Cornerstone EPC Sunday morning
Franklin, NC 28734 March 19, 2023
“Not to Be Served, but to Serve”
We today tread, with Jesus, ever closer to His agony on the Cross—an agony now announced thrice, according to Mark (8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34). His followers, including the Twelve, find themselves both amazed and fearful as His every purposeful stride brings them ever closer to dangerous Jerusalem. Today, as they drew ever nearer to Jerusalem, Jesus repeats an earlier lesson (cf. 9:33-37): both because His disciples, then and now, need the repetition, and because the lesson is sufficiently important to learn. Let us refresh our memories, with James and John and the others, as we hear the Word of God read and proclaimed once again in this place.
(HERE READ THE TEXT)
James and John, the sons of thunder, come to Jesus with a request.1 They ask that one of them may sit at Jesus’ right, and the other at His left, in His Kingdom. Since Jesus will be dying soon anyway (32-34), they, presumably, want to present their request to Him before anyone else does the same. This audacious request leads to further conversation between Jesus and the two brothers. Jesus informs them that they know not what they ask. Those positions, after all, may entail more than the two wish—especially along the line of suffering for Jesus’ sake.
Then Jesus presses His point further. When He asks James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” He asks, in effect, “Can you endure what I will endure?” The disciples, for their part, say that they are able to endure what He will endure—still, I suspect, not knowing all they ask. Jesus replies that they will endure what He endures, but those seats they request are not His to grant, but the Father’s (Matthew 20:23), Who assigns them to those He prepares for them.2
The ten becoming indignant at James and John: both for their cheek and for their desire for the very seats that James and John requested. This provides Jesus a fine opportunity to teach, and He takes it. He calls the Twelve to Himself in order that He may teach and in order that they may learn. Jesus teaches that rulers of the Gentiles (or nations: Greek ethne [eqnh]) lord their ruling over their subjects and exercise authority over them, and both apparently with glee—to make themselves appear great and to make their subjects appear small.
Jesus assures His disciples that it shall not be thus among them. The great one among His disciples is a servant, and the first one among His disciples is a slave of the rest. Notice that Jesus provides the example of the very truth He teaches. He came not to be served. He emptied Himself of divine prerogative (though not of divinity proper), as Paul teaches us by the Spirit in Philippians 2:6-8. Rather, Jesus came to serve. He served by teaching, by healing, by exorcising, by resurrecting, and by stilling stormy weather—to name but five. He even served to the uttermost by giving His life as a ransom for many—even every elect soul given Him by the Father.
Again, Jesus repeats a lesson the disciples failed to learn earlier—namely, that they are not to seek greatness and first-ness by the world’s definitions and means. They learn again, and we learn again, that we seek not position, power, and preeminence in Christ’s Church. These come to some of us, from time to time, in God’s good providence, but they never come to gratify our lust for them. Rather, they come by Christ’s wise bestowal—to be utilized for His holy ends. We seek, rather, not to be served, but to serve.
Let us, then, renounce self in favor of Jesus’ Lordship. We place Jesus’ will for our lives above all else, and we subjugate our wills to His. Let us take the lowest place of all in His Body, the Church—esteeming others better than ourselves (cf. Philippians 2:3). Let us also give ourselves to serving others in His Body: both with the gifts He gives (either generally throughout our lives or specially in the moment as the need arises), and as He gives providential opportunity to serve. Even if that service be of humble, menial nature—and the Greek words for serve and service connote this—let us enter into it with gladness and thanks for God for the privilege. After all, Jesus Himself shows us the way.
1In Matthew’s parallel account (20:20-28, esp. 20-21), the mother of James and John voices their request, though Jesus addresses His response to the two sons alone.
2Indeed, in some measure, these two endure what Jesus endured. James dies a martyr under the reign of Herod Agrippa I (r. A. D. 41-44), while John dies an old man, apparently of natural causes, after bearing both exile for his Christian faith and the sorrow of seeing the persecutions, deaths, etc., of many a first- and second-generation Christian.