Welcome, my brothers and sisters, to the late fall campaign meeting of James and John, the infamous Boanerges Brothers! I was hoping for a little thunder and lightning at the top of the hour, but no such luck. If it comes, however, have no fear, this boat is sound. Of course, there are those who may not want to go the end of the journey, but your passage has already been secured.
They had asked to sit one at His right, and one at His left. They had asked, not to lead the ten, but to bask in their own sycophantic glory. They had wanted Jesus to do for them whatever they asked. Whatever! And as with the little children, He will, in love, draw them to Himself, so that when those seats in glory are finally revealed, they will stay the course.
Those seats have been prepared, but no ballot box will be needed to get us there, for as with everything else that comes from the God who elects, all of our campaign strategies will be worthless. Jesus calls His disciples to be as servants, He calls them to be as slaves in the household, as those whose every energy goes into tending to the life of others.
If our master were to be rich and severe we would struggle to find humility within the brutal shadow of humiliation. If our master was foolish and wasteful we would struggle to find this same humility without lusting for his opulence. If he was ruthless and ambitious, we would struggle yet again as our fear keeps us bound in the role of accomplice, for every time we do this master’s bidding we would lose ever more of whom we were called to be. But if our master is love incarnate, if our master is the servant of all himself, if our master will be seated for Shabbat dinner between a tax grabbing toady of the Roman regime and a woman who has no other choice than to lift her skirts for that same denarius, if our master will be flanked by filthy, stinking thieves on a cross, if our master will give his life as the ransom for many, then we will find our lives in the gift of humility, and we will find our place in using everything that he has given us for the sake of others, that they may know his unending love.
Our Lord will open our eyes to this divine calling when we are stroking the fevered head of a dying grandpa, for we will now find his pain flowing through our own tears. Our Lord will open them again as we hear the shaky voice of a sister who has just confessed to us what we have been afraid to utter before God for the last two decades. And then again when all we want to do is look away from Him because we’ve been so busy lording ourselves over others. Called to serve Him in this world as disciples, to be a ruler of the Gentiles is not our destiny but servant, herald, steward, slave. You are a sign, for the whole church—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—is a sign as she pours forth His love in feeding the hungry with the bread of heaven, in washing away the stench of death in the eternal waters that flow from his side, in speaking the Saviour’s grace and mercy until sinners again and again, find themselves breathing after death.
“Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you would be slave of all.” Servant and yes, even slave: We are called to a life of obedience to Jesus, a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, a life of patience, lowliness, and meekness, a life of forbearing one another in love, a life in which we conduct ourselves with a dignity that reflects the identity which He gives us. Clothed now in His righteousness, we drink from the cup of salvation. In distress, we call upon the name of the Lord. In victory, we fall to our knees in thanksgiving. Nothing that we have is ours. Nothing that we accomplish is by our merit. Nothing that we aspire to beyond faithfulness will come from His hand.
In the breath and power of the Spirit we are baptized with the baptism with which He is baptized, fire burning away chaff, hearts flayed open, consciences ever-scourged, nothing in this world or the next able to stop Him from loving us. By the time Jesus calls us to be slaves He’s resisted the Devil’s temptation, redefined the Sabbath, healed those who were far beyond the bounds of human help, calmed the lashing forces of nature that terrorize, sent legions of demons on their way, raised a tiny girl from death, fed the rumbling bellies of thousands, conversed on high with Moses and Elijah, made clear what goodness God intended from the beginning in making us male and female, and gave the disciples the inglorious task of imagining what it might take to push the ass of a camel through an eye of an needle. And then just as He is ready to speak of what is to come when He arrives in Jerusalem, He gives them a hint of what awaits them as well: “Houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecution, and in the age to come eternal life. But many that are first will be last, and the last first.” Are you ready now to be the slave? Are ye ready, are ye able? Those sons of thunder were not nor were their ten companions, but in the power of the resurrected one, they came to be, and so will we, for His words were not only meant for James and John but for all who would his disciples be.
Jesus Christ, Son of the Father from eternity, true God and yet true man, will indeed grant what His disciples ask for, that is, what His disciples ask for in faith, through faith, by faith, for true faith seeks only that which is in accord with the Father’s will, and it is in such faith that He makes the blind to see, the lame to dance, and self-promoting women and men into apostles, martyrs, saints, and, of course, slaves. But not the sort of slaves we’ve come to know who do their earthly master’s bidding, not those who are forced to bow and scrape to receive their daily bread, not those who are doormats to the domestic warlords that keep their families hostage to their rage, not the sort of slaves whose slavery shackles them to live as if they were less than human, as if life were meant to be a dark and cheerless prison, but slaves whose bonds to their Lord make them free—free to love, free to shower their neighbor with mercy, free to lay down their lives for His friends.
“You know those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you,” for among you, submission is joy and obedience brings only delight. For all that you do according to Father’s will is part of His way of loving this world. May our voices lifted this day in prayer, prayer, and thanksgiving strengthen and renew us in this, His saving love, so that our life together will serve His purposes in the world. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Amy C. Schifrin serves as pastor of Mission in Christ and Faith Lutheran Churches in the Iowa Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church.