“Set Free for Love and Service” Mark 9:30-37
The 18th Sunday after Pentecost (B) 9/23/2018
Rev. Richard Bellas, St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church, Lockport, IL
The great Leo Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina is really a story about two women whose lives go in opposite directions. The first is Anna, a member of the wealthy Russian elite with all the advantages except for one thing – she is stuck in an unhappy marriage. She begins an affair with Count Vronsky, an affair that is at first a secret, but becomes more and more obvious as time goes one. Before long, she has been cast off by her husband and ostracized by society because of the scandal. She is even kept away from her young son by her vengeful husband. Left with no one and nothing except her lover, Anna runs off with him to Europe to follow her sinful heart and indulge her passions for him. Turned in upon herself, living only for her own pleasures and passions, Anna becomes more and more miserable, becomes addicted to drugs, and eventually kills herself in a fit of hopelessness by throwing herself under a train.
And then there is Kitty, a young girl who begins the novel with a deep crush on this same Vronsky and is destroyed when he shows no interest in her. Kitty is heartbroken to the point of becoming physically sick, almost to the point of death. Her family cares for her and their doctor does the best he can for her, but eventually he admits that there is nothing that he can do for her. There is nothing physical about her problem that he can treat. Her soul is broken, and her body has followed. He suggests that they take her to Europe to see what cures they may find there, because nothing in Russia can save her.
And so Kitty, like Anna, goes to Europe. She stays in institutions with other sick people and, while there, she begins to notice the sick people around her and she begins to do what she can to take care of some of them. As Kitty’s focus shifts from her own problems and concerns to the problems and concerns of those around her, she gets better. Physically, she gets better. Emotionally, she gets better. Kitty finds joy in life to the degree that she serves those around her. Unlike Anna, who went to Europe to turn completely in upon her own wants and her own needs and wound up destroying herself in every possible way, Kitty went to Europe to learn the joy of forgetting her own problems and her own heartbreak and tending to the needs of those around her. Kitty comes to life in every possible way, and returns to Russia to find true love with the good man Levin that the immature Kitty spurned for Vronsky at the beginning of the novel. And the novel comes full circle back to the truth of its immortal first line – “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” which means, all happy people find their happiness in the same way – relationships with those around them, while all unhappy people are unhappy because they are each turned in upon only themselves in their own unique way.
Now, this sermon is not about how you can be a happy person. Quite honestly, you could get that sermon from a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist or just about any other religion that has been around for a long time, because people from every culture have come to know this truth just from observing human nature over the centuries: we humans are happiest, and find the most fulfillment in life, when we live in relationship with others and when we serve them before we think of ourselves.
No, this sermon is more about why this makes us happy people. We know from the Scriptures that we were created in the image of God, which means that we were created for love. A fish is created to swim, a bird is created to fly, and we were created to love and be loved and when that is not happening we are living outside of our design and we are broken. We also know from the Scriptures that that brokenness that we all live in to some extent comes from sin. I was made to live in what we call the horizontal relationship of love and service with you. And I need that and I crave that and when that is disrupted I am broken and I will pursue substitutes for love in all the wrong places. We each have those wrong places that we go to to fill that void, to find some unhappy comfort when things are not as they should be. “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” We each have our own false gods, and as we turn to them, we turn in upon ourselves and our wants and our desires and our own ugly egos. Me, me, me. How do others look at me? How do I look out for me? How do I show everyone else that I’m right? It is an ugly place to be. It is the prison of the ego. Me, me, me. This is the place where all violence comes from. This is the place where all divorce comes from. This is the place where all addictions live.
The deeper truth is that this horizontal relationship between me and you is broken because the vertical relationship between me and God is severed by sin. When we are not right with God, nothing else is ever going to be right in our lives. The Holy Spirit must come to me and do His work of conversion; He must make use of Word and Sacrament to work within me faith in Jesus Christ and what He has done for me. And when the Lord works His miracle, when He brings me into that right vertical relationship of faith with Him, then I can respond in love towards Him – and then, and only then, I am truly prepared to be everything that a human being is designed to be. I am prepared and equipped to truly love you and serve you and put you before me. And this is the only way that this can ever happen in the lives of sinners: faith in Jesus Christ, and what He has done for us. This is the only way that we will ever be truly and fully human. “All happy families are alike.”
When things are not right in this vertical relationship, things will never be right in these horizontal relationships and that will show itself as we turn in only upon ourselves and we focus on looking out for number one. Witness our Gospel lesson this morning. Jesus proclaims to His disciples the most profound thing that He will ever tell them. He has spent His entire ministry demonstrating to them that He is Someone very special: prophet from God, healer of the sick, destroyer of demons, resurrection of the dead, He Who literally walks on water and quiets the winds and the waves and He Who has the authority to forgive sins. For those who have ears to hear, He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
And yet, now, in this quiet moment, Jesus shares His deepest truth with these disciples. He Who laid the foundations of the earth and He Who will someday judge the living and the dead is going to be arrested by men who will kill Him. And on the third day, He will rise again.
Now stop and meditate on this for a moment, forget everything that you ever knew for just a moment, and picture this: He Who is the Son of God, and has demonstrated it to you in so many ways, suddenly tells you that men are going to arrest Him and kill Him, and then He will rise again on the third day. Without the miracle of the Holy Spirit working faith in your heart, this makes absolutely no sense. And the text tells us that the disciples don’t get it. They are on their way, but they haven’t gotten there yet. They don’t yet get it. And they’re afraid to ask Jesus about it. So they file it away in their memory banks along with all the other things that Jesus says and does that they don’t understand and they carry on as best as they can.
