident, Jesus gathered the disciples together and spoke to them. Jesus has also gathered you together here today, and He speaks the very same words to you: "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all." Jesus here takes the thinking of the world and stands it on its head. In the world people seek to climb to the top of the ladder of success or power. But amongst the people of God, greatness is defined by people lowering themselves to the bottom of the ladder in service to others. The one who is higher in God’s eyes is the one who puts himself lower.
Martin Luther 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 everything.
This is the way of Jesus, who didn’t come to rub elbows with the movers and the shakers but to be present with lowly sinners in order to lift them up. Jesus "gave His life as a ransom" for you. That means that you had been kidnaped. You were in the clutches of self-obsessed sin and death and the devil, unable to free yourselves. But Jesus came from heaven and freed you from your bondage by paying the full ransom price. He redeemed you, as the Catechism says, "not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death." His blood sets you free. Jesus succeeded in this rescue mission precisely in the moment when in the world's eyes He had failed. His greatest victory took place in the time of His greatest humility. For in this total giving of Himself, He defeated the devil and brought you back to God. On the cross our Lord showed Himself to be a God of love, a God who gives, a God who serves with everything He has. Having risen from the dead, He now lives forever as your conquering Savior and Lord. You belong to Him; for you were bought at the price of His own life.
And not only did Christ serve you in this marvelous way some 2000 years ago, but He continues to serve you still today as you gather here each week for Divine Service. The divine Lord Himself, Jesus Christ, serves you His words and His sacraments so that you might receive today the forgiveness that He purchased for you on the cross long ago. Jesus is truly present among you right now in the flesh, not to be served, but to serve, and to give you His life and His Holy Spirit.
So then, the words of Jesus are also for you, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with." You come forward and drink the cup of Christ, receiving His suffering and death in His body and blood. However, there is not judgment in that cup but forgiveness; for the judgment was already fully meted out on Good Friday. It is now for you who believe a cup of grace. Likewise, when you are baptized, you are buried with Christ, the Scriptures say. However, that burial occurs so that you may be raised with Him to the new life of Easter. Your baptism is not only a cold flood of death, but a water of rebirth and resurrection.
Brothers and sisters of our Lord, you have been given the very life of Christ Himself, a life of service. Having freed you from the fear of death, Christ is working in you to die to yourselves for the benefit of others. Having assured you of your eternal destiny above, Christ is working in you to humble yourselves so that others might be lifted up and helped. Having given you the very Spirit of God, Christ is working in you to become great–not in the way of James and John but in the way of a servant, taking up the cross laid on you in the Sacraments and following Him, going the way that leads through suffering and death into joy and everlasting life. In Jesus you now live not to be served but to serve; for He gave His life as a ransom for you all.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