(Modified 2021-09-19: Added audio recording of this sermon)
Humble Service is the Seal of New Covenant and Shield Against Sin of Self-Gratification
Jesus answered, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
We may ask questions like: First in what, or of what? And last in what, or of what? What is the reference point to that which Jesus is talking about when he passed on this piece of advice to us?
Jesus Christ is talking about the kingdom of God that has been ushered in by the gospel of Christ. The core gospel message is the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This gospel is the main feature of the Messianic covenant, for which Christ represents and which Christ teaches that if one wants to receive recognition or membership in this covenant for the reign of God, one must think like one is the least of all and the servant of all.
When we welcome the least in the society, individuals such as the children, we welcome Jesus Christ. When we welcome Jesus Christ, we are actually not welcoming Christ, God the Son, on his own; we also welcome God the Father who has sent Jesus to us (Mark 9:37).
The gospel message about the marginalized takes its core emphasis in the suffering of Christ. Jesus is the marginalized for us; he is one of the least we pay less attention to in the society.
Last Sunday, we read about Jesus’ teaching that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…, and be killed, and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31). This Sunday Jesus again teaches, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (Mark 9:31).
The only difference from the teaching about betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus is the two Markan narratives is the reaction of the disciples.
Last Sunday, Peter understood the magnitude of suffering and death of Jesus and reacted by rebuking Jesus not to think in such a manner because the life of Jesus is not Jesus’ own property to part ways with as Jesus wishes. On Jesus hangs the life of the disciples and the world.
It turns out Peter did not understand the message because his thoughts were fixated on human interpretation and needs. Jesus then corrected and rebuked Peter, calling him Satan, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33).
This Sunday, the disciples heard the same teaching about the betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, and they did not say anything because they did not understand what Jesus was saying, and they were afraid to ask Jesus about the meaning of the teaching.
Imagine this is the second time that Jesus is teaching about his betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection, and the disciples, including Peter, did not get it!
There is a reason for this repetitive teaching about the betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection. It represents the recurrent breaking of the covenant between God and his people Israel.
The identity of Jesus is embedded in his suffering. Jesus is the Suffering Messiah. The more we understand this simple messianic concept, the safer our Christian faith. Other doctrines and theologies that teach different type gospel apart from this must be questioned, disregarded.
When we read the story of Jeremiah in the Old Testament (OT), we find a glimpse of the new covenant. It is suffering for the truth of what God has revealed to us.
Jeremiah is a ‘little Jesus’ through typology (the study and explanation of OT types), which foreshadows or “prefigures” the events and realities in the New Testament (NT). Among the four schemas through which the early church fathers interpreted the Scripture— that is, the prophecy-fulfillment, exemplary hermeneutical principle, typology, and allegory—the typological schema related OT persons, events, or institutions to counterparts in the NT. Adam was a type of Christ (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-49); Melchizedek was a type of Jesus (Hebrews 7:1-17); Noah’s deliverance was a type of Christian baptism (1 Peter 3:21); Israel under Moses and Joshua was a type of the Church under Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Hebrews 3:2-4:10).
The OT Scriptures, particularly typological references, are significant in setting the theme of the entire calendar in the Anglican and other liturgical Christian churches—well, most of the times, and not every time because the preachers can bring some subjectivity to the Scriptures.
With the help of the Holy Spirit, the early Christians believed that Jesus was the one who could open up the true meaning of the OT, the Scripture. On this basis, the early Christians also began looking to the OT as a guide to understand Jesus and the new covenant community, the Church; it was a reciprocal relationship between understanding Jesus and the OT.
Jeremiah is a type of Christ in his suffering and submission to God, even when it means death for the rest of the humanity that are sinful and have broken the covenant. Everything Jeremiah said about himself is in reference to Christ: It was the Lord who made it known to me, and I knew; then you showed me their evil deeds. But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. And I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered!” But you, O Lord of hosts, who judge righteously, who try the heart and the mind, let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause (Jer. 11:18-20).
