Thursday, August 31, 2017

Removing statues does not remove the problem. . .

I have remained rather quiet about the events in Charlottesville (where I visited only a few months ago).  It is not because I do not have any thoughts on the subject but that I wanted to wait until some of the furor had died down.

If we think that the biggest problems we have in America today are some statues or monuments of shameful figures or events from our past, we are in a rather sad state of affairs.  If we believe that removing statues will address the issues of racism and bigotry, we are naive and foolish.  If we believe that we can deal with the less than noble moments of our past by omitting their mention in the present or the future, we are ignorantly following a pipe dream.

Yes, we have great problems and not in the least among them is racism and bigotry but the battle over monuments and statues has little to do with that racism and bigotry.  It is a fine show but it does little to change the hearts of those who hate.  Worse, it endangers the very freedom that guarantees the rights of those to speak what we might find repugnant.  When that freedom is gone, we live under a totalitarian and fascist government whose job it is to control speech instead of protecting it.

I find racism abhorrent and have no sympathy or empathy for those who espouse it.  Yet as bad as racism is, we have institutionalized the killing of infants, a disproportionate number of which are Black.  In other words, we have succeeded with freedom to do what the bigots of the past could not do even in fighting a war between the states.  The same people who object so strenuously to the rights of the racists to march and rally are those who insist upon protecting the woman's right to choose -- no matter how many babies must die.  Now it stands at about 50 Million infants since abortion was legalized in 1973 - one and one half times the whole population of Canada! How many of that number were Black infants?  Slavery is abhorrent and detestable yet we continue to this day to treat the lives of some among us as less than whole or human.

We have racists and bigots among us to be sure.  But under it all is a moral problem.  We are a nation adrift from the morality that was once part of the fabric that united us, that would cause us to go to war with friends and family in order to end the legalized trafficking of flesh and blood.  We are a nation whose morality once bound back together a deep and abiding division largely by allowing those on both sides to honor the memory of their loved ones who died and forgive each other and start a new.  We are a nation with barely a 50 year history of legal protection for minorities and we elected a Black man to be President of the United States.  Our nation is a vast stew bringing together people of every background, race, ethnicity, and religion to enjoy equal protection before the Law and equal access to the marketplace.  Many suffered along the way to bring us to this present day but who is foolish enough to watch the news and believe that others have done better in the quest for justice and equity for all people?  We are not there yet but we have come a long way.

Those with abhorrent ideas like the Klan marchers, the neo Nazis, and others seek more than anything else a platform to espouse their ideas.  Whether we like it or not, those confronting free speech and the media have given them just that -- a public forum.  Yet in the same society there are many who insist that those who cannot agree to the morality of choice or the good of same sex marriage are the same kind of haters whose cannot be allowed a public forum. 

I find racists and bigots like those in Charlottesville detestable but because of the American flag and those whose blood was shed at home and abroad to protect the freedom for which that flag stands, I also acknowledge the rights of those with whom I disagree to believe, march, and rally for their cause -- all within the boundaries of the law.  Yet I have to wonder how it is we got to a place where a statue of a man who fought and lost over the issue of slavery and racial injustice is a bigger problem than the routine killing of babies?  In the United States, the abortion rate for Black women is almost 4 times that of white women. On average, 900 Black babies are aborted every day in the United States. This tragedy continues to impact the population levels of African-Americans in the United States.  Since 1973, abortion has taken more Black lives than every other cause combined.  Where is our outrage over this stain across America?

Life is not easy. . .

Though we live in a world of comfort and convenience, it was not always so.  My grandmother cooked three full meals a day on a wood and cob stove, without running water, to feed her family and often a crew of workers on the family farm.  Now we get irritated if we have to wait too long in the fast food drive up window (and some even call 911 to register their complaints!).  My grandparents lived with aches and pains both of a life of physical labor and the effects of age.  They expected life would hurt and they did not complain much about it since the complaints did not lesson the pain but only drew attention to it.  Now we watch the drug commercials waiting to hear what new and improved remedy will relieve us of whatever ill or pain we might be suffering at the moment (and then take another pill to deal with the complications of the pain reliever until finally we join in a law suit against the pill maker because it was not a perfect solution to our problem).

