The Greatest of These | 04.01.21 | Maundy Thursday
Taken together, all four of the Gospel accounts offer us
the complete picture of the room where it happened
– where Jesus reframes the celebration of an old, treasured, foundational story
into a new covenant, a blessed sacrament, a holy table to which
generation after generation of Christians have returned to again and again.
For one last time, Jesus and his closest companions
—his disciples—gather together in a large, furnished room.
Everything has been prepared in advance for a party.
However, before the festivities begin, the host of this meal, the founder of the feast,
takes hold of a basin and a towel to wash the feet of his followers.
The King of Kings, who already set aside divine privilege to come down to us
– to be born as a human being – humbles himself yet again in order to serve his royal subjects.
After meeting some initial resistance, Jesus completes this menial task
and redirects his followers to the theme of the evening.
The Upper Room has been configured for the telling—the reliving of a story
—the Gospel before the Cross—a remembrance of God’s deliverance
long ago of His people from slavery and death at the hands of Egypt.
It is in the context of the celebration of this event – the Passover
– after the Seder, a lavish meal infused with rich symbolism has seemingly ended,
that Jesus does something unexpected, something new.
Taking some bread, Jesus blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples.
Jesus repeats the very same liturgy as he raises a cup of wine from the table
– again taking it, blessing it, and offering it to them.
He offers both, the bread and the wine, as his body and blood—as signs of a greater exodus.
The Good Shepherd begins to cast a vision of
the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Jesus speaks of a new covenant where His sacrifice
will become our victory over the bondage of evil.
Jesus points to His return – to come back and take us to be with him,
to the place he has prepared for us – as our passport beyond our fear and the finality of death.
All of this is openly shared by Jesus
despite his assertion of treachery among his closest followers.
“But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table.” (verse 22)
Someone in their company, Jesus quietly announces, will not stay true.
Even now, Jesus insists, the shadow of betrayal looms over their fellowship at the table.
In response to this disturbing accusation by their Master,
the disciples do not stop and think to examine their own hearts.
Rather than look within, the disciples start pointing fingers at each other.
“They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.” (verse 23)
Instead of confessing their own doubts and fears,
they dispute their capacity for disloyalty.
And yet, though only one among them will hand Jesus over to be arrested,
all of them will, in the end, break faith with Jesus.
Denial. Running for cover. Hiding behind a closed door.
Falling asleep in the hour of temptation. Proclaiming they have no king but Caesar.
Betrayal takes many forms when we turn our backs on those we profess to love.
Changing the subject in conversation, for example, also can be a form of betrayal.
And that’s just what they do now.
Disturbed by Jesus’ talk of death and deception,
the disciples shift the conversation – to what proves to be an even more disturbing fixation.
As pointing fingers at each other soon becomes an argument — as it always does —
the disciples move from assigning blame to jockeying for position and prominence.
When we don’t want to face our weaknesses, it’s always easier to brag about our strengths.
And so, the disciples debate back and forth about who is the greatest of them all.
“A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.”
Now, we’ve got a family dinner.
In most homes, at most tables, there is where the real fireworks begin
– when all the work that went into creating a special meal,
a meaningful gathering, a perfect day
gets shot to hell by the same old family disputes coming up – yet again.
After all, this debate about “Who is the greatest?” isn’t a new argument.
The disciples have been down this road before with Jesus.
Back when they were ministering together out in Galilee,
after Jesus had told his followers for the second time of his coming death,
his disciples responded by quarreling over which of them was the greatest.
In that moment, Jesus set a child in their midst,
and said, “whoever is least among you all, this one will be great” (Luke 9:48)
Apparently, this object lesson was lost on them or forgotten in the years that had passed.
Because here they go again
– having the same old, tired debate at the worst possible moment.
Timing is everything.
Jesus has just shared he only has hours left to live.
Through bread and wine, Jesus offered to them
tokens of his body and blood that would be given for their redemption.
Only a few hours earlier, Jesus lowered himself to wash their feet
and then later came back around with a new commandment
– to love another as Jesus has loved them
– to serve each other as they witnessed Jesus serve them.
Moments ago, Jesus cautioned them that the seeds of betrayal were taking root among them.
And in response, all the disciples manage to take away from this
— is to squabble about who is the greatest among them.
At pretty much any other family gathering, this is when things get loud and messy.
This is when feelings get hurt
and words get said that make things worse rather than better.
But this isn’t just any family meal. This is Holy Communion.
This is the table where the depth of our brokenness is eclipsed by the wideness of God’s grace.
This is where Jesus holds us together despite our differences
by recasting on delusions of individual grandeur
into a profound awareness of our common unity
both in our need for him and our call to serve him.
“Who is the greatest?” Jesus could have addressed that question by pointing to himself.