However, the biggest enemy to following Jesus, that is, living the life of discipleship and the cross, is setting our minds not on divine things but on human things. Breaking of the covenant with God is the sin we wrestle with every day. We cannot understand Christ without the cross, the identity that makes us ‘little Christs.’ For this reason, Jesus focuses his message last Sunday on the cross and discipleship: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8: 34).
In our gospel reading today, the focus on the cross and the new covenant comes out when the disciples begin to argue among themselves about who was the greatest, and Jesus advises that “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9: 35).
Jesus provides the remedy against such human thinking, where the disciples are thinking about human things, who is the greatest. What does Apostle Saint James say about where conflicts and disputes among us come from? They come “from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4: 1-3).
There are two possibilities that result in argument about power struggle among the disciples. First, Jesus has told the disciples about his death. The disciples are possibly thinking about the future of their movement, which would need a leader to oversee it after the death of Jesus.
Thinking about succession and leadership politics should be clearer to us because by tomorrow Monday September 20, 2021 Canadians will know their leader for some more years to come. Who is the greatest has been framed in political context, and that is purely human thinking.
Second, in the immediate context prior to the beginning of the teaching about the suffering and death of Jesus, the disciples had tried to heal the boy with unclean spirit, and they were unable. The disciples asked Jesus in private, “Why could we not cast it out?” (Mark 9:28). Jesus said it is their lack of belief and prayer: “This kind can come out only through prayer” (Mark 9:29).
It probably means the disciples are thinking about who among them has the greatest gift of healing and miracle so that when Jesus has been killed, someone may step in to heal the people from unclean spirits and, preserve the disciples’ dignity from shame and guilt.
These are only possibilities. What brought about argument on group structure, aspirations for leadership or spiritual supremacy, is not explained, and is also not significant for our teaching.
The message about suffering, death and resurrection on the background of putting others first in the service of the crucified and risen Lord is the main focus. It turns our spiritual gifts cannot be controlled or manipulated to show who has the greatest gift.
This teaching from Jesus is the origin of servant leadership that we usually hear about in modern business management and leadership training programs. Those who continue to credit Robert k. Greenleaf (The Servant as Leader, 1970) with coining the concept of ‘servant leadership’ has yet to read their Bibles! Jesus has already given us a great example and model for servant leadership: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9: 35).
Through humble service for others and for God, that is, emulating Christ’s self-love and doing the will of God, the greatest of the believers will emerge from those who continue in this suffering and humble path. This is not something that will depend on the educational credentials and achievements, job experience, extensive executive training, and political influence and prominence in the community, but from the fruits of the service for others.
Our actions bring glory and honour to God. Whoever becomes the first or the last in the new covenant is the will of God in Christ, and not through human merits or skills.
Humble service is the seal of the new covenant and the shield against self-gratification, a sin of pride that makes us exalt ourselves above others. Apostle James teaches that our greatest defence against the temptation of self-gratification is drawing near to God because by so doing God will also draw near to us and enable us through his Holy Spirit to stand the temptation of the pleasure.
It may sound like we are taking the initiative, and God is only responding to our actions. That is not what Jesus, Prophet Jeremiah and Apostle James are teaching us.
God is the initiator of the Messianic covenant that Jesus has revealed to us: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).
We only welcome God and receive his blessing prepared for use before the beginning of the world, before the old covenant broken and which Jeremiah has written about its implications.
What should we do to renew our relationship with God and with each other? Repent and draw near to God and he will draw near to us and enable us to love each other.
What can we do to be the greatest in the kingdom of the new covenant? Thinking about ourselves less, serving others more, and accepting the cross, suffering as part of discipleship.
What ways should we work with others for the service of the church, the community of the faithful? Our discernment, such as the one we will do today in the congregational forum, is a mean to allow the Holy Spirit to lead the church in a time of transition, change, and renewal.
May God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit help us serve others with love in the world. Amen!