My father worked every day of his life from about age 12 until almost 88 when he died.  Work was not a burden but his vocation both to provide for his family and serve his neighbor.  Now we expect mental health days, flex schedules, high salaries, perfect working conditions, early retirements, and all sorts of other amenities as if we were doing our employers a favor by working at all. 

We live with the expectation that we are at the center of everything, personal preference is all important, and there is little really worth personal sacrifice (not even a marriage or a family).  In contrast, previous generations did not lay the burden of happiness upon their spouses, did not have children for what they could do for the parents, and did not flinch from the call to service (military, community, volunteer, etc...).  They learned this from their parents and they passed on this sense of duty, this willingness to endure suffering, and this giving spirit to their children.  They were not perfect, nobody said that, but they had a radically different sense of their place and purpose in life.  Today we both marvel at what they accomplished through poverty and prosperity and insist that we either could not live that way or would not live that way.

I write this because our modern expectations of life have made it hard for us to understand the richness of the Gospel's gift.  When Scripture describes this world as a vale of tears, we do not really get it because that is neither our expectation nor our experience.  Life is good, we say.  We do not need a God to rescue us but a God to fix the few things we figure we cannot do for ourselves.  We do not a God to redeem us but a God to make our good better and our better best.  We do not need a God to give us heaven but a God who can help us make our best life today.  We do not pay as much attention to the cross because we are not so sure the things we say, think, or do need forgiving.  So the Christ who saves us less significant to our sense of ourselves and our lives than that Christ who imparts secret wisdom and life lessons to improve the good we already enjoy.

A significant portion of Christianity has adjusted the Gospel to fit where people think they are instead of speaking the life saving Word to where people really are.  We are not in control.  We are not the center of the universe.  We will die.  We will be judged.  In other words, sin matters whether we want to admit or not.  Life is hard, it is not fair, and it does not offer do-overs.  This is not pleasing to say or to admit but unless we accept this judgment, the Gospel makes little sense at all and we will be left replace the Christ of the cross with a Jesus molded to fit the whims of the moment.  While here on earth we scream to everyone "I am somebody", the reality is we are not all that important.  Our value is not how we judge ourselves but how God has judged us.  And the miracle of the Gospel is that Christ died for us, who were worthless, sinful, and enemies of God but now are His esteemed children bought with the most precious commodity of all, the blood of His one and only Son.  Here on earth we think we are owed self-esteem and we presume that no one has the right to judge us.  But God has judged us, in mercy, and esteemed us of far greater worth that we really are.  Once we begin to get this perspective right, life becomes a gift again, the sacrifices pale in comparison to the sacrificed paid to redeem us, and the gracious gift of God becomes ever more awesome and impressive as each day we rejoice to live as the children of God who we are.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The flowering glory of reason. . .

It strikes me that although Luther had some words to say about the primacy and authority of reason, we Lutherans have succumbed to the tyranny of reason quite easily.  We have fallen into the fallacy that if you cannot understand it, it must be suspect, that if you cannot explain it, it must not be real, and if you cannot appreciate the wisdom of it, it must be false.  Of course, it became obvious when we began to approach things to do with, pardon the expression, gender.

Women's ordination was promoted largely as an appeal to reason and experience more than Scripture or tradition.  We know women, how smart and caring they are, and how they are able to fulfill the functions, so it would be unreasonable and therefore unjust to deprive them of their equal place among the clergy.  We then mined the nether regions of Scripture for passages that we could use to support the conclusion our minds had already reached.  The Lutheran Church in Australia is in the throws of that process of study to reach a predetermined judgement.  Missouri is being judged for not wanting to talk about it (which really means not willing to change our minds about it since the talk is not to illuminate darkness or enlarge understanding, no, it is to change the mind). 

