September 20, 2015
First Lutheran Church
SO YOU WANT TO BE FIRST
What does it mean to follow Jesus? This is the logical next question after, Who, then is this? Mark’s Gospel offers answers to both questions by telling the story of Jesus, and both questions are inextricably tied to each other. It does not matter what it means to follow Jesus if Jesus is not worthy of being followed. In this passage, Jesus gives his second passion prediction—that is, his second teaching about what it means that he must go to Jerusalem. His identity depends upon his obedience to the Father to going to Jerusalem. And our identity as Christian depends upon our obeidence in going with him. He is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, and it is the Father’s will that he go to Jerusalem where, 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 (9:31).
Much of the hype around the presidential election centers around who the greatest candidate. I remember when the candidates did not begin campaigning until after the Labor Day two months before the general election. Now they begin two years, or more, before the election. They spend obscene amounts of money tearing down their opponents while telling the voters why they are the greatest and most worthy candidate to be the president of the United States. It plays to the worst of human nature rather than the best. It is but an updated version of what Jesus’ very human disciples did 2000 years ago. Even after Jesus taught them the meaning of discipleship, they spent their traveling time arguing with each other over who is the greatest and most faithful disciple. Each wants to be first.
Jesus took note of the argument and asked them it. They were deeply humiliated, because they already knew that it was an argument of fools. Jesus taught them that being a disciple means being the least by denying oneself and taking up one’s cross, not about being great. He is headed to Jerusalem to suffer and die, and they play chicken with each other. I am greatest because I did this. Oh, yeah! That’s nothing! Wait till I tell you about me! Once again, they really missed the point.
A few years back, I heard Joan Gray, then moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, speak. Someone asked her what advice she would give to small churches which are discouraged and losing heart. Her response was a rousing, get over it! She said that part of the seduction of secular life is that it teaches us to believe that only big, powerful and wealthy churches are effective. And what is effective anyway? This is a question that can only be answered in light of Jesus’ teaching about greatness. Too often churches, like the disciples, argue about which is the greatest, forgetting how Jesus defines great.
My friend, Susan, was pastor of a small church in Houston for many years. Like many small churches, it had gone from a heyday of about 350 members down to about 40. But they had become mighty. That church prayed together for two years before they discerned the vision of the ministry to which God was calling them. They became a church of mission and education, holding a disciples’ leadership school and cultivating a community garden in their beautiful yard. Susan said they had to become small enough before they could become faithful enough.
What made that church different from other congregations? The first thing is that they dedicated themselves to prayer, asking God for guidance. More than that, they actively prayed for each other, taking turns leading the services. Too many churches rely on their minister to do their praying, but this is unbiblical. All people are called to pray. It does not require public speaking training or seminary degrees. Prayer requires a relationship with God, the desire to deepen that relationship in faith and courage.
They also found an answer to the questions, who then is this? and what does it mean to follow Jesus? For them, following Jesus involved giving people both truth and beauty, in teaching the truth of the Word of God in their Leadership School and in giving the beauty of their homegrown vegetables and flowers to people in need. Jesus said, Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Churches must be obedient to God’s call as Jesus was obedient, carrying their crosses into the world to serve, to make new disciples. Churches, and the Christians who populate them are not the greatest by their numbers, history, budgets, music or civic pride. They are great when they humble themselves before Jesus and forsake everything else.
Jesus calls all of us to be disciples, and that demands costly service. Being the church is about answering that call. There is such potential to serve Christ in Galveston. There is already great faith here, and through your struggles you are reclaiming your Christ-centered mission. God has work for you to do, but I cannot tell you what it is. It is for you to discover thorough prayer. It means being humble and willing to suffer for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Who does the world say that Jesus is? Who do you say that he is? What does it mean for First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Galveston to follow him? To God be the glory. Amen.