Christians and the Christ

Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 24:40 mark.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Why doesn’t the Church look more like Jesus? Maybe you’ve heard that question or a variation of it; maybe it’s just a question, or maybe it’s an accusation. Sometimes people take pleasure in asking it, because if they can discredit Christians—or if Christians discredit themselves—then the Church is discredited, and then Jesus is discredited. Some people have read or heard only a few verses from the Bible out of context, and they want Christians to act to act like those few verses.

But sometimes the question—about why Christians don’t look or act or talk or love like Jesus—comes as a sort of lament. The Church or Christians have hurt or harmed someone in some way—sometimes in very serious and grievous ways—and they ask the question, Why would someone who claims to follow Jesus act like that or do that?

But however the question is being asked, we should be the ones asking about the distance between Christians—us—and Jesus, whom we follow. The easy and most readily available answer is sin. We are still sinners, and sinners don’t naturally follow the way Jesus, who had no sin. But that cannot be an excuse for acting like jerks, or doing things that are opposed to Jesus and His will, for not loving and forgiving. The Scriptures do not say, “We do not love, because He first loved us,” or “Do not forgive as you have been forgiven.” They say the opposite. We love because He first loved us. We forgive because we have been forgiven.

And when we do not, the proper response is not to give up and do whatever we want, since we aren’t perfect anyway. The proper response is repentance. To come before the Lord and confess our failures to love and serve and forgive. And to hear from Him as He delivers to us His own forgiveness and life. And then we go back out and practice loving and forgiving. We try. We work. We fail. We need Jesus. It’s no surprise that there are sinners in the Church. Jesus came as a friend to sinners. He came to seek and save the lost. He came not to call the righteous but sinners. The healthy do not need a doctor, but the sick need the Good Physician. And so we never stop needing Him, dependent on Him. We have, after all, already died, and now He is our life. We cannot live apart from Him, and apart from Him we can do nothing.

You can see the evidence of this gap between Christ and His Christians throughout history, going back to the very beginning. Read the Book of Acts. Divisions, disagreements, conflicts, failures. Read Paul’s letters, especially to the Corinthians and the Galatians. All sorts of problems. The contrast between Jesus and His disciples might be most clear when Jesus explicitly tells them what He has come to do.

Three times in the Gospel of Mark Jesus tells His disciples that He’s going to suffer, die, and rise from the dead. And each and every time, His disciples immediately do or say something that shows that they do not understand Him. They simply do not have the categories for what He is telling them. The first time Jesus tells them that He’s going to suffer, die, and rise from the dead, Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Him. The second time Jesus tells them that He’s going to suffer, die, and rise from the dead, the disciples immediately begin to argue about which of them is the greatest. And the third time that Jesus tells them that He’s going to suffer, die, and rise from the dead, James and John ask to sit on His right and left in His glory.

I don’t know when they think that He’s going to enter His glory, but when He does, they want to make sure they’re right there, in the best seats, sharing in the glory of Jesus. And they have a pretty good claim, they might think. After all, they were two of the first to follow Jesus. And they saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain, so maybe they think they’ll get a chance to be like Moses and Elijah. But Jesus tells them that they don’t know what they’re talking about. They, like Peter, are thinking the way that people think, and not the way that God thinks.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus asks. “Or be baptized with the baptism with which I’m going to be baptized?” We are, they assure Jesus. And He says, “You will drink it and you will be baptized with it.” It’s interesting to compare what happens to James and John. They both share in the cup of Jesus’ suffering, and they are both baptized with His death, but in different ways. Already in Acts 12, James shares that cup and is baptized into death when Herod has him put to death by the sword. James, though, lives out his life and dies as an old man. He shares in the suffering by persecution and exile.

Jesus says to them, “But the seats on My right and My left are not for Me to give, but they are for those for whom they’ve been prepared.” And we actually see this happen in the Gospel of Mark, in chapter 15. So we know when Jesus enters His glory. They crucified with Him two thieves, two robbers, one on His right and one on His left. Those two are the ones for whom His right and left have been prepared, and there on the cross is where He enters His glory.

In Hebrews 5, it is translated that Christ did not “exalt” Himself to become a high priest. But the word is another form of the word for “glory” here. Christ did not “glorify” Himself to be made high priest, but His Father glorified Him, and the high priest according to the order of Melchizedek was made also the sacrifice. And when He had suffered, and it was all brought to its completion—when it was finished—then, in His resurrection, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey—to all who hear, and believe Him. Here He is glorified by the Father; here He drinks the cup; here He is baptized with the baptism of death.

But the cup He drinks is more than just suffering, although that happens. But many times in the prophets and in the Psalms, the cup of God is His wrath, which He makes the idolatrous nations drink until they are drunk. Jesus drinks the cup of God’s wrath all the way down, to the dregs. He drinks it so that there is no more wrath for James and John, no more wrath for you and me. There is the cup of suffering, which we all drink in one way or another. But for those who are in Christ Jesus, there is no more condemnation.

Then Jesus calls together all the disciples, because the other ten are indignant—annoyed and angry—with James and John. But since they all argued about who was the greatest, I suspect they were not angry that James and John asked the question, but that they asked it first. They thought of it first; they got to Jesus first. But then Jesus calls them all together and He points out the ways in which they have all been sucked in to thinking the thoughts of people rather than the thoughts of God. They’ve been thinking the way that the rulers, or the first ones, the prominent ones in the world think: who lord it over the Gentiles, and exercise authority over them. But not so among you.

This is the way it is in the world. It’s all about power. And power in the world is a zero-sum game. That is, if someone has power, someone else doesn’t have power. If someone has more power, someone else has less. So some people try to get power from those who have it, and other people try to hang on to the power they have, and keep people from taking it away. That’s how nearly everything works: in politics, in popular culture, among and between nations and peoples.

Not so among you, in the Kingdom where Jesus is King. He doesn’t rule like that in this world. The day is coming when every knee will bow and every tongue confess, when everyone will see Jesus in all His divine glory and there will be no more doubt about who is Lord and who is King. But that day is not now, and His glory in this world doesn’t look like that. It looks like the greatest ones serving and the first ones being slaves to all. It looks like the greatest one, the only truly great one, coming not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for the multitudes, taking our place under the wrath of God. And when we get sucked in to thinking along the ways of this world, it is when we think that if we can just get enough power, if we can just have enough influence, if we can just get the right person elected and the right laws passed, then we can make everything go right. But it will not be so in this world, and Jesus Himself demonstrates to and for us what happens to the Kingdom of God in this world. Perhaps it is right, then, that Christians are see to have little power and little influence. Because then the power of God for salvation, the cross of Christ and His resurrection, will have their way, among us, and in our country, and in the world.

Christians are often—always—short of our Lord. Which is why we still need Him, and why the whole world need Him—which is more and more apparent every single day. But we have the Holy Spirit. And we have the life of Jesus, which He gives to us in His living Body and Blood. And so we go out and serve and love, we practice His love for one another, we have our old self, with its greed and lust and seeking after power put to death every day, and we have our new self, in the image of Christ, rise daily with all the fruit of the Holy Spirit. And because He forgives our iniquity and takes away our sin; because of the new covenant in His blood, the day is coming when there will be no gap between the love of Christ and the love of His Christians. We will no longer have to say to each other, Know the Lord and love your neighbor, because from the greatest to the least, we will all know the Lord. We will love perfectly. We will bear the image of Christ fully. And the life we live now by faith in the Son of God we will live by sight on that day, sharing in the eternal glory of the Son, the Lord, the King.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/20/21

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