Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 25:20 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The difference between the way of Jesus and the way of the world could not be clearer. Jesus tells His disciples the way that He is walking: the way to being handed over, the way to suffering, the way to death, the way to resurrection. That is the way. But while they are on the way, the disciples are arguing with each other about who is the greatest. I suppose they might have admitted that Jesus was the greatest, but who was in second place? Who came next? Who was closest to Jesus? Which is where they should be, but they have Jesus backwards. It says that when Jesus tells them about His death and resurrection, they did not understand His words and they were afraid to ask Him about it.
What they argue about shows just how much they didn’t understand His words. What we argue about shows whether we have understood Jesus. What are we arguing about, and does it have anything to do with Jesus’ humility, suffering, death, and resurrection? Or are we simply showing that we don’t understand Jesus’ words? There is the way of Jesus, and the way of the world, which is also, at this point, the way of the disciples. They are on the way with Jesus, following Jesus, but they don’t understand the way that Jesus is walking, and so they highlight the difference between Jesus’ way and the world’s way.
Jesus says that if you want to be first, then you must be last of all and servant of all. But why? Is Jesus just playing word games, giving them some sort of inscrutable philosophical saying that they have to figure out? Why should it be that in Jesus’ kingdom, the first ones, the greatest ones, are the last ones who are the servants of all? It is for one reason and one reason only: because this is what Jesus does and who Jesus is. We ought to outdo one another in showing love, in serving, in being the lowest. Of course, we can also do that in a way that shows just how infected we are with our sinful nature. If we’re not arguing about who’s most important, who has the most control, who is higher or better, we will argue about who is the least. I’ve sacrificed the most! I’ve served the most! Look how much I’ve given up! And that shows just how much we still need Jesus. So He puts us back on the way to the cross, to put to death the entire thing.
This is the way of following Jesus in this world. Jesus, the greatest one, is the one who makes Himself last and least and lowest, who serves all. I don’t think anyone would disagree with the fact that in this world the lesser serve the greater; the servants serve their master; the subjects serve their king. Jesus is the one who ought to be served; the right thing is for the creatures to serve their Creator when He shows up in flesh and blood. But He turns everything around and serves His creation.
This is not the way of the world. People—at least some people—have been talking about the recent Met Gala. If you want to see who is considered significant and important in this world, look at who gets invited to the Met Gala: the rich, the celebrities, those with political power. And if you don’t make the guest list, you can pay $30,000 or so to get in. Of course, whether you get your ticket paid for or you pay for it yourself, you can probably afford it. No one’s taking out a loan to buy a ticket. But whatever you think about them, the people there are the people whom the world views as important.
Jesus has a different way. He took a child, embraced him in His arms, and said to the disciples: If anyone receives one such child because of My Name receives Me. And whoever receives Me receives not only Me, but the Father who sent Me. It works the other way around, too. Whoever claims to receive, or believe, God, will receive Jesus, and whoever receives Jesus will receive the little ones who bear His Name, believing Him.
Why a child? We probably think that is fitting. After all, children are sweet, cute, and innocent. We use them in ad campaigns and hold them up as examples. But at Jesus’ time, no one would have been doing that. No one would ever have written a book at Jesus’ time called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Young children don’t contribute, they don’t have anything to give, they can’t do farm work. They take, they cost, they have to be given everything. In fact, at that time, the word for child could also be used as a word for slave. That’s how important and significant children were.
Which is exactly Jesus’ point. Jesus doesn’t welcome and receive people because they’re so important or significant, because they’re rich or famous, because they can make Him look good and help to sell Him to the masses. He gives everything, serves them, and all they do is receive from Him. They receive His Name, and He calls them His own. And He identifies Himself with those who are rejected, ignored, unimportant. Because that is what He is: rejected, handed over, shamed, suffered, dead. Receiving a little child shows you understand what Jesus is about.
So the Church cannot be about celebrity, about promoting the rich, the important, the significant. The Church receives those who cannot contribute, who cannot make us look good, who are in need of Jesus’ life and hope and forgiveness, who can only receive what Jesus gives. That is, those like us, whom Jesus has received. As Paul says to the Christians in Corinth, not many of you who were called were powerful, wise, or born to important and wealthy families. Jesus did not choose us because He couldn’t have a Church without us. He simply loved us. God chose you and me in Christ before the foundation of the world, before we had done anything at all. And He put His Name on us, gathered us to Himself, and embraced us with His everlasting love.
What do we have to argue about, then? The things the world thinks are important? Who has power and money and which of them are doing what? Or are we simply following Jesus on the way: the way of service, the way that leads to the cross, and the way that leads to resurrection?
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, 9/18/21