Not to Be Served, but to Serve

Picture the scene in your mind from the Gospel of Mark in Mark 10:32-45.  Jesus is leading the disciples up to Jerusalem.  They are amazed at his teachings, and those following behind are afraid.  They’ve seen a lot over the last three years as Jesus has taught and performed many miracles.  And as they are walking to Jerusalem Jesus takes the twelve disciples aside and explains to them what will happen to him once they reach the city.

He tells them that he will be “delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles.  And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him.  And after three days he will rise.”

That’s pretty heavy stuff.  Jesus is foretelling his death, and it sounds really awful.  He will suffer, die, and then rise again on the third day from the dead.  So, if his foretelling of his own death isn’t amazing enough, he’s also foretelling his resurrection from the dead.

You might expect all the disciples to be shocked into silence by what Jesus has just told them.  But, James and John, bless their hearts, have a request.  These brothers tended to be pretty intense and impulsive; we often see them in the Gospels going full force.  That is why Jesus nicknamed them elsewhere as “Sons of Thunder.”

So, they’re bold enough, right after Jesus foretells his coming suffering, death, and resurrection, to make a request of him.  They say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  That’s pretty forward; they just come right out and tell Jesus that they want him to fulfill their request.  Jesus replies, “What do you want me to do for you?”

So, they say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  They want to be exalted with Jesus following his resurrection.  Since Jesus is going to die and then rise and then ascend into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father, James and John want to be seated with Jesus in his glory.  They want to rule as well.

But, they don’t know what they’re asking, and Jesus tells them so.  He first asks them if they are able to drink the cup that he drinks and to be baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized.  They answer that they are able and Jesus confirms it, saying, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

Here Jesus is speaking of drinking a cup and being baptized, and both of these actions connect us with him, just as they connected James and John with Jesus.

St. Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth writes, “… the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, This is my body which is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.  In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:24ff).

So, we can drink the cup of Christ, because he gives it to us in his Supper.  This cup is the new covenant in his blood, poured out for us for the forgiveness of sins.  So, we may indeed drink of Christ’s cup.  And this cup points us to Christ’s death and connects us with it.  Indeed, later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, right before he was to be arrested, Jesus knew the hour of his death was coming and he cried out to his Father, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).

Likewise, Jesus’ baptism pointed towards his death.  He proclaimed in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!”  (Luke 12:50).  Jesus’ baptism was his death and resurrection.  So, when he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, this baptism pointed towards Jesus’ death and resurrection and connected the two events together.  Likewise, our baptisms also connect us with Jesus’ death and resurrection.  We are able to be baptized with the baptism with which he was baptized, because our baptism gives us the benefits of Christ’s baptism on the cross and empty tomb, which is salvation and the forgiveness of sins.  In baptism our old nature dies and God rebirths us as His children in the image of Christ.

So, if we are able to drink the cup of Christ and be baptized with his baptism, what does this say?  If the cup of Christ connects us with his suffering and death, and his baptism also connects us with his suffering and death, what does this say about what it means to be a Christian?  Perhaps it means that to be a Christian often involves suffering and servanthood?  If the Son of God came to serve and not be served (Matthew 20:28) and was treated as a criminal and was crucified between two criminals, one to his right and one to his left – those for whom it was prepared – doesn’t that mean that we will also drink of the same cup and share the same baptism?

And this is what Jesus tells the disciples.  The other 10 are angry at James and John for asking to be exalted above them, but Jesus takes them aside to explain things to them.  You can almost hear the gentleness in his voice as he says, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you.  But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The rulers of the Gentiles, that is the nations outside of the Church, lord their authority over others.  In Jesus’ time, the Roman emperor expected to be worshipped as a god, and lesser Roman rulers expected to be obeyed without question.  In our own time, we see similar things as well.  We have to deal with bosses or colleagues at work or acquaintances or politicians who are filled with a sense of their own self-importance and expect you to recognize it as well.

We have those who wish to lord their authority over us, and we may even at times succumb to the same temptation, exercising authority as a privilege to be enjoyed rather than as a responsibility to serve.  We may be tempted at work to lord our authority over others, rather than being a leader who endures hardships along with everyone else.  We may be tempted to treat our spouses as if they were to serve us, rather than as partners in marriage, meant to build each other up as one flesh united by God.

