One Who Serves
One Who Serves
St. Luke 22:24-38
When I was about four years old and my sister three we got into a fight that ended with me telling her that she was stupid. Our mother was quickly involved and I was told to apologise. And that’s just what I did. I said, “Jackie, I’m sorry you’re stupid.” Needless to say a spanking promptly ensured. I’m sure that my mother was utterly exasperated with me at that point. I should have known better in the first place. I’m sure that when she rebuked me she reminded me that it’s not nice to call people stupid. But I wasn’t really paying attention. I was just angry at my sister and that’s all I was thinking about. Sometimes that happens. We know better, but we get stuck in a certain way of thinking about things and we can’t see anything else.
Jesus was often similarly frustrated with his disciples—and not just his disciples, but the whole people of Israel. As he looked out over the city from the Mount of Olives he wept. He wept because his people did not know the way that makes for peace and, as a consequence, judgement was coming. They should have known better. They had the Scriptures. They all knew how God had called Abraham to be a light to the nations. They had the Scriptures that told them their mission was to make him known to those nations. The Scriptures practically shout that the Lord’s desire is not to have to judge human beings for their sinful rebellion, but to see them reconciled to him through the ministry of his people. But Israel refused to walk the path he laid out for her. She made her offerings and said her prayers in the temple, she circumcised her sons and she followed the holy diet God had given her, but she compromised with pagans; she oppressed the poor, the widow, and the orphan; and she couldn’t pray for her own redemption apart from praying for the judgement and destruction of the nations—the very people to whom she was supposed to reveal God’s lovingkindness. Like me as a stubborn little boy thinking of my sisters only as “stupid”, Israel stubbornly thought of the nations only as “enemies”, and as a result she couldn’t fulfil her mission. For that matter, when Jesus came, the Messiah they’d all been waiting for, Israel rejected him because he didn’t match her expectations. She expected a Messiah who would judge, but Jesus came not to judge but to redeem.
And the disciples weren’t immune. Here and there in the Gospels we see Jesus break through their misperceptions. For just a moment they start to grasp the true nature of the kingdom and the true nature of Jesus—and then they quickly fall back into their old ways of thinking. We see this again in Luke 22 as Jesus gives what is sometimes called his “Farewell Discourse”. He and his friends have shared the Passover meal. As we saw last time, Jesus has just taken the bread and the wine and given them new significance—he’s used them to explain that he’s about to lead his people in a new exodus from the power of the Satan and from sin and from death. He’s explained that it’s going to happen as he gives his body and blood to establish a new covenant. It’s in this setting that St. John, in his Gospel, tells us that Jesus made a point of taking on the role of a servant and washing his disciples’ feet—giving what would have been a profound and very disconcerting lesson on what it means for him and for them to be Israel for the sake of the world. Short of the Incarnation and Cross, there is nothing more powerful in Jesus’ ministry that speaks to the servant nature of the Messiah and to the servant nature of God’s kingdom and his people.
And the disciples utterly miss the point. Luke writes in 22:24.
A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.
They believe. They’re confident that Jesus is the Messiah and they trust him when he talks about leading them in a new exodus from their enemies. But everything Jesus has been trying to teach them about the nature of that exodus, about the nature of his ministry, about the nature of the kingdom—not to mention his expectations for them—has gone completely over their heads. They’re stuck in the mindset of the Israel who has failed in her mission. They’re still thinking of deliverance in terms of nationalistic ambition and violent victory over the Romans. Jesus is talking about the kingdom being almost here—he won’t eat another meal before it comes—and they’re having dreams of an uprising and victory and triumphal processions and Jesus taking a throne in Jerusalem with all of them on thrones beside him. And they can’t imagine those thrones without then bickering over which of them will be the greatest: who will get to sit in the place of highest honour at Jesus’ right hand?
