Some of you are probably more competitive than others when it comes to games or sports or other contests of skill. But you would all prefer winning as opposed to losing. There is a spirit of competition that pervades this fallen and perishing world with its limited resources. Consider how the successful and the prosperous are described as “winners,” while those who struggle to hit their stride or make ends meet are labeled as “losers.” As though life itself were a contest.
Even when it comes to matters of opinion, differences in taste, and the luck of the draw, the roll of the dice, there is this urge to “win,” to demonstrate “superiority,” to dominate your peers. If not by your own abilities and achievements, then by your associations and attachments, riding the coattails of your chosen favorites. Whether in the realm of politics, sports, or entertainment, or in the case of celebrities whose only claim to fame is fame itself, there are the heros and their rivals.
These people are the apparent “rulers” and the “great men and women” of the “gentiles” in our day and age. So, whose side are you on? Who’s your team? Your hero? Your role model? Or do you look for your personal fame and glory in the accomplishments and accolades of your children?
You do get caught up in the culture of competition, because it also pervades your own heart and soul; it claws at your mortal flesh with its demands for attention, self-preservation, and promotion. With strategies both crass and subtle, deliberate and only semi-conscious, you jockey for position, you vaunt yourself and lord it over others where you can, and you exercise whatever power and prerogative you have to serve yourself first of all. Welcome to the law of the jungle.
You find the same thing in the case of James and John, when they request that Jesus promote them above all others. And it’s there again in the anger of the other disciples. But credit where it’s due, they have fixed their eyes and set their sights on Jesus, which is both good and right to do. They are seeking glory, it is true, but they have at least recognized that with Jesus is the place to find it.
But what will this mean for them? And what will it look like? What will being with Jesus require?
They do not yet understand or even know what they are asking. But they will. They will learn, because Jesus will teach them. He deals gently with the ignorant and misguided, above all by taking their frailties and weaknesses, their sins and griefs and sorrows upon Himself and bearing them in His own body, soul, and spirit to the Cross.
Thus do James and John, the other disciples, and you learn from Him the Way of the Lord.
His Way is not the worldly way of competition, but of divine charity and compassion. It is the greatness and glory of service and self-sacrifice, exemplified in His own Body and Life, in His humble obedience to the Father, in His innocent suffering and death. That is how He is revealed to you, and that is how you know Him rightly.
He is the One who acts to reveal and attach Himself to you. Not to ride your coattails, but to give you His own Life. He becomes your God, and you belong to His people by His grace. For He forgives your iniquities, and He remembers your sins no more, but He remembers you in mercy.
The Lord establishes this New Covenant in His own Body on the Cross; and now He writes it, signs and seals it with His own flesh and blood — upon your heart, in your mind, body, and soul — by the preaching and catechesis of His Word, in Holy Baptism, and in the Holy Communion.
You learn to know Him — His heart and mind, His true greatness and His real glory — by His free and full forgiveness of your sins. By this Holy Gospel, you know Him deeply and profoundly, truly and completely. You know the Lord Jesus, His Father, and His Spirit, the one true God, through His Word of Holy Absolution and in His Holy Sacraments, in His Chalice and His Font.
This Gospel of love and forgiveness, this Testament of life and salvation, is freely given to you by God, by His grace alone, and it is freely received by faith alone, apart from any works of the Law.
But the very faith which lives so freely by this gracious Gospel, also proceeds on the Way of the Lord according to the Law of Christ, which is not the law of the jungle but the Law of love. Which means that you gladly forgive and do good and give life to your neighbor in the Name of Christ. That, too, is the significance of His Baptism, with which you are baptized, and of His Cup, from which you are given to drink.
For these gifts of God that you receive have implications for the way that you live.
The New Covenant of Christ, having been established for you and for all in His own Body and Blood on the Cross, is now being written for your neighbor with your flesh and blood, with the stylus of the Cross in your life, in the particular place where you live and work and love and serve. This, indeed, is the pattern of life and glory in the Kingdom of God.
