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St. Bartholomew Day Sermon – Luke 22:24-30

September 5, 2014

August 24, 2014 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“You are those who stayed with Me in My trials, and I assign to you, as My Father assigned to Me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

Today the Church commemorates St. Bartholomew, one of the Twelve apostles of Jesus. The  record of the Twelve apostles in the Gospels is a varied one. Some apostles have much written about them: Peter and John being the most written about. Their brothers, Andrew and James respectively, also receive a bit more treatment. Then there are the sort of middle apostles, like Matthew with his call from the tax booth and Thomas with his famous encounter with the Risen Jesus that overwhelms his doubts. Bartholomew, though, is one of the Twelve that doesn’t get much play at all: in the Synoptic Gospels, all he gets is his name placed on the list of the apostles.

Perhaps that is why the incident recorded in the Gospel Reading is appropriately appointed for St. Bartholomew’s Day. Remember what you heard about the Twelve: “A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” That dispute included Bartholomew. He was among the Twelve apostles bickering over their ranking and place. The quarreling happened on Holy Thursday, the night on which Jesus was betrayed. Jesus had disclosed the fact that one of His own followers would hand Him over to the authorities. And it is on the heels of that disclosure that the Twelve have their argument about greatness.

The dispute among the Twelve is clearly not their finest hour. It is the raw display of inherent sinfulness. Selfishness, self-interest, and self-aggrandizement are manifested in that dispute. When that happens, it isn’t a pretty sight. But it is an all-too-familiar one. For what the Twelve involve themselves with that night is not unique to them. All sorts of groups have such tussles. You can read the historical treatments of our nation’s Founding Fathers or presidential administrations—particularly the Lincoln and Kennedy administrations—to see the same type of disputes. 

But disputes about greatness are not limited to secular groups. Remember, that the argument spoken of in the Gospel Reading was happening among the Twelve apostles of Jesus. The same types of disputes arise within ecclesiastical organizations, even today. The Church is not immune to it. The same inherent sinfulness exists within the members of the Church, for they are as human as the apostles were. All are “jars of clay” as Paul describes himself and the other ministers of the Gospel. That is why you can witness it in your church body or even your own congregation. Selfishness, self-interest, and self-aggrandizement are not uncommon sins.

When Jesus hears the dispute that the Twelve are having, He does not let it go unaddressed. He speaks against it: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you.” Jesus notes that the Twelve were acting like the people who have no connection to the LORD. They are behaving like those who do not abide by the LORD’s way of life. They aren’t thinking as He has instructed them during His three years of teaching and acting.

So Jesus begins the corrective for the Twelve: “Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the One who serves.” Jesus gives instruction to them. It is tied to what He had been doing in their presence. The Twelve had observed Jesus. They were witnesses of His words and works. But they had not integrated what His teaching and acting had revealed. 

So Jesus makes it quite clear for His apostles. Of all the people in the Upper Room, Jesus is the greatest. That was undisputed. And yet, what was Jesus—the Greatest One—doing that night among the Twelve? He was serving them. That night and what would take place the next day was the culmination of three years of service. In that Upper Room, Jesus had served a meal to them that would grant them forgiveness, life, and salvation. He would wash their feet, showing them love and service. And Jesus would make many promises about what He would do for them, including preparing places in the Father’s house for them and asking the Father to send a Helper who would abide with them forever.

In doing this, Jesus moves the Twelve away from their thoughts about greatness—thoughts that were rooted in their innate sinfulness and were ultimately vain folly. The Twelve had done what the author of Proverbs had warned against: “Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you…. Be not wise in your own eyes….” They had rooted themselves in foolishness. But the true Teacher, the One who brings the divine wisdom that comes from heaven, transforms their hearts and minds. 

Jesus’ correcting the Twelve is done so they can receive what He was preparing for them. Left to bicker about greatness, the Twelve were abandoning the way that Jesus laid out for them. But Jesus reveals what the fate that is meant for Bartholomew and the rest of His apostles: “You are those who stayed with Me in My trials, and I assign to you, as My Father assigned to Me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” The fate of the Twelve is to be full recipients of the work that Jesus did for them, to be served by Him. Then they could take up their apostolic work, of finding greatness in service.

The assignment of sitting on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel is what the apostles would do in the Church. They would give direction by proclaiming the work that Jesus did for the world. They would lead the Church as a group of individuals who have benefitted from being recipients of Jesus’ service. They would do so, enduring all the trials that would come with that life: “[Being] afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in [their] bodies.” Jesus’ words in the Upper Room set the Twelve on the way to carry out their office as apostles.

The dispute among the Twelve and Jesus’ response to it is not completely limited to the apostles. Some of it is. The assignment of a place on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel is only received by Bartholomew and the rest of the apostles. Having a place of authority within the Church is not given to every single disciple of Jesus. But Jesus’ statements that His people are not to act like the Gentiles and that He stands as a servant among them are meant for you to hear and know. 

Attempting to import the wisdom of the world into the Church and making it determinative is bound to bring bad results. The author of Proverbs reveals wisdom when he writes: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.” The world hears Jesus say: “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” But they hear Jesus’ words and think them to be folly. Yet, what Jesus is revealing is wisdom and the way of life that He followed. It should drive all of Jesus’ followers away from thinking about rights and power in the Church.

This Fall when our congregation once again takes up the task of electing people to offices, the focus of all must be on the duties that officeholders are to carry out. They are not a way of ranking people within the congregation. They are not positions of status to add to the resumé. Nor are they to be awarded as a recognition of how long a person has been a member. Instead, these are positions of service, of carrying out functions so that this group of believers in Jesus can operate in the world and fulfill its tasks as the Lord has assigned them.

Even more important is the statement that Jesus makes about Himself: “But I am among you as the One who serves.” That statement is not just a reference to what was done in the past. It speaks of what Jesus continues to do now. Jesus continues to be present among us in the ways that He has instituted. In baptism, Jesus serves you by granting you His Holy Spirit and giving you the status of being an adopted child of His Father. That you saw today with Patrick’s baptism. In absolution, Jesus serves you by forgiving your sins, by applying the merits of His death and resurrection to you. That you experienced this morning. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus serves you by providing a meal, so that you can eat and drink as members of His kingdom. That you will do in the Service of the Sacrament. Even now as the Lord of all, the One who sits at the right hand of the Father, Jesus still is among you as the One who serves, who acts for you and your benefit.

This is what Bartholomew came to believe and trust, as Jesus spoke to him and the Twelve after their dispute. It drove his life as an apostle, even to the point of martyrdom for the faith. The same is what you have come to believe and trust. But that wisdom needs to be impressed upon your hearts and minds with regularity. Even as you have heard what Jesus has done and taught, the temptation is to fall back to the folly of human understanding and thinking. It’s so very easy to act on the inherent sinfulness that expresses itself in selfishness, self-interest, and self-aggrandizement: to be wise in your own eyes. So the Church prays again: “Grant that Your Church may love what Bartholomew believed and preach what he taught.” Turning to Jesus in humility, your Lord will answer it. And then you can live as the people whom Jesus has redeemed and set in His way of life.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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