So, Jesus notes that this is the way the world works, lording authority over others, but he tells us that it is not to be so among us.  We are his people, called out from the world as God’s people – a unique, peculiar nation – and so whoever would be great must be a servant, and whoever would be first must be slave of all.  We are servants and slaves of each other, seeking to build each other up within the body of Christ.  We don’t push and trample down as do the people of the world, but rather we lift up and carry as the people of Christ.  The world tears down, while we build up.

And then this is the clincher.  For even Christ himself came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.  He is the eternal Lord God, come in the flesh.  He was there in the beginning at the first act of creation as the Word by whom the Father created all things.  He was there in the Old Testament with the patriarchs and prophets, dining with Abraham, wrestling with Jacob, leading the people into Jericho.  And now here he is, heading to Jerusalem, to suffer and die, not for himself, but for you.  For he came to serve you and to give his life as a ransom for you.

He is, as Hebrews points out and as Psalm 110 foretold, a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.  And who is Melchizedek?  In the book of Genesis, chapter 14, a man named Melchizedek met the patriarch Abraham after Abraham returned from defeating a group of pagan kings.  This Melchizedek was a priest of the Lord, God Most High, and also the king of Salem, which means peace, and is the place where the city of Jerusalem was built.  He was also a prophet, since he spoke the word of the Lord.

So this prophet, priest of God Most High, and king of peace blessed Abraham.  In response, Abraham gave him a tenth of all that he had.  And as part of this blessing, it says that Melchizedek brought out bread and wine and then blessed Abraham.  The blessing of this prophet, priest, and king was connected with the bread and wine.

So, the book of Hebrews – our other reading for today (Hebrews 5:1-10) – connects Jesus with this Melchizedek.  For Jesus is a prophet, the ultimate prophet, revealing the Father to us as the very incarnate Word of God.  And he is also the king of peace, the king of the new Jerusalem, the Church, the people redeemed by God from the rebellion of sin, making peace between us and God and us and each other and us and creation itself (due to the coming resurrection of the body).  And he is also the high priest of the Lord, of God Most High, appointed by God as the one through whom our intercessions flow.  As high priest, he intercedes for us before the Lord, removing the condemnation of our sins from us with his own blood as the sacrifice.

This eternal, sinless God in the flesh – this king of peace, this Lord over the Church and all creation, this Word of God – has come to take your sins upon himself.  He is clean and without blemish, but took your uncleanness and your blemishes upon himself.  You were held captive by sin and death, but he came to give his life as a ransom to free you and make peace between you and God.  So, he came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom, a payment, for you.

And the blessing of this prophet, priest, and king is connected with his body and blood.  Because on the cross, the instrument of your salvation, he gave up his body for you, and poured out his blood for you.  And he continues to bless you now through his body and blood by bringing out bread and wine for you to bless you in his Supper.  Do you see then, that we receive his blessings continually as he dwells in the midst of us through Word and Sacrament?

So, since we drink his cup and are baptized with his baptism, we too are to serve each other and be each other’s servants.  Husbands and wives are to build each other up, serving each other.  Parents and children are to love each other, children obeying their parents’ authority, and parents raising their children faithfully.  And brothers and sisters in Christ are to love and support each other, not lording their authority, but serving each other.

And we do all this, because we drink the cup of Christ and are baptized into his baptism.  He has made us his own in Baptism and he feeds us in the Lord’s Supper, as the “high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek,” bringing out bread and wine to bless us through his body and blood.  So, he has given us all things.  And just as these connect us with his death, they also connect us with his resurrection.

For this world will one day be restored to perfection.  Christ came once to deal with sin, but he is coming again to restore all things.  So, although in this life we may suffer and die, just as Christ suffered and died, when he returns for us, we will be raised up just as Christ was raised up.  And you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever in the restored, perfect creation.

We have an image of what that will be like here and now in the Church as we love and serve one another and as Christ serves us through Word and Sacrament.  But, in that day to come after the resurrection we will have a perfect communion in full as we dwell with each other and with the Lord with no sin, death, and the devil to get in the way and mess things up anymore.

For it will just be the Lord and His people in His perfect, restored creation forever.  It will be the king of peace ruling in the midst of His people.  And you will be there because you have drunk his cup and have been baptized with his baptism, because He has interceded for you before your Heavenly Father, blessing you with his crucified body and spilt blood that was given up for your salvation.  Amen.


(Image: Representation of the Sacrifice of Melchizedek at the Antepedium of the Catholic parish church Afritz am See, Villach Land, Carinthia, Austria, EU; By Naturpuur – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, )