Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Mark 9:30-37 30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. 33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
In The Freedom of a Christian, Luther asserts that the Christian is a free lord, servant to none, and a bound servant, subject to all (Martin Luther, Christian Freedom: Faith Working through Love [St. Louis: Concordia, 2011]). Today’s sermon text speaks directly to this paradox. Here Jesus proclaims his death and resurrection, which set us free; here Jesus calls his disciples to be servants of all. Together, these teach us that
The Greatest Is Servant of All.
We have our ideas about who is the greatest. To us, perhaps, the one who gives commands and tells others what to do might be the greatest. Or the one with the highest job position, or who makes the most money. To us greatness implies authority, power, rank, dominion over others.
But in our text, Jesus speaks of his Passion and death (vv 30–32). That should certainly have set the tone for any further discussion. One would expect a great outpouring of sympathy and sorrow. It would have caused not only grief and compassion for Jesus, but also fear and uncertainty for the disciples. They had left their jobs, their livelihood, even their families to follow Jesus, and if he were to die they would be left unemployed and without support or anyone to protect them. But from what follows, it’s obvious that the disciples did not understand Jesus’ words.
Instead, the disciples argue about who among them is greater (vv 33–34). A strange topic in view of Jesus last remarks. For if Jesus were to die, they would be everyday normal people without any special status in the society and unemployed on top of that. So Jesus, knowing already, asks them what they were discussing. They are silent and guilty as Jesus catches them in their pride.
We have the same debates—even if only with self. Our pride asserts that we are better than others. Perhaps you are thinking, “I have a better education,” or, “I have a higher position at work and a better paying job.” We might even think of our status in church and what our rank or position is within the congregation. We measure ourselves by things that make us look better than others. I do more to serve God, I make more friends, I know people in high places, or especially, I am a better person. I wouldn’t do what that person does. I don’t sin as badly as he. So, just like the disciples, we have the wrong idea of greatness. We don’t know what makes a person great. We don’t know the criteria for measuring greatness.
But Jesus shows us the true measure of greatness. Whoever would be first, Jesus says, “Must be last of all and servant of all” (v 35). Jesus is surely the Teacher, the greatest among these men; he sits down with the Twelve, the posture of a teacher in their culture. But a truly great one would just as gladly serve a child as lead a band of men (vv 36–37). This leaves no room for pride. We measure greatness by how much service the “great” one receives. But true greatness is found not in how others serve you, but in how you serve others. The “great” one is the one who serves others. That is to say, true greatness is in humility and service to others.
Jesus is the greatest of all because he is the Servant of all. Oh, yes, we see in Jesus what anyone would be compelled to call greatness. He is revealed in his miracles and teachings to be the Son of God. He is revealed in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration.
But Jesus’ true greatness was now to be revealed (v 31a). Jesus will now be handed over into the hands of men. He will be physically beaten and abused by these hands. He will submit to the schemes of evil men. They will kill Jesus. He will suffer the ultimate physical punishment: slow and painful death. Jesus, hanging on the cross, is the last of all men. And not just because he was hanging there to die, but because crucifixion was reserved as the form of execution for the worst of criminals. It was truly humiliating and embarrassing to be crucified as opposed to having one’s head cut off which was more honorable.
But Jesus suffers this to be the Servant of all. He offers his life as a ransom for the whole world. He offers his life as a ransom for your sins. Your pride is forgiven by Jesus, who serves you. Think you’re better than others? That sin is forgiven by Jesus’ death. Think you are smarter than someone else? That too is forgiven. Think you are above others and have the authority to tell them what to do? Jesus humbled himself to forgive you for that.
Call that greatness? You bet! Jesus, Servant of all, would then be exalted—his greatness in humility confirmed—in the resurrection (v 31b). Three days after his death, he rises from the dead. The crucified Son of Man reigns eternally as the Servant King. Phil. 2:8-9 “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.”
The Servant of all therefore sets you free to serve. You have been joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection by Baptism. You live in the kingdom of the Son of Man. Here you are set free from sin and death.
Therefore crucify the sinful flesh with its desires. Jesus purges you of pride, humbling himself to serve you. Jesus works in you that you also might be a servant. That you might humble yourselves to wait tables. I remember visiting a soup kitchen in Pasadena, California one time as part of a post-graduate class I was taking for the ministry. At this soup kitchen homeless people living on the streets of Pasadena came every evening for dinner. Most of them were drug addicts and alcoholics, many were suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from fighting in the Vietnam War. Some were single moms with their babies. By the time the guests arrived the tables were set with table cloths, the plates and silverware were placed, and once everyone had taken their seats and the prayer was said, the volunteers, mostly, middle class members of local congregations, bathed and well dressed, came around to each table and served the food. When the meal was over the guests were dismissed and the volunteers gathered up the plates, took out the garbage and washed the dishes. Watching this was a real lesson in humility and service that I will never forget.
Jesus exalts you, his humble servant. You are exalted, reflecting the glory of the Son of Man. In Christ Jesus, you are joined to the Servant of all, the greatest in the Son of Man’s dominion. Servant to none. Subject to all.