This had to be incredibly frustrating for Jesus in light of everything he’d been teaching them and modelling for them and in light of what he knew was about to happen. At the same time, Jesus knew their nature. He also knew how Israel had been duped in her thinking and how this worldly thinking ran deep—even in his disciples. He knew that it would take the Holy Spirit to truly transform their hearts and minds. They did have faith, they were with him, but he knew that he was going to have to walk the road ahead alone and wait for the disciples to catch up at Pentecost. In the meantime, though, he makes sure they’ve got plenty of food for thought. Luke goes on:
And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27)
In their wrangling for positions of honour in Jesus’ kingdom the disciples are showing that they don’t truly understand that kingdom. They’re thinking like Gentile kings. Take the Roman emperor, for example. He was emperor because he had power over men and he used it. He conquered his enemies. Any noble Roman could be Caesar if he had the money and the power to raise armies and defeat his rivals. And anyone could hold on to power as Caesar if he lavished his wealth on the people—they would support whomever entertained them with free circuses and gave them bread to fill their empty bellies. But at the end of the day there was nothing particularly magnanimous about these wealthy and powerful men and their bread and circuses—they did it in return for political support. The whole Roman Empire, not to mention the pagan gentile world, was built on this system of quid pro quo—no one did anything for anyone else without expecting something in return. The truly sad thing is that this pagan way of living had been absorbed by the Jews as well and even the disciples are finding it hard to shake free of it.
Jesus has been making this point throughout his ministry. Those called by God serve him by serving others in order to make him known. He rebukes his disciples: This is not your way! Instead, he tells them, they need to be like the youngest and if they find themselves in positions of leadership, they ought to use that position to be a servant. Think back again to Jesus rebuking the disciples as they tried to send away parents bringing their little children to Jesus. And think back to the last time the disciples were arguing about which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom. (No, this isn’t the first time!) Jesus picked up a child and rebuked them saying, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me….For he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48). Remember, children had no status in that society. Again, everything was about giving and expecting something in return. Children have nothing to offer and that put them at the bottom, right along with the slaves.
This is the model they are to follow: not only receiving children and serving them despite the children having nothing to offer in return, but Jesus goes so far as to tell them that they need to be like the children themselves—they need see themselves as being in a position of humility. Again, why? Jesus makes his point by switching to the analogy of a slave. Imagine a banquet. There are wealthy and powerful people reclining around the table and there are slaves slipping in and out serving them. Imagine that banquet and then ask yourself who the greatest is. The pagans, the gentiles—even most of the Jews—would say that the rich and powerful reclining around the table are the greatest—and the greatest of them is the one with the most wealth and with the most power. The slaves are nobodies, with no wealth and no power. And yet Jesus turns it upside-down. Jesus is the greatest of all. He’s the Messiah. He’s the one about to lead his people in a new exodus. He’s the Lord, who will be vindicated in the judgement and destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple. And the disciples want to be there reclining at his table in the places of honour. They’re imagining him at the high dais, reclining at the king’s place. And Jesus says, no—he’s the slave serving the humblest of all the guests. “I am among you as one who serves.”
That’s the true nature of the kingdom, that’s the true nature of leadership and of messiahship, and that’s the true nature of what it means to follow Jesus. Imagine being a disciple. Jesus has invited you to a banquet. You strut into this great banquet, telling the guard with pride that you’re with Jesus, and then taking your place at the high table and looking down your nose at all the people of lesser status below you. The king’s seat is empty, but you know Jesus will be here any minute. And then as the food is brought in you see Jesus, not coming to take his place at the high table, but coming in with the servants. And then you realise that Jesus was inviting you there, not to lord your status over everyone else, but to join him in serving. That’s what it means to be Israel for the world.