Doing so wouldn’t have been arrogant because it would have been true.
Jesus could have briefly outlined his resume
– just from his time on earth – as the only truly great man in the room.
Preacher of the Sermon on the Mount.
Deliverer of miraculous signs and wonders.
Food provider to more than 5,000 people.
Raiser of the dead.
The One whom the winds and waves obeyed.
If we’re honest, if we were Jesus, that would be our first move.
Jesus could have pointed to himself as the greatest one of all.
But instead, Jesus, being who he is, turns the moment into a teaching opportunity.
Appeals to greatness.
They sure look good on a t-shirt or a lawn sign.
Appeals to greatness.
That kind of talk is what the people want. It’ll draw a crowd. It’ll win you lots of votes.
Jesus begins by recognizing how we perceive greatness
— the kind of leaders we gravitate towards in our desire to be great again.
“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them;
and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.” (verse 25)
The kings we herald as great lord their greatness
– their status, their brilliance, their accomplishments, their power, their dominance over others.
In acting in this way, exercising their authority first for their own benefit and acclaim,
such leaders label themselves as benefactors — of the people, for the people.
We ought to detect a hint of sarcasm by Jesus here.
Whereas today we might use the word “benefactor” positively – in the spirit of charity,
Jesus is being perjorative.
You see, in the Roman Empire, benefaction was all the rage.
It was the prescribed method for getting ahead.
It was often the only way to receive a helping hand.
Find someone better off than you
and do them a service for which they’ll reward you.
You scratch my back and I’ll throw you a bone.
Play the game and you’ll be taken care of.
Accumulate enough favors and maybe – just maybe
– you’ll earn a seat at the table – someday. If you pay your dues.
Benefaction was all about power and dominance.
It enabled those who had it all to feel good about themselves
— to look great in the public eye – for doing a little something for those who didn’t have
– all without really having to lose any of their power.
Benefaction created a system that justified an empire
built on the backs of many but enjoyed only by a select few.
It put the burden on those in need, those who were already behind,
who were struggling, to be responsible for their own welfare.
It’s an economic philosophy — a prescription for greatness
— still very much in play in today’s world.
Jesus, however, summarily rejects any such pathway for us
when he plainly states: “But you are not to be like that.” (verse 26)
He then goes on to redefine greatness not as power achieved through dominance
but rather power expressed through service.
Jesus returns to the object lesson he tried unsuccessfully to teach his disciples once before: “Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest…” (verse 26)
The gateway to greatness is not moving up but coming down
– coming down to the level of a child.
Children aren’t self-sufficient.
To be like a child is to adopt a posture of dependence rather than independence.
The power of which Jesus speaks is not gained by falling back on being the oldest
– the most tenured, most experienced, and smartest person in the room.
It is received by acknowledging, regardless of one’s physical age or time on the job,
one’s continual youth and inexperience when it comes to how the Kingdom of God works.
It is to own rather than to deny one’s ignorance and continual need for the Lord’s wisdom.
It is to confess rather than to justify one’s mistakes
– to confess one’s constant need of the Lord’s direction.
It is to get up each morning, to walk through each day, and to go to bed at night,
relying on God’s power for everything
– from the beat of one’s heart and the breath in one’s mouth
– to the daily bread on one’s table and the salvation of one’s soul.
In other words, the power of true greatness is not something we can achieve.
The power of true greatness is only something we can receive
— from the One who is the greatest of all — Jesus Christ.
And once received, how are we to exercise the greatness of the salvation
– the mercy and the forgiveness, the grace and the love, the wisdom and the direction,
the hope and the joy – the presence and the provision of God that we are given by Jesus?
How are we to exercise the greatness of the Kingdom of God
which is conferred upon us by Christ?
We are to rule — to be great – by serving one another.
And just to make this last part crystal clear, Jesus adds,
“For I am among you as one who serves.” (verse 27)
We learn alot about someone by how they are described by others.
How have we, as the Church, described to a watching world, who Jesus is,
as we’ve argued and debated like the disciples over these last 12 months?
The thing is, we often choose to highlight or stress those expressions of Christ
that most closely align with our own values and desires.
Over this last year, there’s been a lot of talk about Jesus
as worthy of being worshipped not socially distanced but in person – inside our church buildings.
There’s been a lot of talk about Jesus as victorious over sickness and disease
and therefore, we ought to walk by faith instead of fear
in the midst of a viable threat of infection, despite the number of people who are dying.
There’s been a lot of talk about Jesus bringing judgment on a sinful world
through this global pandemic, all the civil unrest, a contested election, and so forth.
But have we, are we describing Jesus the way He describes himself?
Because Jesus – not just here – but repeatedly throughout the gospels
singularly describes himself as a servant.