The whole issue of homosexuality and its gender of many letters as well as the legal issue of same sex marriage is an appeal to reason or at least to experience (usually anecdotal).  After all, say those who promote an openness to this and who advocate welcome and embrace of the LGBTQ, look at what good people these are.  Different, yes, but not disordered.  Not like us but that is not bad.  Look at how sincere they are and would it not be unjust to deprive them of what we enjoy simply because we are heterosexual?  So again, the mind has been changed and a rationale must be found and so it must be that Scripture does not mean what it is saying or that it does not say what we have thought it said or meant.  It is the tyranny of the mind as well as feelings.  If it is not reasonable, comprehensible, it if does not sought right, and if it offends the values we have determined to be right, then it must be wrong.

Is this not how many justify their change of minds?  Yes, we once thought this way but not any more.  Things change.  To the mind, this is thoroughly logical and reasonable and the fact that it offends the Word of the Lord that endures forever and the Christ forever the same, well, it is a small thing that must be sacrificed for the greater good.  Hardly ever has the church ever looked at a text and made a change because we actually found that the words we thought meant this or that now mean something different.  It always begins with the mind first.  And so doctrines and creeds and confessions are either booted out the door or rendered moot by speaking the words but not believing them.

I read where a priest was talking to a Roman Catholic couple asking about mass times.  When they wanted to attend, the mass was in Polish and the only other time they could attend it was in Vietnamese.  They could not do these languages.  They could do English.  Funny, when you think about it, the mass does not change because of the language that is spoken.  The words mean the same in Polish and Vietnamese and English and, yes, even Latin.  Perhaps this was clearer when the mass was in a language that most folks did not speak or understand.  Now we have become captive to the mind.  If I do not understand it, it must be not be real and it certainly cannot be beneficial.

We have high expectations of the Word, of the sermon, of the hymns, and of the liturgy.  We expect them to appeal to our sense of reason, of logic, and of the realm of our experience.  If they do not confirm what we already think or have witnessed or judge to be logical, we will not believe it.  I cannot believe in a God who. . .  well, you fill in the blank.  We are the "I" in the center of the storm and at the core of that "I" is the triumphant power of the mind, along with the normative power of the heart.  I need to get it, I need to affirm it according to my experience, and I need to feel it.  What is that in the face of Scripture's own definition of faith/trust?

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  [2] For by it the people of old received their commendation. [3] By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

[4] By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. [5] By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. [6] And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. [7] By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

[8] By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. [9] By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. [10] For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. [11] By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. [12] Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

[13] These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. [14] For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. [15] If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. [16] But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

[17] By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, [18] of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” [19] He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. [20] By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. [21] By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. [22] By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.

[23] By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king's edict. [24] By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, [25] choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. [26] He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. [27] By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. [28] By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.

[29] By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. [30] By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. [31] By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

[32] And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—[33] who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, [34] quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. [35] Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. [36] Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. [37] They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—[38] of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

[39] And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, [40] since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

(ESV)Hebrews 11

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Who is Jesus? Who am I?

Sermon for Pentecost 12, Proper 16A, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, August 27, 2017.