And, Brothers and Sisters, if we’re honest we know that we fail at this all the time. We live our lives seeking our own gain. We give only because we expect something in return. As Jesus’ new Israel, we know we’re called to make him known by serving the world, but we spend much of our time—maybe even most of our time, not to mention most of our money—living for ourselves. But there’s hope. Jesus goes on in verses 28-30:
“You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
They’ve walked with Jesus this far; he’s not about to let them fall away. The Father has assigned Jesus a kingdom and Jesus, with his authority is assigning them that kingdom as well. The word he uses, “assign” or “appoint”, is a word that means to decree something, but it’s also a word related to the word for covenant. Jesus is establishing a new covenant and he’s decreeing a place for his disciples in it, despite their failures, despite their weak faith, and despite their lack of understanding. Again, Jesus knows that he’s going to have to walk this path alone, but even as his disciples abandon him, he will not let them go. He has called them, elected them, he has decreed that they will have a place in his kingdom. Not only that, but these flawed and fickle men, he says, will not only have a place in his kingdom, but they will sit on thrones as judges of the twelve tribes.
This is more of Jesus’ exodus and “new Israel” imagery. There hadn’t been twelve tribes of Israel since the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom in 734 b.c., scattering the ten tribes that lived there. The judges—those rulers of Israel called up, often from obscurity, by the Lord in her times of dire need—were long gone too. Jesus’ point is that in these events that are about to unfold, he is creating a new people of God, a new Israel, not centred on land or temple this time, but centred around himself as the fulfilment of both God’s call and his promise to Israel and he has decreed a place of honour to the disciples as its judges. And yet before they can take up that position, they need to learn what it means to serve.
Again, if we’re honest with ourselves we know that we’ve failed Jesus too many times to count. How often do we feel shame, not only over our sin, but over our failure to serve and to live for the world and the people around us as Jesus did? But, Brothers and Sisters, we can find assurance in Jesus’ words to the disciples. We are his beloved covenant people and he has decreed a place for us at his table in the kingdom. As he gave his Spirit to the disciples, he has given his Spirit to us and his Spirit will continue to renew our minds and regenerate our hearts until we are one day overflowing with the fruit of the Spirit. If he has called us, Jesus will not abandon us.
That is, I think, particularly encouraging in light of what Jesus says in verses 31-34:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”
The Satan managed to get his hooks into Judas and being successful there, Jesus knows that he’ll try to deceive the other disciples too. Peter is insistent that he’ll follow Jesus even to prison or to death. How often do we make the same sorts of promises to Jesus? “Jesus, I’ll follow you anywhere. Jesus, I’ll give up anything for you.” But when it really comes down to it, we’re afraid to follow and we’re afraid to let go. Think again of the Israelites. They were rescued miraculously from Egypt, they went through the Red Sea on dry land, God met them at Mt. Sinai and gave them his law and they shouted out to Moses: “All the Lord has spoken we will do!” But within a few years they were grumbling against Moses and grumbling against the Lord, they were longing for Egypt, and they refused to march into Canaan because they were afraid of the giants there. Jesus knew this. He prophesied that Peter would deny him three times that very night. And just like you and me as we say, “No, no, Lord, we’ll do all you say and go wherever you lead.” Peter protested too. And yet Jesus gave him a note of encouragement. “Yes, you will deny me three times, but when you come back to me, you’ll be the one who will give strength to your brothers.” Things were going to be difficult, Jesus knew—for him and for his friends—but the Lord would be with them, the Lord would even turn the Satan’s plans to his own use, and in the end those whom he had called he would restore to himself.
In verses 35-37 Jesus reminds them of better days and warns them about what’s about to come:
And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”
Back in Chapter 9 Jesus sent out his disciples. Those were the early days of his ministry—days before he’d really started to upset the status quo and before he’d become a serious threat to the Jewish religious leaders. People welcomed him and they welcomed his disciples. They went out with nothing, depending on the hospitality of the people they served in Jesus’ name. But things have changed. In the coming days the people will be hostile. They’ll need their money and they’ll need their knapsacks because no one’s going to be taking them in. In fact, Jesus warns them that they’ll probably face violent opposition—if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one! Jesus’ point isn’t that they should actually arm themselves, as we’ll see. When the chief priests’ soldiers arrest Jesus and Peter draws his sword, Jesus rebukes him and heals the soldier whom Peter injured. That’s not the way of the kingdom. That’s the way Israel thought of the kingdom, but that’s precisely why she’s in trouble and headed for judgement.
