Fr. Bill Carroll – The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 19, 2021
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Jesus sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’”
The contrast couldn’t be any greater. For the second time now, Jesus predicts that he will suffer and die on the Cross. And yet, here the disciples are—arguing about which of them is the greatest. And so, Jesus reminds them that, in God’s Kingdom, greatness is measured by service, and that, whoever would be first among them, must be the last and the servant of all.
To illustrate that point, Jesus brings a small child into their midst and says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
One of the ways we know that Jesus is God’s own Son is how he lives consistently from and for his Father. In everything he says, does, and is, Jesus is faithful to his mission and calling from God. And so, he asks the Twelve, “What do you want to be?” If you want to be leaders in the Kingdom (he says), you must give God all the glory. You must draw all your strength from his love. You have to let him direct your steps and provide your whole reason for living. You will strive to put God first, before everyone else, and share his love with others.
For, as Jesus tells us in another place, “If I, your Lord and Teacher have knelt and washed your feet, so too you ought to serve one another.” Or, as Paul writes to the Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself and took on the form of a slave.” If Jesus lived and died for us all, how dare we squabble about rank and personal privileges? How dare we make it all about ourselves?
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an apostle. On Wednesday nights, we’ve been studying Ephesians. And so, to prepare for that class, I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s lectures on that letter, given to students preparing for the ordained ministry in 1921 and 1922.
Now, Barth is widely regarded as the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. In fact, even one of the popes said he was the greatest theologian, period, since Thomas Aquinas died in 1274. Most of Barth’s ministry was in his native Switzerland, but he also taught in Germany. Along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom he greatly influenced, Barth was a leading voice in what came to be known as the Confessing Church, the Christian movement that resisted Hitler and the Nazi regime beginning in the mid-1930’s.
Along with his great commentary on Romans, the lectures on Ephesians mark a crucial turning point in Barth’s development. He’d been serving as a pastor and was becoming a professor of theology. He was teaching in Germany. And he was finding his own mature voice as a theologian—breaking with the liberal Protestantism of many of his teachers and rediscovering what he called the “strange, new world of the Bible.” And he was doing it right after the First World War, which shattered European confidence in Western Civilization and the linear progress of history. They had seen too much trauma. They had seen brother killing brother, and they knew that history doesn’t always move forward. It is filled with catastrophe.
Among other things, Barth reflects on what it means for Paul to call himself an “apostle.” He notes that the word means “ambassador” or “envoy,” somebody called and commissioned to bear a message from the king. In ancient Greek, Barth claims, the word sometimes refers to an admiral in the navy. But even when it lost that meaning, it still referred to a military envoy, charged with making a declaration of war against the kingdom of death and offering God’s terms of peace, in light of the victory of the world’s true king. At one point, Barth exploits the naval connotations of his metaphor, to talk about running a blockade and getting in deep behind enemy lines.
An apostle is an emissary who brings a message into hostile territory—territory claimed by the enemy. In Ephesians, the devil is described as the “ruler of the power of the air.” He isn’t down under the earth. He is up above it, and he holds sway over many of us. He is “the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.”
By dying and rising again, Jesus disarms this evil spirit. Jesus ascends to the position of supremacy, filling all things with his grace and love. And he breaks the devil’s power over us, once and for all. He breaks down every wall that divides us from God or from other people. In Jesus, God creates one new humanity where before we were divided into two. And so, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free are liberated and reconciled to serve side-by-side in the one Body.
An apostle is a messenger sent with specific instructions. So too, as God’s baptized People, we are sent out into a world that is often in rebellion against God. We are sent with a message of grace, as witnesses to the true King. And we’ve been given a Word that comes to us as a gift but can never become our possession. We need to seek it new every morning. We need to turn to the Holy Scriptures. We need to turn to each other in fellowship. We need to turn to God in worship. We need to receive the gift ever anew.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to say that we are called to follow Jesus in the way of love. In a world that is too often given to the ways of fear and hatred, we are called to live in God’s new and better way. Bishop Curry also says that we are called to pursue God’s dream for the world, in a world we have too often made into a nightmare. Whenever we gather as a church, especially when we gather here for the Holy Eucharist, we are meant to catch sight of God’s dream for us all. And then, we are sent out into the world to put that dream into practice.
Where do we get the authority to do this? It’s never our own authority. It’s always a borrowed authority. We do it in the Name of Jesus. Apostles, Barth writes, share in the one ministry of Jesus “not on the basis of anything [they are] in and of [themselves] but on the basis of what [they are] not.” And yet, we are called to speak and act in the Name of Jesus, “the one from above, who brings and restores [God’s] Kingdom.”
Many of the Twelve will one day die in the service of Jesus. (You wouldn’t believe it by how you see them behaving in the Gospel though.) But they will follow his example and lay down their lives for other people. And yet, there is this one important difference (there is always this important difference) between him and us: Only Jesus is our Lord and Savior. We are his servants and his witnesses.
And there is therefore a need for humility in the ministry, but also for boldness. As God’s children, we no longer need to be afraid of death. The reconciliation of all things in Christ creates a new cosmic order, in which we can be “intrepid, secure, and unshakeable.” If God’s new world is really our priority, we may suffer for the Kingdom, and in the short run we may fail, but we can never, ever lose. The world doesn’t know that yet, but it’s true. The world acts as if Jesus Christ is not the Lord, but he is. And our job is to go and tell the world about his victory.
And so, God calls us, in the letter of James this morning, to lay aside all “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition.” He calls us to stop arguing about getting our own way or who is in charge. He calls us to be humble, to depend on the Lord Jesus Christ—and to listen to each other. He calls us to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit—to discern his will for us together. He calls us to get in on his plans for us, rather than trying to force God to get in on our own plans. For God calls us, always, to have the mind of Christ. We are to seek his “wisdom from above,” which is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”
Dear friends in Christ, we will never enter the Kingdom of God, unless we come in like little children. And our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to share the Good News of grace—and to live in love with all our neighbors. We are to do so especially with those little ones who most need God’s help and care and protection.
For God is the defender of widows and orphans. He is the liberator of captives and slaves—and the hope of the poor. He blesses the pure in heart and all who mourn. He blesses the meek of the earth and all who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are you now (he says), for the Kingdom of God has come near.
And, according to the Gospel, whoever receives even one of these little ones in the Name of Jesus Christ, receives the Lord himself.