“Set Free to Serve” (Mark 10:32-45)
I want to start out our message today with a little quiz. Multiple-choice. Which of these two statements is true: a) “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,” or b) “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Which one is true? Well, this is a trick question. The correct answer is c) “both of the above.” A Christian is both a perfectly free lord of all and a perfectly dutiful servant of all. It was Martin Luther who set forth these two seemingly contradictory propositions in a treatise called “The Freedom of a Christian.”
And this idea was not new with Luther. Our Lord Jesus himself says as much in our text today from Mark 10. Here Jesus tells us two things: 1) that he came as a servant to set us free, and 2) that the way to live out that freedom is by being servants of one another. So today we want to deal with both aspects of the Christian life, both to celebrate our freedom and to grow in our servanthood. You see, because of Christ the Servant, you and I have been “Set Free to Serve.”
In the multiple-choice question I just gave you, we had a) “A Christian is free,” b) “A Christian is a servant,” and c) both of the above. And we said that the correct answer is c) “A Christian is both free and a servant.” But if we look at ourselves according to our old sinful nature, we find that the answer is actually d) “none of the above.” We were not free, nor were we servants of one another. According to the sinful nature, we were slaves, not free, and we were slaves to self, not servants of one another.
Look at the people in our text. They demonstrate this self-serving attitude. Take the brothers James and John, for example, seeking their own interest. They tell Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In other words, give us what we want, Jesus, let us have our way. We want to sit on royal thrones, the best seats in the house–oh, right next to yours, of course. James and John are seeking glory, pursuing positions, not in order to give, but in order to get.
Then look at the other disciples: “And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.” So the other ten are mad at the two brothers for trying to get those positions ahead of them. And Jesus has to call all twelve of them together to straighten them out.
Which he does. And look at what he tells them not to be like, when he describes the ways of the rulers and great men of the Gentiles: “Those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” The way of the world is to lord it over people, to use power to get your way.
So self-serving attitudes all around: James and John, the ten other disciples, and the Gentile rulers. But now, what about us? Do we ever demonstrate this kind of self-serving attitude? What do we do or say or feel that shows we have the same kind of self-centeredness? In how we treat others? In our life in the home, at the workplace or school, or even in the church? Examine your mind and heart and life, your speech and actions, to see if you are like James and John and the others. I suspect you are, as am I. We all think and act and speak in self-serving ways. It’s what sinners do. But Jesus says to us today, “It shall not be so among you.”
You know, so far we’ve looked at James and John, the ten other disciples, and the Gentile rulers, and we’ve looked at ourselves. But there is one person we haven’t looked at yet, and that is Jesus. Jesus, the Son of Man, who came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus calls himself “the Son of Man.” That messianic title is taken from a prophecy in the Book of Daniel, where there is a vision of “one like a son of man” who comes from heaven with “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” So if ever there was anyone who rightfully could have demanded that others serve him, it was Jesus, the Son of Man. That was the kind of Glory-Messiah the disciples were expecting, and as his closest followers they wanted a piece of the action, to share in that kind of glory.
Yet Jesus says that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom. The Son of Man, as Jesus describes himself here, sounds more like another figure prophesied in the Old Testament, namely, the “Suffering Servant” from Isaiah 53. This Servant would make himself an offering for sin. He would pour out his soul unto death. This righteous Servant would make many to be accounted righteous by bearing their iniquities. This is the kind of Servant-Messiah Jesus came to be and wants his disciples to see.
To serve and to give his life as a ransom: This will mean for Jesus that he must drink a certain cup. “The cup that I drink,” he says. This cup that Jesus speaks of is the cup of suffering. In his agony in the garden of Gethsemane, he will pray, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not my will, but thy will be done.” By this “cup,” Jesus is speaking of the suffering he is entering into. He’s speaking of the cross. For on that cross Christ will drink the cup of wrath, God’s righteous anger against sin, in our place and for our salvation.
Because Christ drank his cup of suffering, the cup of wrath, now there is for us a different cup, the cup of salvation. This cup of blessing for which we give thanks–we drink from this cup in the Lord’s Supper, where we receive Christ’s blood shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. Strengthened by this salutary gift, we then are able to drink the cup of suffering that we encounter in our lives–especially suffering for the sake of the gospel, as James and John eventually would do as persecuted apostles. “The cup that I drink, you will drink,” Jesus tells them. They too will suffer for the gospel. And all of us Christians will, in one form or another.
“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Christ came into this world broken by our selfishness, and he came as a servant. He came to give his life as a ransom. “Ransom” was the term used for the price paid to set people free, to release slaves or prisoners of war, people in bondage who cannot free themselves. That’s us. We needed a ransom. We were slaves, self-serving slaves to sin and prisoners of death.
The Son of Man came to give his life as our ransom. Jesus paid the price that sets us free. He frees us from our slavery to self, our bondage to sin, and our prison of death. Now we are the redeemed of the Lord, ransomed from the grave. We’ve been set free. Luther says it so well in his explanation of the Second Article: He “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”
But wait, there’s more. Luther’s explanation doesn’t stop there. It continues: “that I may be his own and live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.” You see, Christ has redeemed and ransomed us for a purpose. We’ve been set free to serve. Christ has set us free from our slavery to selfishness, sin, and death. Now we serve in the most blessed kind of “slavery,” which is really no slavery at all. We are slaves of Christ and servants of one another. This is what Jesus is saying in our text: “If even I, the Son of Man, came to serve, then that’s the way it will be among you also. My disciples will be servants of one another.”
The Son has set us free, and we are free indeed. We are free from self-centeredness and resentment. We are free from selfishly seeking after position, because our position is secure in the Lord. We are free enough to be able to serve one another. So now the way to greatness in God’s kingdom is the way of servanthood. The church is not a business where people climb the ladder of success by stepping on others. The church is not an arena for ambition, where people seek prestige through positions of power. Jesus says to us today, “It shall not be so among you.” Rather, we the church–we are a community of servants, and as such, a real counterculture to the world. A serving, loving, Christian community is a refreshing oasis in this self-serving world. People should and will notice the difference.
We have signs of that servant spirit right here in our midst, in the people of St. Matthew’s. As we give themselves to the Lord, we also give ourselves to one another. We see it in the thousand-and-one tasks there are to do in a congregation. When we serve out of a free and willing spirit–whether we’re serving coffee, bringing food for the potluck, singing in the choir, helping with Communion set-up, providing rides to doctor’s appointments or to services, visiting our shut-ins–in all these ways and dozens more, you, dear brothers and sisters, are being Christ’s servant community. That’s how it is and shall be among you.
Fellow redeemed, Christ Jesus the Servant-Messiah gave his life as our ransom. He has set us free. And we have been set free for a purpose, set free to serve. As Christ’s church, we are serving one another now, and we’re always being stretched to serve one another even more. Look for new ways and new opportunities to do just that. We are indeed “Set Free to Serve.”
Lord, help us walk Your servant way
Wherever love may lead
And, bending low, forgetting self,
Each serve the other’s need.