Click here for the video: Trials
This morning we move into the season of Sundays that lead us to Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem for the Passover feast. It’s there that he’ll share a final meal with his friends and disciples before he is betrayed by one of them, handed over to the ruling authorities and sentenced to public execution upon a Roman cross.
It has become my practice in this season to depart from the common cycle of Sunday readings shared across Christian traditions, known as the lectionary. The lectionary is a helpful tool for making sure that we hear from the broad and vast witness of scripture. Each Sunday, the lectionary offers us two readings from Hebrew scripture, one of which is psalm, and two readings from the Christian scripture, one of which is from the Gospels. Over the course of three years we have the chance to hear an extensive sampling of God’s Word. But what we don’t hear, what is largely left out are the events that take place following the final Passover meal that Jesus shares with his friends, until he is sentenced to crucifixion by the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. This what is commonly referred to as Jesus’ Passion.
Nowadays, you are more likely to hear the word passion associated with an unbridled enthusiasm. Someone who is passionate about something, really really likes it and throws themselves into it; whether that something is a particular past time, discipline, or even another person. But the origin of the word ‘passion’ comes from the Greek word pathos, which means to evoke pity or sadness. Maybe that is why the passion narratives that form the single largest section of each of the four Gospels are largely missing from the cycle of texts that we most regularly hear read from the bible on Sunday morning. This is a sad story. At times it is an awful story. And, I think it has to be said, it is a story that implicates us somehow in what happens to Jesus if we consider ourselves to be one of his disciples, and to some extent even if we do not identify in such a way. To use the vocabulary of modern entertainment, stories like that don’t usually test very well. Audiences don’t tend to line up for stories about their own failures and the tragic outcomes they engender.
But clearly this part of the story is a critically important part of the good news of Jesus Christ, even if it doesn’t sound so good to our ears. The risk in not telling it is that we can sort of gloss over the specifics and render Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection as something general and abstract. But it isn’t. The specifics point us to an understanding that shapes our own experiences of suffering, death and resurrection as those who follow and trust in Jesus to save us from the despair that such experiences often visit upon us.
So once again in this season of Lent, we are going to hear a version of this story from the gospel writer Luke. We are going to hear it, not in order to wallow in guilt and misery, and certainly not to shift the blame to someone else or some other group as culpable in Jesus’ death. We are going to hear the story of Jesus’ passion, because his suffering has something to do with our own; just as his dying and rising have something to do with our own dying and rising to new life.
It’s all part of one whole cloth. We cannot have one without the other. And so, our second reading this morning comes from Luke’s Gospel, in the 22nd chapter, verses 24-30. Listen for God’s Word to you this morning.
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. You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
It’s something of a parlor game these days to talk about goats. No, not the cute animals with the crazy eyes, the ones who are separated from the sheep in another gospel story. What I’m talking about are the conversations, most often in the arena of sports, about which athlete is considered the Greatest of All Time- otherwise known as a GOAT- in their respective sport. Was Wilt Chamberlain, or Michael Jordan, or LeBron James basketball’s GOAT? That sort of thing.
We are a culture that traffics regularly in superlatives. When I go on the internet to look up a recipe for something, I don’t simply type in “shepherd’s pie recipes.” No, I type in “BEST Shepherd’s Pie recipes.” Because I don’t want to make any old Shepherd’s Pie, I want to make the best one. Best, greatest, these are words we use all the time to describe what we’re looking for, what we want out of the things we eat, the stuff we buy, the places we go, even (apparently) the sports teams and athletes we root for. Only the best. Otherwise, why bother? It’s like life is one constant competition that we’re continually trying to win.
In other gospels, this dispute over greatness among Jesus’ disciples is recorded at a another point in the journey. But Luke tells it here at the end of their Passover meal, which casts it in a far different light. That’s because the conversation really begins with the verse that comes just before this. At the conclusion of what we have come to call the words of institution that get spoken every time we come to the table- This is my body, this is my blood, do this in remembrance of me- Jesus says, “the one who betrays me is with me.” It creates a quite a stir at the table as his disciples begin asking each other which one of them could do such a thing.
The conversation turns quickly from betrayal to greatness. I don’t think that’s an accident.
It’s one thing to strive for excellence. Not perfection, mind you, but excellence. Perfection is a trap and it create a whole other set of problems. Excellence is simply the desire to do one’s best, to give one’s full effort to something. That is commendable. To be the greatest, however, and to use that word to describe whatever we’re doing, is a form of judgement that is intended to elevate our best above and to the exclusion of all others. None of which is spiritually commendable.
A person who has to elevate themselves, who has to tell others just how great they are, how what they’re doing or what they’ve done is better than anyone else before or since, is generally someone who is tragically over compensating for their own lack of self-worth. Far too often this elevation of the self comes at the expense of our awareness of God’s true greatness. We end up substituting our own sense of greatness for God’s.
Then there is the exclusion of all others. It’s something of a truism that it is lonely at the top.
Putting ourselves there means that we are almost certainly assuring our own loneliness because it tends to alienate us from everyone else. Elsewhere Jesus raises the question, “what does it a profit a person to gain the whole world only to lose themselves?” He might just as easily have asked, “what does it profit a person to be the greatest, only to lose their connection to others?”
This impulse to be thought of, or seen as the greatest essentially runs contrary to the two great commands. It limits both our ability to fully love God with our whole heart and mind and soul and strength, and our ability to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The dynamic that Jesus names to his disciples is a caution that still holds today. It isn’t just the Kings of the Gentiles, or even those who hold offices of authority around the world who often lord it over others. What Jesus makes unquestionably clear is this authoritarian impulse that we are prone in ourselves and in our communities is fundamentally at odds with the way of the gospel.
To be the greatest is to place ourselves above and ultimately to seek power over others. To use Jesus’ own metaphor, it is to seek a place at the table in order to enjoy some sort of privilege that would have us think of ourselves as better than those who are not at the table, rather than serving others in such a way that they might have a place at the table too. The one who serves is the one who stands with us, and invites us to stand with and for each other.
No, it’s no accident that this dispute over who is the greatest comes shortly after the question about who could betray Jesus. Because the answer to that question is answered by their dispute. Any one of them could have done it. We blame Judas. But any time our ambition is for ourselves and our own glory, any time our ambition is to elevate ourselves to the exclusion of others, we risk betraying the love of the one who seeks to stand with us in our own trials so that we don’t have to stand alone the way he ultimately did.
The table he sets is expansive, and the judgement he renders is mercy, seeking and saving us when we lose ourselves to temptations of greatness, binding up what has been broken, refusing the kind of power that would dominate in order to show us the more powerful kind of love that serves instead.
To walk in that way is to walk away from any ideas we might have about life as one big competition that we have to win in order to prove something. Because the only way to win is not to play that game. Instead we look to Jesus and see that he is with us, so that we might be with one another. We look to Jesus and discover that we have already won.