The disciples miss the mark widely in the way they react to the Word of the Lord concerning His Cross and Passion — arguing among themselves, as to which one of them would be the greatest.
They do not even begin to understand what real greatness is, because they do not yet understand Jesus Christ or the true nature of His glory and His greatness. Not only that, but they are afraid to ask Him, because they don’t really want to know. They don’t want to understand His statement.
The thing is, if the Cross awaits Jesus, it awaits His disciples, too. That is what it means to be a disciple, after all: To follow and learn from a master, not only by listening to what he says, but also by doing what he does. So, if Jesus is on His way to die, then they are called to die with Him, as well, which is the very opposite of what they are wanting and hoping to accomplish and achieve.
You are no different and no better. You are not more faithful than those first disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the same for you as it was for them, according to your flesh. You do not and you cannot understand the Cross and Passion of the Christ. And you also are afraid to ask, because you do not want to know. More to the point, you do not want to be crucified and put to death.
You want to live. And not only to live, but to succeed and thrive on your own terms. You want to be great, to be respected and admired, to be well liked and popular. You want to be somebody, and to be known for your achievements and accomplishments. It’s not just a matter of your ego, though it is that, but you actually trust and rely on yourself more than God. You don’t trust Him to give you good things. You don’t trust Him to bless the life that He has given you in the place where He has put you. You don’t trust Him to give you what you need, far less what you want.
You don’t trust the Lord your God, and you don’t trust your neighbor, either. Not that you should trust in mortal men, but you don’t trust the Lord to serve you through the people He has provided for you in this world. Your heart and mind are beclouded by paranoia, suspicion, and fear. So, instead of trusting God and thinking well of your neighbor, you strive to protect yourself, not only physically but emotionally and in every other aspect of life. You spend your days feverishly trying to get more, and frantically trying to protect what you have. And at night you find no peace or rest, and you do not sleep well, because you wonder and worry what might happen to all your stuff, and about where you stand in relation to your neighbors. You live your life as though it were actually a competition, and as though everyone around you, even your family and friends, were opponents.
As a consequence, what happens? On the one hand, you are consumed by your pride, and by your self-righteousness, though that is nothing but a massive self-deception, supposing that you can justify and save yourself, and get a life for yourself, but you cannot. On the other hand, you’re driven by your lusts, and by your envy, and by your covetous idolatry. St. Paul says it straight: Your greed is idolatry. You want things more than God. And you are selfish with what you have.
Meanwhile, despite taking the credit for what you have, you are jealous and resentful of what the Lord your God has given to your neighbor, whether it be his income, his possessions, his place in the world, or even his family. If someone speaks well of your neighbor, your immediate reaction is to protest, even if only in your own mind, that you are the one who really ought to be praised. And if your neighbor is successful in business, in sports, or in school, you suppose that he must have cheated in some way, or that he was given some unfair advantage over you.
You get angry and become bitter. You harbor grudges against your brothers and sisters in Christ. You think the worst about your neighbor, and too often you express that out loud to others, as well. In your heart, you root for the downfall of your neighbor, and outwardly you mutter and complain and gossip about him. If you get your dander up, you’ll quarrel and fight with your neighbor to his face. And in various ways, whether in the body or otherwise, you murder your neighbor.
In all of this, there is the worldly appearance of strength and power, and the promising smell of success and greatness. To get one up on your neighbor seems to be a way of winning (whatever).
But it is all a false and misleading dream. It is no true wisdom or righteousness. It is no path to real greatness. It is not divine or heavenly. Did you hear what St. James has written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit? Such attitudes and actions, such envy and jealousy, quarreling and hurting, such things are demonic; they are devilish and deadly; they do not make you great but destroy you.
Bear in mind and be warned that friendship with the world — so also, competing and contesting with your neighbors according to the world’s terms and rules of engagement — puts you at odds and at enmity with the Lord your God. The story of Cain and Abel is a painful case in point.
Humble yourself, therefore, under the mighty hand of God. Resist the devil. That’s already what the Lord said to Cain, warning him, but Cain did not listen. You, now, hear and heed the warning. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you, because he is already defeated — not by you, but by the One who truly is the Greatest. Turn away from your temptations, from your sins and every evil. Don’t dally in them. Don’t suppose you are strong enough to go only so far, and then to stop just in the nick of time. There is no “nick of time.” The soul that sins shall die. Don’t go down that road, not even one step. Repent, and trust the Lord. Submit yourself to His Word in faith.
The Lord your God will exalt you in mercy. That is His greatness in Christ Jesus, that He exalts sinners by forgiving their sins. And He does it at His own expense. That is the remarkable thing. The One who really does have everything gives it all away. That is what He does for you.
You see it in Christ Jesus. Not only as an example, although He is an example. You cannot save yourself by trying to copy Jesus. You never will fulfill the Law by your own self-righteousness. But the Lord Jesus Christ is an example, that you should follow in His steps. You see in Him how you are to live as a Christian, and how you are to die as His disciple. But He is far more than just an example. For in Him you see the greatness of God, which He has accomplished for you and made possible for you. He has obtained it, purchased and won it for you, and He gives it to you.