            Jesus asked the disciples a modern day question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16:13).  This is an identity question and today we’re very concerned with identity.  Questions about gender identity, about how we self-identify are asked daily.  In our world identity is fluid and ever-changing.  We decide who we are and we can change our minds whenever we want.  But is this how identity works?  Not for Jesus.  Jesus’ identity isn’t changing.  He’s always been and forever will be the Christ, the Son of the living God.  And it’s within His identity that we know ours.
            People of Jesus’ day were confused about who He was.  From Old Testament prophecies, the people expected a notable prophet to return.  For example, Moses said in Dt. 18:15: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you,…it is to him you shall listen.”  The people thought Jesus was an old prophet returned, but which one. 
            Some, like Herod the tetrarch, who beheaded John the Baptist, heard of the signs Jesus was doing and thought Jesus was John the Baptist back from the dead.  Others believed Jesus was Elijah, the miracle working prophet who was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.  Still others thought Jesus was Jeremiah or some other prophet back with special words from God.  There were many ideas about who Jesus was…and there still is today.   
            We still have different thoughts, ideas, and opinions about who Jesus is.  We think He’s a teacher or a life coach.  We say Jesus came to fully teach God’s Law, to tell us what the 10 Commandments really mean.  We think of Him as our example to emulate to live the true moral life.  Like a coach, we believe He’s here to cheer us on, to motivate us to work hard and get what we want out of life, to achieve our earthly goals.  He’s here to encourage us to never give up during the rough parts of life. 
            Jesus is our teacher, this is true.  He does teach the truth of God’s Word.  In His Sermon on the Mount, He did explain the full meaning of God’s Law, that it applies not just to our actions and words, but also our thoughts and hearts.  Jesus lived the perfect life and we should try to emulate that life.  He does motivate us to live the life were called to, showing forth His love.  And He does encourage us in the faith during rough spots in life.  But Jesus isn’t just a teacher or life coach.  He’s so much more. 
            So, we think of Him as a miracle worker.  Like the prophet Elijah who kept the jar of flour full for the Widow of Zarephath and raised her dead son, we want Jesus to do these things, and we know He can.  Twice He feed thousands with just a little food.  He raised Lazarus from the dead and He healed countless others.  These are the miracles we want from Jesus.  When our stomachs, homes, and bank accounts are empty, we want Him to fill them with all our wants.  When we fall ill, we expect Jesus to heal us...and if He doesn’t, we hate Him.  Like a petulant child we become angry and turn from Him. 
            But Jesus isn’t just a miracle worker.  Did He perform miracles?  Yes.  Did He heal and raise people from the dead?  Yes.  But Jesus’ miracles themselves aren’t the point.  Jesus didn’t become incarnate to wow us with spectacular signs.  Jesus’ miracles direct us to who He is, to His true identity. 
            After the disciples told Jesus who others said He was, Jesus asked them “Who do you say I am?” (Mt 16:15).  With God given faith, Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16).  This is who Jesus is.  This is His true identity.
            Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary.  He’s fully God and fully man; and He’s the Christ, God’s chosen One, the Anointed, the One foretold of in the Old Testament, the promised Savior. 
            Jesus is the prophet that Moses spoke of.  Just as Moses led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus has led you from your slavery to sin.  With His death on the cross, Christ freed you, He paid the price for you.  He gave up His life for yours.  By shedding His holy and innocent blood, He redeemed you from sin, death, and the devil.  This is who Jesus is.  This is His true identity, an identity we can only confess with God given faith.
After Peter confessed Jesus’ true identity, Christ blessed him and said, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:17).  Peter only confessed who Jesus truly was because the Father revealed this to him.  Through the words of the Old Testament prophets and through the teachings and miracles of Jesus, the Word Incarnate, the Holy Spirit created faith in Peter, in all the disciples, and in you. 
            Through the very same Word of God, your Father has given you faith through the work of the Spirit.  Hearing the good news of the Christ, He’s shown you who Jesus is: your Savior who forgives you and brings you back into a right relationship with God.  And with this faith in Jesus’ true identity, you know who you are: a redeemed baptized child of God.
                        Your identity comes from Christ your Lord.  Baptized into His death and resurrection you don’t conform to this world that says your identity is based on how you feel at that moment.  Your identity isn’t based on your old sins.  In Jesus, your identity is firm no matter how you feel.  In Jesus, through the waters of baptism, your old sinful Adam is drowned.  You’re forgiven and a new man is raised to live in Christ’s righteousness.  This is who you are.  This is your true identity, and in faith, you live according to that identity. 
            Living in this identity means you love and serve others.  When we think about serving others, we think about meeting their needs.  When our neighbors are hungry, we feed them.  When they need a few bucks to pay the electric bill, we open our wallets.  When they need help moving, we load up the trucks.  These are most certainly excellent examples of service.  But there’s another way we serve...and that’s forgiving one another. 
            Jesus said to the disciples, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19).  Jesus is talking about the forgiveness of sins.  Christ has given His faithful the responsibility to forgive those who ask us for forgiveness, and as forgiven baptized children of God, this is what we do.
            Too often we refuse to forgive others because we want to hold on to some sort of dignity.  We want to hold the righteous moral high ground...but this doesn’t fit with our identity.  This isn’t who we are.  That’s our old sinful Adam, and there’s no place for him in Christ.  We serve and love one another in a God pleasing way when we forgive; when we ask for forgiveness when we sin against others.  That’s who you are. 
            Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  He’s the promised Savior who rescues you from sin, death, and the devil with His sacrificial death on the cross.  This is Jesus’ identity, and it never changes.  And this is where you find your identity.  You’re in Him.  You’re a baptized, redeemed, and forgiven child of God.  This is your identity, and we pray that the Lord enable us to live out this identity confessing Him, loving and serving our neighbor, forgiving one another, just as we’ve been forgiven in Him.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