Even here Jesus offers them hope. Things are going to get very difficult—even outright hostile—but all this will take place to fulfil the Lord’s plan. Jesus quotes Isaiah 53:12.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.
Jesus knew that in the coming days he would be fulfilling the role of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant—this man who would give his life for the sake and for the sins of his people. He would carry their infirmities. He would be wounded for their transgressions. Upon him would be placed the iniquity and the punishment of the sheep who had gone astray. Once again, this isn’t just the role of the Messiah; this is the very nature of his kingdom. Israel failed in her mission to be a light to the world. Israel rebelled against her God. And so Jesus is dying in her place—taking her punishment on himself—and offering life to any in Israel—or amongst the gentiles—who will reorient their lives in faith in him and then those who are in Jesus, now filled with the Holy Spirit and with the law written on their hearts, will take up that mission given so long ago to Abraham: to be Israel for the sake of making God known to the world. They will give of themselves, rather than seeking their own gain—even to the point of giving their lives. This is the way that makes for peace that the old Israel had forgotten in her nationalistic ambitions.
And—forgetting that it won’t “click” for the disciples until Pentecost—we might think that after all this the disciples would finally get it. But no. After all this talk about servant leadership and about giving themselves for the sake of making him known to the world, even in the face of hostility and even death, they respond:
“Look, Lord, here are two swords.” (Luke 22:38a)
They still don’t understand. They still think that soon Jesus is going to throw off the poor itinerant rabbi disguise and start the revolution that will overthrow the Romans. And even though Jesus knows that they don’t get it, even though he knows that they’re going to abandon him in the hours ahead, we see his exasperation as he says to them:
“It is enough.” (Luke 22:38b)
He’s not saying, “Oh good! You’ve got two swords. That’s plenty to get the revolution started.” No, it’s an exasperated “Enough!” It may have been a bit angry or it may have been said with a sigh of resignation, but the point is that Jesus ended the discussion, whether he couldn’t take any more of their foolishness or simply didn’t want them pursuing that line of thinking any further. Enough! No more! Again, they’ll figure out later when the Spirit descends on them—then they’ll understand the kingdom and then they’ll be ready to follow Jesus and to be Israel for the world.
Brothers and Sisters, we can find a lot of encouragement and assurance in these last words of Jesus to his disciples. As I said, we often find ourselves in the place of Peter. We have the best of intentions to follow Jesus. We have the best of intentions to serve others in his name. We have the best of intentions to give of ourselves. Jesus calls us to follow and we commit: All this we will do! And then we face the world, the flesh, and the devil. Our old sins call us back to an old way of life. The values of the people around us lure us away from the values of the kingdom. We get caught up in living for ourselves and giving while expecting something in return. And it’s easy to forget that our real enemies are sin and death when we face the hostility of the world and when pundits and politicians are shouting at us that that group or those people over there are our enemies. We’re tempted, just as Peter was, to draw our swords—literally or politically—and try to bring the kingdom by force. Friends, we need to remember the true nature of the kingdom. We need to remember that Jesus calls us to give ourselves in service, making him known to the world—even in the face of death. We need to remember who our real enemies are not flesh and blood, but sin and death and that they have been overcome by Jesus in his death and resurrection. Our calling is to preach the good news that Jesus is Lord. Jesus has called us and he has given us his Spirit that we might truly have power over the world, the flesh, and the devil—power to remain and to live as kingdom people. And remember, as Jesus prayed for Peter, Jesus prays for us. The Lord’s work will go on despite our failings, but Jesus nonetheless gives us the grace we need to do the work to which he has called us.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, we asked in this morning’s collect for you to preserve your Church through your help and goodness. We ask this again, knowing that as Jesus prayed for Peter, he prays for us and knowing that as he poured out the Holy Spirit on the Church at Pentecost, he continues to pour out that same Spirit on us. Remind us daily, Father, of our calling to serve—to be Israel for the world—and assure us each day of your grace—that you have equipped us to fulfil your calling, we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.