Service Even Unto Death

One of the things I love most about living in Minnesota is the turning of the seasons. Unlike some other places, we are blessed with these definite, unmistakable signs of change every few months. Whatever the time of year, it always feels like a new beginning to me. Fall, especially, feels that way to me. I love brand new crayons and pencils, fresh notebooks, crisp temperatures, and autumn colors. At work, too, here at St. Peter’s, fall is an exciting time to be part of this community.

Hopefully many of you were able to take advantage of our ministry fair last weekend and see all the possibilities for service within our parish and community. Our ministry leaders work hard to ensure that our members (you) have a variety of ways to answer the call to follow Jesus’ example of service.

The second in a three-part series of Jesus’ predictions of his passion, death, and resurrection, today’s Gospel is best understood with a recognition of its placement in the text, as well as a bit of a history lesson.

First, this Gospel passage is bookended by the stories of the blind man of Bethsaida (8:22-26) and Jesus’ warning to John that it’s better to pluck out an eye which causes sin and enter the kingdom of God than keep it and enter Gehenna (10:46-52). It is reasonable, then, to read the Gospel passage in the context of clear sightedness and of revelation.

Jesus reveals to the disciples, who have accepted him as rabbi at this time, but are still blind to who he truly is. He shares with them another facet to himself, the recognition of himself as the Son of Man. Yet, even after this they remain unable to see and understand the truth of the person of Jesus.

The disciples don’t question Jesus when they don’t understand. Instead they argue amongst themselves on the way to Capernaum. Because they fail to understand the enormity of Jesus’ prediction earlier in the day, they misunderstand the future which is to come immediately after. They have all left their lives behind to follow Jesus and are terrified about a future without his physical presence. Who will lead them? They don’t want to ask him. Questioning Jesus about who will replace him as leader would have seemed disrespectful. In fact, when Jesus asks them about their conversation, they are embarrassed.

Jesus then warns them not to fall prey to their own hubris in the future. He instead admonishes them to take in a child and, by extension we can surmise, serve the child. Here’s where the history lesson is important. To us, in modern day America, children are precious. In order to understand this passage fully, we have to recognize that children were the lowest among society. Children in the ancient world had no rights, position, or privileges of their own. They were socially at the “bottom of the rung” and at the service of their parents, much like the household staff, domestic servants, and slaves. What is the significance of Jesus’ gesture? By elevating a little child by placing the child in a privileged position of honor, Jesus makes a clear statement about who will be the greatest in God’s kingdom. To be the first, they (and we) must empty ourselves of pride and self-seeking glory. We must willingly put ourselves at the service of the least among us.

Jesus, himself, models this for us. Jesus, whose rightful place is at the right hand of God the Father, willingly humbles himself to become one of us, not just to live among us but to serve us even unto his own death, so that we might have a share in his Divine life in the kingdom of God. His example of self-sacrifice is elemental in our own understanding of our place in the family of God.

We are challenged, of course. We live in a society that defines success in terms of material wealth, influence, and power. It sometimes fails to recognize the exploitation of the weakest of its members in our efforts to earn more, spend more, be more than others. What Jesus is asking of us is difficult. He’s asking us to alter completely our entire world view. He’s showing us by his own example radical humility. And yet, throughout history, God in his great love and generosity, understands us and sends us people who point out how to live up to Jesus’ example. We have Blessed Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Jean Vanier, not to mention the hundreds of Saints whose lives are models of service.

We all have ways in which we can let go of our self-seeking pride. We all fall prey to grandiose thoughts about our own importance in the world. It is, truly, part of who we have been created to be and Jesus’ very life reassures us of God’s understanding of our nature. It’s also true, however, that we have been tasked with the mission to lower ourselves and to become the servants of the weakest and most needy of God’s children. I, for one, could use the help of my parish family to accept the challenge. I suspect you can, too.

May God bless you and show you the way to be a servant.

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