Did he change his mind?

Nearly everybody knows the name Eugene Peterson.  After all, he is the author of The Contemplative Pastor and Five Smooth Stones among his 30 or 40 books (don't forget his own Bible version, The Message).  He has been a staple among solid Evangelicals (with Stanley Hauerwas).  I thought he was a rather reliable conservative.  I don't know if he had ever given a hint of his position on same sex marriage but it certainly seems like a change of heart with respect to that issue. If it is not a change of heart or mind, it certainly represents a hidden aspect of Peterson's theology.

Read this portion of an interview with the Religious News Service:

RNS: You are Presbyterian, and your denomination has really been grappling with some of the hot button issues that we face as a culture. I think particularly of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Has your view on that changed over the years? What’s your position on the morality of same-sex relationships?

EP: I haven’t had a lot of experience with it. But I have been in churches when I was an associate pastor where there were several women who were lesbians. They didn’t make a big deal about it. I’d go and visit them and it never came up for them. They just assumed that they were as Christian as everybody else in the church.

In my own congregation — when I left, we had about 500 people — I don’t think we ever really made a big deal out of it. When I left, the minister of music left. She’d been there ever since I had been there. There we were, looking for a new minister of music. One of the young people that had grown up under my pastorship, he was a high school teacher and a musician. When he found out about the opening, he showed up in church one day and stood up and said, “I’d like to apply for the job of music director here, and I’m gay.” We didn’t have any gay people in the whole congregation. Well, some of them weren’t openly gay. But I was so pleased with the congregation. Nobody made any questions about it. And he was a really good musician.

I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. I don’t think it’s something that you can parade, but it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.

RNS: A follow-up: If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?
EP: Yes.
Or does he?

A day after a Religion News Service interview portrayed retired pastor and author Eugene Peterson as shifting to endorse same-sex marriage, the evangelical leader retracted his comment and upheld the traditional Christian stance instead. “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything,” he said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
Recently a reporter asked me whether my personal opinions about homosexuality and same-sex marriage have changed over the years. I presume I was asked this question because of my former career as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which recently affirmed homosexuality and began allowing its clergy to perform same-sex weddings. Having retired from the pastorate more than 25 years ago, I acknowledged to the reporter that I “haven’t had a lot of experience with it.”
To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.
When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that. That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor. They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.
I guess you can decide.  Does Peterson support same sex marriage or not?

Monday, August 28, 2017

For St. Bartholomew's Day. . .

