“But whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
I write these words in the middle of a high holy season in The United Methodist Church. I know most pastors were taught in seminary that we have only two high holy seasonal cycles—Lent-Easter-Pentecost and Advent-Christmas-Epiphany. But United Methodists know that there is a third high holy seasonal cycle that comes around every year with just as much regularity as the seasons of the church year and the annual cycles of spring, summer, fall, and winter. I’m talking about the High Holy Season of Appointment-Making.
The High Holy Season of Appointment-Making begins in the fall, as pastors and churches begin the annual pondering of the question that is before us, which, to quote the words of one of my favorite songs by The Clash, requires us to ask each year, “Should I stay or should I go?” The season peaks between February and April, as cabinets meet, introductions are made, salaries are negotiated, and projected appointments are announced in conference emails and from pulpits across the connection. The season concludes at the annual conference session, at which point, the appointments are sealed; then the actual moving commences.
We United Methodists like to believe that the appointment process is a prayerful, Spirit-led unfolding of God’s will for God’s church and God’s people. But laity and clergy alike all know that as much as we want to trust in God’s guidance in this holy work, human desires and ambitions sometimes get in the way.
As pastors and their families anxiously await news, laity call their friends in other United Methodist churches to get information on their projected pastor. And all manner of United Methodists call their district superintendents to say, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
I don’t know how it is in your conference, but here in Holston, we are hearing all kinds of muttering in the background. “Why did he get a big promotion while she had to take a pay cut? Why are there so many lateral moves? Why did they move the pastor, when she wanted to stay and we didn’t want her to go? Why can’t they send us a younger pastor? Why can’t they send us a more experienced pastor? Why can’t they do for us whatever we ask of them?”
Most of us struggle from time to time to balance our vanity and ambition with our deep desire to let God’s will be done rather than our own. It is normal human behavior to want to succeed both in our careers and in our personal lives. The problem occurs when our dreams of glory and fame, or our simple need to have things our way, begin to outweigh our desire to serve others.
Laity may not be directly involved in the appointment process, but just like clergy, laity may think first in terms of what they want the pastor or their church to do for them:
- I want blue carpet in the sanctuary.
- I prefer the old hymns to that contemporary praise music.
- I liked it better when the preacher stayed behind the pulpit.
- I wish they would put the offering back before the sermon where it is supposed to be.
- I don’t understand why he reads from a script. Why can’t he just be open to the Holy Spirit?
We want what we want, right?
In this conversation with their teacher, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, seem to be struggling with this very normal human tendency when they approach Jesus and say to him, “We want you to do something for us.” They want what they want: to ride on the coattails of Jesus’ glory.
But unlike us, Jesus isn’t after worldly recognition. He doesn’t seek fame or political power. He isn’t trying to climb the ladder of success. He isn’t even thinking about his personal preferences. What Jesus wants is to teach the disciples a different way of being in the world. He wants them to think not of what they want someone to do for them, but to consider instead what they can do for others. He calls his disciples to radical servanthood.
Being disciples of Jesus Christ is about focusing on what is best for OTHERS. He calls us to be slaves to all. Rather than seeking a position of authority that allows us to lord it over others, Jesus encourages us to see ourselves as servants to all God’s people. He invites us to lift our eyes up from where they have been gazing at our own navels and see the face of Christ in the people around us, especially those who have very little, those who have been rejected, those who carry heavy burdens, and those who may not share our worldview or belief system.
Discipleship is characterized by a willingness to suffer for the sake of others. To take up the cross means that we willingly put aside our own needs and desires in order to serve. We sacrifice our own safety and comfort and and put aside our personal preferences in order to offer Christ to the world around us.
The good news is that Jesus came into the world not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Jesus gave the ultimate sacrifice. He gave his very life over in order to serve not just the people of his day, but all people for all time. He gave his life for us. He gave his life so that you and I could stand firm in the knowledge that even if we make bad choices in this life, even if we ask “What’s in it for me?” just as often as we ask, “What can I do for you?” we have the assurance of salvation. We don’t have to serve others in order to claim eternal life because Jesus has already paid the price for us.
The only question we have to answer is this: “How will I respond to Jesus’ gift of salvation for me?”
Will I respond by looking out for myself and my family first, or will I seek to become a slave to all, offering my life as a living sacrifice in union with Christ’s offering for us?
While it is easy for me to say I would give up my own life in order to save the life of someone I love; in reality, I have never been asked to do this. Would I be able to, given a choice? As humans, we are fortunate to have choices. We can choose to live sacrificially, or we can choose to live selfishly. But not all of God’s creatures have a choice. Most do not. In many forms of life, both animal and vegetable, it is necessary for one generation to sacrifice, and in some cases even give their own lives, in order for another generation to be born.
A female salmon swims upstream in fresh water, without eating, in order to return to the place where she was born to lay her eggs before she dies. She gives her life in order that her species will continue. The adult mayfly is an insect that lives only one day, during which it is blown around in the wind, that it may reach the river or lake where it can lay its eggs with its last gasp of life. And if you’ve ever watched March of the Penguins, you know the sacrifice both male and female penguins make in order to ensure the survival of their offspring. The males literally make themselves slaves to their eggs for two months, huddling together in the cold, with no food, while the females make a long journey to feed in the sea.
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means choosing to sacrifice. It means taking up the cross and following Jesus into a life of service and servanthood. But it is not a sacrifice we will not want to make. Jesus says his burden is easy, and his yoke is light. It means building a life devoted to loving others as he loved us. And he promises that through this choice, through our sacrificial living, we will find rest for our souls.
And in a world that defines itself by being self-made and that holds up mottos like “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” and “Every man for himself,” I can’t think of anything I’d rather have in this life than rest for my soul.
How might you find rest for your soul as you offer Christ through sacrificial living?