Your place in His Kingdom is not one that you choose for yourself, but it is given and received by God’s calling and appointment. You are positioned and equipped by the Lord your God, who loves you and your neighbor, to the glory of His Holy Name. The same was true of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son, on His Way to the Cross, in His calling and appointment to His office and work as your merciful and great High Priest in all things pertaining to God.
As you are called to live under Him in His Kingdom, do not live as a citizen of this sinful world with its petty jealousies. Do not compete with your neighbor, nor seek to get the better of him; but, for the sake of love, serve your neighbor as Christ Jesus loves you and serves you in peace.
Sometimes what you are called to do — the Cross that you are called to bear — is simply to endure patiently, to wait upon the Lord, and in the meantime to deal patiently with your neighbor.
Whatever your circumstances, let there be no envy or resentment among you, but only love. Let there be no contesting for greatness or glory, but glorify your Lord Jesus Christ and His Cross by outdoing one another in humility, grace, and compassion.
It’s not kill or be killed, nor live and let live, but to lay down your life in love for your neighbor, for your friends and for your foes. It’s not a competition after all, and there is no place for keeping score or tracking your progress against each other. For one and all are called to know the true and only God in Jesus Christ the Crucified, from the greatest to the least of all His beloved brethren.
Despite all of the many differences (of which you are so aware) between you and your neighbors, and among your neighbors, the Lord shows no partiality. Rich and poor, great and small, all are to Him alike, and whatever any of them has comes from Him. But what does He regard and prize? Faith in His Gospel, and faithfulness to His Word, and love and mercy in His Name.
Look, then, to your Captain, your merciful and great High Priest, the Author and Perfecter of faith:
In the days of His flesh, He offered up prayers and supplications with loud crying to the One who was able to save Him out of death — to the One who could take the Cup from Him, if it were His Will, but who would yet be able to raise Him up from death when He had fully drained that Cup.
He prayed to His Father, and He was heard because of His piety and reverence. So it is that your prayers, too, are heard and answered for His sake, because of His piety and reverence. For God the Father, who handed over His Son Jesus to be crucified for the sins of the world, has also raised Him from the dead for the reconciliation of the world, and for the justification of the unrighteous.
Although He was already a beloved Son, He learned obedience — experientially — from the things He suffered in your place, in order to become your compassionate and faithful High Priest.
His greatness and His glory are His faith and faithfulness, His mercy and Self-sacrificing love. So has He given Himself as a Ransom for you and for the many, and so does He now serve you with forgiveness. Having been made perfect by His Cross and in His Resurrection, He has become the fountain and source of eternal salvation to you and to all who believe and are baptized into Him.
As He gave Himself for you, His Body and Life upon the Cross, so now, in His Resurrection, He gives Himself to you; He serves you, and He brings you to His God and Father in the Spirit, by the way and means of His Baptism and His Cup. These are the fruits of His Cross, by which you live.
As the Sacraments are shaped and filled by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, so are you also filled with Him and formed in His Image and Likeness by sharing in His Baptism and drinking from His Cup. These means of grace shape your life in faith and love like His, even as they forgive your sins and give you the Life of Christ in place of death.
So do you follow in the footsteps of Jesus — up to Jerusalem, the Holy City, and even to your God and Father in heaven — by the Cross of Christ, by the New Covenant in His flesh and blood. For you enter into Him by faith in His Gospel, as He gives Himself to you in His Holy Supper, so that you now enter into the presence of God through the crucified and risen Body of Christ Jesus.
The bitter cup of wrath and woe, He has made sweet by His bloody Cross and Passion. The poison in the cup, He has swallowed, that it might become for you the Cup of Blessing and Salvation.
The sacred flesh that bore your sins upon the Cross, and the precious blood of Christ that atoned for all of your unrighteousness, are given and poured out for you at the Lord’s Table in His House. He surrounds you on the right and on the left, and He gives to you the place of honor, so that He may serve you and give Himself to you in love. So are you seated here with Him in the glory of His righteousness and holiness, His innocence and blessedness, both now and forevermore.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.