Sermon preached for St. Bartholomew, August 24, 2017, by the Rev. Seminarian Coleman Geraci (preaching on what was my 37th anniversary of installation as a pastor - Pastor Peters)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Who is the greatest? Well, that’s easy. I am from Louisville, KY home to Cassius Clay— better known as Muhammad Ali. There is no disputing this claim with me —that was his title: undisputed heavy weight champion; self-designated as the Greatest. Of course there are other answers: There is the Great one, Wayne Gretzky all time leading goal scorer in the NHL history.  Though Ali and Gretzky have nicknames about being the greatest, there are plenty of other categories which we love to find the greatest: the greatest rock and roll band of all time; the greatest film of all time; the greatest poet of all time.  And of course, which is the greatest LCMS seminary?  For all these categories, there is much dispute.

What about the disciples? Who is the greatest from among them? Is it Peter? Seems like a worthy candidate, worthy enough that a part of the church would base its authority completely on him. Or what about John the beloved disciple? Maybe Bartholomew, or other wise known Nathanael? Sounds really good for today since it is his feast day. He is the disciple in whom there is no guile. Or Philip —first evangelist telling Nathanael about Jesus? Or, my personal vote, Thomas, who gives the greatest confession of Christ in Scripture: My Lord and My God?  In our text today, the disciples are trying to determine for themselves: Who is the greatest?

Just prior to our passage for today, Jesus has just instituted His supper with the disciples. He has just declared to them the promise of His body given into death for them; the new covenant in His blood poured out for them. Then He reveals the shocking news that one of the disciples will betray him. They begin to question one another, which of them could it be who was going to do this? But then, strangely the dispute changes. The disciples shift from determining who the worst one would be to disputing who should be regarded as the greatest among them. The disciples, as per usual, can’t see the forest for the trees.

The disciples miss Jesus in all of this. In their self centered mindset, they question who is the best and who is the worst amongst their ranks. They are worried about their position in line; about their own importance; about how much they mean to the ministry: Each making their claims, wanting to make their mark, wanting to be remembered as the greatest —not wanting to be the one who betrayed Jesus.

It’s easy for us to stand 2,000 years removed from this event and point fingers, but the reality is we have those same disputes. We inherently see ourselves as the center of the drama. We want our recognition —to be regarded as great. We want to know how great we are in our charity; how important we are to advancing the kingdom. We most certainly don’t want to be the ones who are regarded as betrayers of Jesus. But how often do we betray him? How often do neglect Jesus to justify our own desires? How often do we neglect to hear His Word and hold it sacred? How often do we neglect His supper that He gives to us? Neglect the community He has given to us? How often do we see those in that community as means to validate our own “greatness”?

In the midst of the disciples’ dispute, Jesus tells the disciples that they must become as servants. They must rid themselves of their own desires and ambitions and give themselves over to one another.  He tells them that they must become servants because He is among them as one who serves. Jesus demonstrates this service by going to onward from that supper to Calvary —to the Cross where He would give His body and blood for the life of the world. There He would become the greatest by being the servant to all. Three days later He would vindicated as the Greatest by His resurrection.

But Jesus does not leave them with only a commandment. Jesus gives more. He makes them a promise. He assigns a kingdom to them —but more than that, a table in His kingdom of which they may eat and drink. A table, His table, where He would continue to serve them.  That table, His table where He serves, is this table prepared for you today.

Even in the midst of our betrayal, our self-centeredness, Jesus still serves us and calls us to Himself. He prepares a table for you today in spite of your self-centeredness and selfish motivations. He prepares a table with all the angels and archangels and all the heavenly hosts for you here —to serve you here with that same Body and Blood given into death for you —to forgive you of your sins. He gives Himself to you once again that you would be reminded of who you are as His own. He serves you here that you would be forgiven and renewed. He serves you here that you when you depart, you would go on to serve others.

We depart from His table, having been nourished that we would be kept steadfast in the faith in both body and soul to life everlasting. We depart from this table as servants going in peace, in His peace, to return to a world in which we serve our neighbor—to support our neighbor in every physical need; to speak well of our neighbor and put the best construction on everything.  We depart this table knowing Jesus’ Word has been fulfilled, that our own eyes have seen God’s salvation that He has prepared in the sight of every people. We depart that we might bring that Word of promise and hope, that light to the nations, to those who are in need.  

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.