Not a teacher. Not a healer. Not a miracle worker. Not the Messiah. Not even our king.
Though he is all these things, Jesus declares himself to be one who serves
— who serves those in need, those who are sick, those who are hurting,
those who have been cast aside, those who long to be seen, those who are dying.
The very Greatest One of all makes himself our servant
– not only washing our feet and offering us his broken body and blood
but bearing all our guilt and shame, carrying the consequences
of all the chaos and brokenness borne of our rebellion and disobedience.
The very Greatest One of all humbles himself to serve us
all the way to the Cross, all the way to the grave, all the way through death and hell.
And now Jesus calls us to be like him
— to find our true greatness not in living for ourselves but in serving others.
Truth be told, this is as much as a challenge to us today
as it ever has been even within the Body of Christ.
Living in the age of COVID-19 has exposed for all the world to see
that we as the Church are more concerned about our own status,
our own comfort and own well-being than with any suffering in the world.
At a time when sacrifice and service in the name of Christ was needed the most,
we proved to be more invested in defending our own rights and protections,
in protesting on behalf of our own liberties and desires.
We’ve been so focused on not losing our power, our relevance as the Church,
that we squandered the opportunity to reveal the true greatness of Jesus
by following Christ in emptying ourselves of our privilege
for the benefit and betterment of others.
We have forgotten the remarkable and sobering paradox Jesus shared with us that
“Whoever seeks to save their life will lose it but those who lose their life will keep it.”
Greatness eludes as the Body of Christ in this crucial and trying time
because we have been too busy pointing fingers rather than reaching out with open arms.
Greatness eludes us as the Body of Christ because we are still vying for power and position rather than yielding and trusting God — worshipping Jesus –
not by getting back inside our building
— but going out in the world and compassionately ministering to others.
The point is not that serving others will get us to greatness, will make us great.
The point is serving others is a reflection of the greatness of God
— in delivering all that we need in Jesus Christ.
Greatness eludes us, beloved, as we continue to focus on what we want,
what we demand, rather than gratefully living out of what we have
— the fullness of what the Lord provides.
When we serve from a place of want or lack,
any service we give becomes about our need to find fullness or satisfaction.
We’re back to benefaction – serving,
whether we realize it consciously or not, because of what is in it for ME.
On the other hand, when we serve from the fullness of what God provides,
when our greatness comes not from what we achieve
but from the infinite abundance in Christ that we receive
– the crown, the authority, the gift of his Kingdom that he confers upon us,
we have only but to give.
Drawing from the infinite well of the Lord’s grace,
we are able to honestly serve with love and compassion
— no longer needing to GET, but in all blessings, to GIVE
What is true greatness?
Giving out of what the Lord has given us.
Humbly relying on God for all that we have
and holding nothing back from what God provides in coming alongside each other.
Serving others as Christ continues to serve us.
This isn’t just one of the many elements of the Christian life, of being the Church.
Serving others out of love for Jesus is what constitutes our life
and our greatness together as the Body of Christ.
For serving others is how we proclaim the Gospel – not just in words but in truth.
Serving others is how we fulfill the greatest commandment of neighborly love
— of loving others – family, friends, strangers, and enemies all – like Jesus.
Serving others is how we both point to and celebrate
the inbreaking of the reign of God’s Kingdom – the dawn of a new creation.
Serving others is how we become the Church, the Body of Christ
– not by showing up for a worship service
but by expressing our worship of Christ
through our care and compassion towards those in need.
In this very room, in this space prepared for us, let us then receive Jesus in the bread and wine.
Like the bread and the wine taken by Jesus,
let us remember we have been chosen by Christ,
let us remember the chosenness of every child of God
and together give thanks to God for His mercy and His grace.
Like the bread and the wine blessed by Jesus,
let us recognize we, too, are blessed by our Lord.
Let us recognize we are blessed to be a blessing to others we live each day of our lives.
Like the bread broken and the wine poured out by Jesus,
let us acknowledge how we also are broken in so many ways
…in our bodies and in our hearts, in our homes and in our world.
Let us acknowledge how Jesus calls us out of our unique brokenness,
which he is healing, to be poured out in solidarity and advocacy
to those who hurt and ache in the midst of the fractureness of their lives.
Like the bread and the wine given by Jesus,
let us realize we also are given – given by Christ in service to others.
Let us realize each of our lives is a sacred gift from God
both to those close to us: family, friends, and neighbors
and to those whom we will encounter but for a moment in time and may never know.
As we receive, as we take and eat and drink,
as we become by the grace of God, the Body of Christ,
let us keep our eyes on Jesus.
For he is not yet done teaching us.
He is not yet done revealing to us the nature of true greatness.
With every next step he is about to take, on our behalf,
Jesus will show us how great is our God
and just how great our service to others in His name can be.