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In Christ's Service

Sermon - 11/08/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 10:35-45

Thank you choir -- a beautiful rendition of our banners that Nancy Comer made for us:




And very fitting with this passage this morning as well.  We began, two weeks ago, a study of the 10th chapter of Mark's gospel, and so continuing this morning with that, reading verses 35 through 45.  This comes right after Jesus has spoken of his impending death for the 3rd and final time:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ 36And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ 37And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ 38But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ 39They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’


I want to address this morning what I think is a common misperception of the Christian life.  And the misperception is this:  that the Christian life predominantly is about sacrifice.

You know, to be a good Christian you must be willing to sacrifice yourself, to take up the cross, to lay down your life.  You must be willing to suffer for Christ, to always put others first and yourself last.

A fellow student, a Korean student, when Judy and I were in seminary, who came to the school of theology at Claremont at the same time we did, had a particularly striking way of putting it:  she said that she was always taught that she should take the small piece of cake.  That as a good Christian wife, she should let her husband have the big piece of cake.  She should let her children have the big piece of cake.  She should let her guests have the big piece of cake.  But she should always take the small piece of cake.

And then, pulling herself up to her full 4-foot 11-inch Korean frame, she said "I'm tired of always having the small piece of cake!".

She went on to become a fairly well-known theologian, she teaches theology at Union Seminary in New York, Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung, who is featured in the "Living the Questions" video series that many of us have seen.

Well, I learned through the eyes of my friend Chung Hyun Kyung and many other third-world black and feminist theologians to see how this theme of sacrifice has been used such that those in weaker positions have always been the ones who are expected to sacrifice the most.  Learning to read the Bible, as Robert McAfee Brown says, "through third-world eyes", has changed my perspective.  One of the results is that I've come to realize that teaching people that they are called first and foremost to sacrifice their self interests to benefit someone else is the first prerequisite for creating a culture where slavery, the oppression of minorities and indigenous peoples, the abuse of women and children, and many other social injustices is made possible.

And we thought that's what it meant to be Christian.  The great irony, of course, is the whole point of the sacrificial language in reference to Jesus in the New Testament was that his sacrifice was to put an end to sacrifice.  It was to be the final sacrifice which would make all further sacrifices unnecessary.

In this text, Jesus says the Son of Man would give his life as a ransom for many.  We think of ransom as something you pay to kidnappers, right?  In Biblical times, a ransom was what was paid to free a slave.  Or to free someone who was held in prison.  In other words, Jesus gives his life to liberate people, not enslave them.  But if liberation only leads to more and more sacrifice, then it is in vain.

There's a reason we have 1 cross and only 1 cross. 

It is the cross that puts an end to sacrifice. 

It is the cross of transformation, not the cross of duplication. 

It is the cross that leads to new life, not the cross that leads to more death.

It is the cross to end suffering not the cross to multiply suffering.

And ransom, by the way, particularly in Biblical times (but I think today as well) is never paid for the sin of the one redeemed, who is of course the victim.  The payment that is made is because of the sin of the captor, not the captee.

Ransom, therefore, as a metaphor for the death of Jesus is not about Jesus dying for our sin.  And I'm going to come back to that a little later.

Here's the point of this sermon (write this down and we can skip the rest):  we are called to a life of service not a life of sacrifice.

I don't see anyone writing it down, so I guess I won't skip the rest of the sermon :).  You had your chance, and you missed it.  Kind of like the Ducks yesterday on the on-side kick :).  I've been in mourning all night long.

A life of service, of course, may involved -- often involves -- sacrifice.  But the point is it's not about making great sacrifices as if the sacrifice itself creates something good.  Rather, it is about serving God and others to create that good, to make this world a better place as God would have it be.  And God would have it be with as little sacrifice as possible.  That we might claim our full humanity, the full benefit of this life that God intends for all of us.

You have seen how the world operates, says Jesus, how the rulers of this world like to use their authority over others, forcing their will upon them, but not so with you.  You are to change the world not by force but through service.  Doing good from 'underneath', so to speak, leading through your example of service.

That a life of sacrifice, and more tragically the sacrifice of a life, can be and is often pointless, was all too evident in Ft. Hood Texas this week.  Those 13, mostly young men and women who gave their lives not fighting for their country, not defending their comrades, but just doing bureaucratic stuff.  With no means of self-defense.  They were slaughtered like cattle.

We are and should be outraged at such senseless violence.  Even as I feel that outrage, I also think of those courageous families of the 9/11 victims who traveled to Afghanistan with Code Pink to meet families of the victims there.  And they discovered in Afghanistan everyone could relate to their experience.

In their common grief, they also discovered it matters not whether the violence be from acts of terrorism or acts of war, the pain of a sacrificed life is just as great and just as wrong in their country as in ours.  Regardless of what side, if any side, one is on.

There will be many lessons that we learn from that tragedy in Ft. Hood in the days, weeks, years ahead.  Probably some lessons we shouldn't learn from that sacrifice.  But for now, my point is rather than glorifying their sacrifice, we should moan it.  We should curse it.  We should shake our fists at it and say life is too precious, too good, too holy, to let it be wasted in such a way. 