So they all walk down the road a ways and they get to town and relax in the house and Jesus knows that their minds are not right, so He asks them, “So, what were you guys talking about on the way? What was it that I saw you all getting agitated about?” And they all remain silent, because they know that they’re in trouble. Like when mom gets home from the grocery store, and she asks, “Didn’t there used to be a lot more cookies in the cookie jar?” and everyone, including dad, gets real quiet. Jesus knows that the disciples have been arguing about which one of them is greatest. It’s neither the first nor the last time that they will have this discussion amongst themselves. Because they don’t get it yet about the Gospel, this vertical relationship is not right. And so the horizontal relationship between themselves, one to the other, is broken. They are incapable of being the full and complete human beings that God made them to be. And so each of them turns in upon himself, and looks out for number one, and sets out to establish whatever dominance he can over all the others. “I was the first!” “I am Peter, and I talk first and loudest!” “I was the one sleeping closest to Jesus last night!” Grasping at whatever straws they can, each tries to establish himself as the greatest because they just don’t get it.
What they don’t get is that the Son of God came not to be dominant, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many. He did not come to be worshipped, although that is our natural response to His presence. He came to do what He could do for us. That is the only reason He came. He went through all of His humiliation, His conception by the Holy Spirit, His birth, His suffering under Pontius Pilate, His crucifixion, His death, and His burial, simply because we needed Him to do that for us. Even though we sinned, and we shattered that right vertical relationship of faith and love and worship with Him, He had a plan to restore it. And that plan entailed Him becoming a man, the most fully human man Who ever lived, and living out that right vertical relationship with the Father the way that we should have, and then going to the cross to take our sin and our brokenness upon Himself while He freely gives us that right and complete vertical relationship with the Father that we were made to have all along.
And now He comes to us and says, now that this is finished, now that you live in peace with the Father the way humans were meant to live, now you are fully human, you are capable of everything that you were created to be capable of, and now you go out and live that out with one another.
This is why James told us in our Epistle lesson from a few weeks ago that faith without works is dead. It’s not that I earn anything from God by loving you. But if I can’t live in a right relationship with you, if I am not at least making an attempt to put you before me, that shows that something is broken in the vertical relationship between me and Him. We give glory to God and we show that things are okay here in our faith relationship with Jesus by loving and serving each other. One relationship does not exist and cannot exist without the other. That is why when Jesus forgives us, He gives us far more than just some ticket to heaven to cash in at some future date. When Jesus forgives us, He brings us into eternal life right now, and He equips us and frees us to be fully human, to be all that human begins were designed to be, to love and serve each other and to put you before me.
Now of course we are simultaneously saints and sinners. None of us is anywhere near perfect at this. But we are to be working at it. That means receiving encouragement daily from Him as we open His Word and let the Holy Spirit work on us through that Word. That means daily rejoicing in the blessings of our baptism, which was the single greatest day of our lives for any of us. That means bringing our sinful, sorry selves to this place every week to receive Word and Sacrament and be strengthened in our faith so that we can practice our love. And that means talking to each other, living in relationship with one another, serving each other, as our Lord works through each of us as we strengthen and encourage one another.
And that means practicing it out in the world. Thinking of others and putting others first is a habit that like any other habit becomes a habit only by repeatedly doing it. It takes discipline, a discipline of intentionally doing small things that then become habits. Small things that don’t seem like much but they add up to good habits over time. That’s exactly what a habit it – something that you do over and over again until you do it without even thinking about it. Walking into a public building, hold the door open for whoever is coming right behind you. Let the other driver change lanes in front of you. At school or work, make a point of smiling at the person you pass in the hall, even if you are in a bad mood, because that will make them a little happier. Get up in the morning and find someone else to ask, “What can I do for you today?” It’s not about you. It’s about what you can do for them. That is when you are being fully human, when you live for others.
And if you don’t feel like doing it, so what? The bad news is that your feelings are going to be all over the place. The good news is that you have power over your feelings. That’s where the discipline comes in. If you intentionally act in a certain way, your fickle feelings will follow. Give it a try. If you are angry with your spouse, take a moment and intentionally do something really nice for him or her. Then check yourself again to see if you still feel mad at them. That guy at work or school who drives you nuts? Take a moment to tell him the dumbest joke you can think of, make him laugh, and then see if you still feel the same way towards him. Don’t wait for the Gospel to suddenly work its magic on you and change your feelings to love for everyone. Undertake the discipline of intentionally putting them before you in a tangible way, because you know that is Christ’s calling for you whether you feel like it or not, and the feelings will begin to follow your actions.
And if someone asks you why you hold the door open, or why you smile at them even though you don’t even know them, you can tell them, “I do it because my Lord Jesus Christ has rescued me from myself and He has set me free to love others.” You want to do evangelism? Do that evangelism. It will be the best and most effective evangelism that you can ever do. People don’t care what you say. And they won’t care what you believe until they are interested in what makes you such a thoughtful and whole human being.
Whoever would be greatest among you in the kingdom of heaven must make himself least among others on earth. That is what Christ our Suffering Servant did for us. And that is what He calls us to do for Him and for each other. Amen.