He has humbled Himself and become obedient unto death, even death upon the Cross. He has made Himself nothing, small and weak and subject to death. The almighty and eternal Son of the Living God not only became “like” a little child, but He was conceived and born as a little Child, the Babe, the Son of St. Mary, a Fetus in her womb, an Infant at her breast.
And from the womb, from His circumcision on the eighth day, from the Temple as a young Man, and from the waters of His Baptism, He proceeded in the confidence of His God and Father, in love for God and His neighbor, making His way steadfastly to the Cross as the perfect Servant of all people for the salvation of all the sinful sons and daughters of Adam. He exercised His divine Wisdom in mercy and kindness toward those who were not merciful or kind to Him at all. “Father, forgive them,” He prayed for those who nailed Him to the Cross. So does He pray for you, as well.
It is by His perfect righteousness that He justifies you, reconciles you to His God and Father in holy faith, and sanctifies you by the gracious gift of His Word and Holy Spirit. It is by His Word of the Gospel that you are justified and righteous, sanctified and holy, in His crucified and risen Body. That is who and what you are, not in yourself but in Him, because God says so. He grants to you His Peace and Sabbath Rest in Christ through the free and full forgiveness of all your sins.
That is the strength and glory of God; and that is real greatness, which is by the Way of His Cross.
Instead of striving to take care of yourself, to make a way for yourself, to protect yourself, and to take what you want for yourself in competition with and at the expense of others — rather, commit your way to the Lord; entrust yourself to Him, body and soul, in both life and death, and wait quietly and patiently on Him to deliver you and give you all good things in Christ. For He will.
Even if you are persecuted, even to the point of being put to death, do not despair, and do not give up hope, and do not take matters into your own hands. Do not fret yourself, the Psalmist says, but know that the Lord, He is God, and He will vindicate you. He will exalt you at the proper time.
You know that He will do it, because He has already done so in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus. To be His disciple is to be crucified and die with Him, yes. But it is also then to be raised with Him, to live with Him. That is why the Church confesses her faith in the Resurrection of the dead.
The God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ has received you as His own dear child in His Son. That is what He was doing by the washing of the waters with His Word in your Holy Baptism, when He named you with His own Name, poured out His Spirit upon you, united you with Christ, and adopted you by His grace. The Father has thereby taken you into His embrace within the Body of His Son, who was crucified for your sins and raised from the dead for your justification and life.
So has the one true God, the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, given Himself to you and drawn you to Himself in peace and love. And so it is that, even now, you lack no good thing in heaven or on earth, regardless of your circumstances. All things are yours, because Christ is yours, and you are His. Anointed by His Holy Spirit, His God and Father is your God and Father.
The Lord your God, who has given Himself for you and given Himself to you in Christ Jesus, He is yours forever and always, for keeps, because you have not gotten Him for yourself by your own efforts, intentions, or accomplishments (all of which are fallible, frail, and fleeting, in any case). But you are His, and He is yours, because He has spoken and acted in grace, mercy, and peace, for your salvation. He has given and pledged Himself to you, and He will not withdraw Himself from you. The One who promises is faithful. He will do as He has spoken. He cannot deny Himself, and He will not deny His Word and promises to you. He will never leave you nor forsake you.
Now, I understand, there appears to be very little safety in the arms of Someone who was crucified, cruelly put to death, and buried in the dust of the earth. To be and abide in the crucified arms of Christ, how safe is that, exactly? For He Himself was like a gentle Lamb led to the slaughter.
“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,” they plotted and conspired against Him, “to cut off His life from the land of the living, that there should be no remembrance of Him.”
How easy it is to conclude that God abandoned Him in death. According to the wisdom of our flesh, “we consider Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” And how could any good ever come from such a Cross, from such a shameful and humiliating death and all that bloodshed?
But no, in fact, the truth of the matter is that the Cross of Christ is the Victory of God. It is His greatness and His glory, His almighty power made perfect in His voluntary weakness, all for the sake of His divine and holy Love. So it is that Christ the Crucified, the Son of God in the Flesh, has become your Salvation, your Strength, and your Song, by His innocent suffering and death. For it is precisely by His Cross, by the shedding of His holy, precious Blood, that God the Lord has reconciled the world to Himself and established Peace for you — peace with God in heaven, and peace in your heart toward all of your neighbors on earth, no matter how they may treat you.
The Tree of the Cross is not what it appears, but is the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden of God; it bears living and life-giving fruits that remain for you and for all the disciples of Christ Jesus. And by the eating and drinking of that Fruit from that Tree, by the crucified Body and shed Blood of Christ, the Name of the Lord is remembered, and His Name is hallowed from the rising of the sun to the place of its going down, even to the close of the age. Not only in itself, as it surely is — God’s Name is holy — but His Name is remembered and hallowed in every generation, and so also here among us. And so also for you, who bear His Name in His Peace.
Here, then, at His Table, take delight in the Lord who delights in you, and He shall give to you His heart’s desire, that you may be exalted by His grace, unto the Resurrection of your body and the Life everlasting of your body and soul in Christ Jesus.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.