A call to service is not a call to sacrifice what is precious, good, and holy, it is a call to preserve and uphold it.  To make life sacred.

We mistake sacrifice for service, however, when we focus on what is lost rather than what is gained.  And the result is almost always negative.  Imagine that parent saying to their child as they send them off to college:  "See what I gave up so that you could go to college.  Woe is me".  What is the result of that?  It is not gratitude, but guilt.

Imagine instead that parent saying how lucky we are to see you go to college.  That is putting the emphasis on what is gained, rather than on what is lost.  Sacrifice is about what we give up.  Service is about what we give.  And often, we know we receive more in the giving.

Sacrifice is often self-serving.  Service is self-giving.  And that's why I say the Christian life is about a life of service not a life of sacrifice. 

Some here, I suspect, might recognize the title of my sermon as the title of a book by our beloved Ronald E. Osborne.  "In Christ's Place".  Ronald was an Elder of this church, in retirement after being a prominent theologian and historian in our denomination.  So, I confess, Ronald Osborne stole that title from me to use for his book, even though I was only 12 years old when he published the book :).

That book was used in classes and seminary as the definition of Christian ministry once upon a time.  It was required reading for professional ministers.  Ronald writes, quoting John 12:26:  "If anyone serves me, he must follow me.  And where I am, there shall my servant also be".

And so Ronald says:  "The nature of Christ's ministry determines the nature of our ministry.  And he calls us to follow him where God is served.  He bids us to minister where Christ is, in Christ's place".

Servant-hood, writes Osborne, is not something we learn as a doctrine of Christian faith, but rather, he says "We saw it in a human life.  In the man Christ Jesus, the servant of the Lord".

And from that life, from that example, we learn how we are to live and to serve.

Now, here comes what I suspect may be a surprise for some:  not only is the Christian life not supposed to be about sacrifice, it's really not even about believing that Jesus died for our sins.  He may have, but that's not what the Christian life is about.

There are a dozen ways we can speak about the meaning of the death of Jesus.  As a ransom for our lives, that is a payment to liberate us from whatever holds us in bondage.  It may be addiction (which we might think of as sin), but it may also be injustice, it may be abuse, there are all kinds of things that hold us in bondage for which we are ransomed.

We can speak of the death of Jesus as an act of ultimate love, giving one's life for others.

We can speak of Jesus' death as the result of human sin, that is, the power and corruption of the world that crucified Jesus.

We can speak of it as the rejection by the world of God's love and light, and the rejection by God of the world's power and darkness.

We can speak of it as suffering, even as the death of God with humanity.  Which necessarily comes before each and every Easter.

But here's the thing:  however we think about the death of Jesus, Christian life is not about Jesus taking our place, it's about us taking His place.

Regardless of what meaning you give to the death of Jesus, what really matters is how we follow the life of Jesus.  "Are you able?", Jesus asks of the Disciples, to drink the cup I drink, to be baptized in the same way I am baptized.  Which of course has nothing to do with what Jesus drank or how he was baptized -- it is a metaphor for the Christian life:  following the example of Jesus.

And even as James and John are a bit naive in the answer that they give -- 'yes Lord, we are able, to the death' -- yet they delivered on their promise.  After initially deserting Jesus, they could have gone home, they could have gone back to fishing.  But they didn't, at least not for long.  They discovered in fact that they were able to follow his example.  To drink that cup.  To be baptized in that way.  To serve in Christ's place.

And here we are now, 2,000 years later, still sharing that cup and that baptism.  So now the question of Jesus comes down to us:  Are you able?

Here the good news, people of God, the incredible news, you have been given that power, that ability, because that's the meaning of our baptism.  That's the meaning of Pentecost.  The spirit of the Lord to do these things has been given to us.

So let me here you say:  "Yes, Lord, we are able!".

Are you able not to sacrifice your life to a noble cause but to give your life in service to Christ and your brothers and sisters?  Are you able?

"Yes, Lord, we are able!".

Are you able to change your life to live the life that Jesus wants you to live, to follow the way he demonstrated?  Are you able?

"Yes, Lord, we are able!".

Are you able to make a difference in this world, to help change the world, to make it like the place that God intends on earth as in heaven?  Are you able?

"Yes, Lord, we are able!".

Are you able to put aside all prejudice, to defeat racism, to deny hate, to stop abuse, to end the killing, to love your neighbor and your enemy?  Are you able?

"Yes, Lord, we are able!".

Are you able to be a servant of that world, God's kingdom, to be a servant of love for God's peace and justice?  Are you able?

"Yes, Lord, we are able!".

Are you able to serve in Christ's place, to be the community of God's loving people, a light to the world here in the heart of Eugene?  Are you able?

"Yes, Lord, we are able!".

Are you sure?  Are you able?!

"Yes, Lord, we are able!".


Yes, we are.


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