March 24, 2015
William G. Carter
A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
Here’s one of the wonderful characteristics of scripture: it doesn’t sugar-coat the people who say they love Jesus. Oh no, we get to see them as they are. Even a passage like this, written down some forty or fifty years after the Last Supper – there is no hesitation in describing the twelve disciples just like they are.
Luke says, “A dispute arose among them…” Actually that’s a polite translation of a more contentious word. In Greek, the word is much harsher. Other translations say “they bickered,” or they were contentious. One scholar says they had “an invidious dispute.”
I had to look up the word “invidious” to see if was as bad as it sounded. It was. The dictionary says, “calculated to create ill will or resentment.” “Discriminating.” “Provoking animosity.” “Hateful.” “With a deliberate purpose of inspiring envy.”
Get the picture? It’s when brothers and sisters say to one another, “Momma loves me more.”
A father of twins hears it all the time. “I want to sit in the front seat.” “Well, you sat in the front seat last time.” “It’s my turn.” “But Momma loves me more.”
That’s what the twelve children of Jesus are doing at the final Passover meal, following the four glasses of wine. They are posturing among themselves. They are poking one another with forks. They are looking over their shoulders to see if he’s noticing. And these are the people who have been following Jesus to the end.
It’s embarrassing to think Christians might act like this. Where do you sit? Who do you know? Do you have the inside track on gossip? Do you make the most conspicuous gift? Do you get noticed? Do you get all the attention you so desperately crave? This is how they are when their bellies are full with the bread and wine. It’s almost unbelievable…except that the sin of competitiveness is highly contagious.
Years ago, in my first church, I encountered an unusual situation that has never been repeated. Two of my church members were roommates in the same hospital. With all the various choices in health care, it was a bit unusual. Two people from the same church, in the same hospital room, side by side. Now, you would think they would be singing together, praying together, supporting one another.
Well, I stopped in to say hello. I had received the room number of one of them and discovered the other was there. They didn’t know one another, until they realized they had me in common. I said hello to both of them. I chatted with both of them, prayed with both of them. As I’m walking out of the room, I overhear one say, “Well, I think he was here to see me.”
The other said, “Well, I’m sicker than you are.”
The first said, “But I’m sure my wife called him first…”
“Yes, but I’ve known him a lot longer…”
And I’m only a pastor. I wonder what the Lord has to put up with when he listens to our prayers.
Jesus says, “I am among you as one who serves.” As one of his final teachings before his arrest, he gives us the model for the Christian life. It’s not about competition or comparison. It’s not about getting ahead or even getting what we want. The Christian life is about imitating Jesus. It’s about becoming like him in his self-giving love. And it takes a while for this to sink in. Even then, we must return to the posture of a servant over and over again.
Sometimes life itself is the teacher. Maybe you heard that a tabloid reporter found David Letterman on an island beach the other day. He has a full beard, and he’s lost more hair on top. Since retiring as a late night talk show host for thirty years, he’s gained perspective on his work.
“I never realized how insignificant my job really was,” Letterman confessed, “no doubt reinforced by a revolving door of self-important celebrities. You believe what you are doing is of great importance and that is affecting (human)kind. And then when you get out of it you realize, that wasn’t true at all. And when that occurred to me, I felt so much better and realized I don’t think I care that much about television anymore. I feel foolish for having been misguided by my own ego for so many years.”
As we hear the story of Jesus and his passion tonight, we hear of a Savior who had every reason to claim equality with God, yet he sets that aside and empties himself, taking the form of a servant. To follow him to the cross, and beyond, is to follow him as servants, servants of God and servants of one another. An over-inflated ego will misguide any of us, and we will miss the moment.
For here is the Christ who gives us his body, who pours out his blood. And he does it so that we might follow him each day and night, giving our lives for the healing of a broken world, ever announcing that his kingdom is at hand.