Posted by: Johnold Strey | July 24, 2010

Sermon for the Commemoration of Saint James the Elder


 Text: Mark 10:35-45


Some time ago, I came across a website with a spoof worship song called, “It’s All about Me” (click these links for audio, lyrics, or music).  The title alone tells you that the song makes fun of the tendency in much of modern church music to focus more on ourselves and how we feel about God and less on proclaiming what Jesus Christ has done to rescue us from sin.  It has been said that all good humor has an element of truth in it, and that is definitely the case with “It’s All about Me.”  It’s a very funny song!

The tendency to let “faith” be all about ourselves is hardly a new phenomenon.  It’s hardly a tendency only seen in worship.  The Gospel for today reveals that way of thinking in two of Jesus’ own disciples.  Church calendars set aside today, July 25, as a day to remember St. James the Elder, brother of the apostle John and one of Jesus’ three closest disciples.  James was also the first of the twelve apostles to be martyred for his faith, as we heard in today’s Second Lesson (Acts 11:27-12:3).  The fact that James went so far as to give up his life for his faith in Christ tells us that he must have matured substantially from the time that today’s Gospel took place.  The Gospel records a familiar incident revealing the sinful shortcomings of James, who at this particular time thought that following Jesus was a way for personal glory—or to quote the song title, he acted as if “It’s All about Me!”  But Jesus’ response teaches us, who need to mature in faith as much as James did, that when it comes to our Christian faith, it’s not about me.


At the start of our reading, the brothers James and John seem to be operating with the assumption that following Jesus was about them.  Believe it or not, Jesus had just wrapped up a discussion about his upcoming journey to the cross outside Jerusalem.  He previewed his upcoming betrayal, abuse, and execution.  And so what do James and John have to say in light of this sobering news?  “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’  ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked.  They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’”  And to top it off, we find out from Matthew 20:20-28 that the brothers actually made this request through their mother!

Such requests sound like James and John thought that discipleship was all about them.  That self-focused thinking becomes even more apparent if we look carefully at their requests.  First, they ask for a blank check from Jesus: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.”  Their “real” question reveals just how self-centered their thinking was.  They had missed the whole point of Jesus’ kingdom.  “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”  They were ready to ignore the cross moments after Jesus prepared them for his cross.  They wanted a kingdom with outward, personal glory, rather than inward, Christ-centered faith. 

Sometimes you can get to the bottom of someone’s thinking by asking a well-worded question.  The right question will reveal the real motives behind someone’s statement or request.  That’s what Jesus does when he hears the brothers’ request.  Unfortunately, the brothers go from bad to worse in the process.  “‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said.  ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?’  ‘We can,” they answered.  Jesus said to them, ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.  These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’”

Jesus told them that they didn’t have a clue what they were asking.  They naively thought that they could endure the very same hell and suffering that Jesus would soon face.  But in a sense, they would endure a similar kind of suffering.  Jesus was rejected and murdered for his claim that he was the Son of God, and James would be rejected, persecuted, and martyred for his faith that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the Son of God.

When the word got around that James and John had made this request to Jesus, the other ten disciples were furious.  Maybe they were mad at the brothers’ presumptive arrogance.  Then again, maybe they were mad that they didn’t think to ask this question first!  Regardless, it was apparent that they all needed an attitude adjustment, and so Jesus speaks up.  “Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.’”

Jesus directs the disciples’ thinking away from themselves.  He points out the many secular examples of people in positions of leadership who were merely out to rule the roost, to boss others around and feed their own egos.  But in Christ’s kingdom, true greatness is defined by humility.  To borrow a quotation from The Lutheran Study Bible, “In Christ’s kingdom, positions of authority carried a servant’s job description, as [Jesus] demonstrated with his own life.”  Jesus Christ, God Almighty, had every right to expect his creatures to serve him hand and foot.  Instead, he became a part of his creation and gave his life on the cross to redeem his fallen creation.  As Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”


If you want to lead in the church, then you serve.  Pastors ought not to lead their congregations just for a paycheck, but to serve God’s people with the Word of God, Baptism, Absolution, and Communion.  Teachers ought not to teach in the church just because it’s a job that provides income, but because they want to serve the young souls that have been placed in their care with the Word of God.  Musicians ought not to use their skills in the church merely to put on a performance or gain recognition, but because they want to highlight and accentuate the Word of God and the message of the gospel by the music they offer.  Lay leaders ought not to view their position in the church as a title that gives them power to call the shots, but as an opportunity to share in the work of the ministry so that more of that work can be accomplished and more souls can be served with the gospel.  In other words, it’s not about me!

But how quickly we forget that!  How quickly we forget that it is service, not selfishness, that ought to drive the leaders in Christ’s church.  How quickly we forget that it’s not about me!  And so the called servants of the church just put in their time, and the leadership pushes their agenda without considering others, and members avoid opportunities for service because it’s just absorbs more time and doesn’t offer any personal gain.

Oh, what a sorry bunch of souls it is who run the church of Christ!  If we make the church all about me, then we will have directed our focus onto sinfully selfish souls stuck in self-glorification.  If we make the church all about me, then our attention is focused on nothing but the hell-bent and hell-bound sinners seated in this building.

Thank the Lord that Jesus’ focus was not all about himself, but all about us!  While our sinful natures love to focus on ourselves, Jesus kept his focus on his gracious work to bail us out of the spiritual debtors’ prison called hell.  Jesus did not enter into his mother’s womb and into our world to make life all about him, but to give his life for us!  “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

For us, Jesus was born of poor parents in the humblest of circumstances.  For us, Jesus endured the very temptations we face daily and defeated every last one of them.  For us he permitted his own unjust arrest by his enemies.  For us he was flogged, beaten, denied, betrayed, convicted, and crucified.  For us and for our salvation he was nailed to the cross, rejected by his Father, and left to endure the hell that our sins merited.  But for us and our salvation he was raised in glory and ascended in triumph to heaven, where he is preparing a perfect and permanent place for you and for all his believers.

Jesus’ focus was never on himself.  Jesus’ focus was on his service for us—service that led him to lay down his life for our sins and to take it back as the definitive statement of his victory over guilt and the grave.  And so we who follow him by faith and trust completely in his sacrifice will also strive to fight against our default, self-centered thinking, and to put our focus on the One who came to serve us and calls us to serve others.


The James we see later in Acts 12, when compared to the James we saw here in Mark 10, reveals a man who matured tremendously in faith.  This is the same man, and yet he’s not the “same man.”  The James in Mark 10 is selfish; the same James in Acts 12 is self-giving.  The James in Mark 10 is “me-centered;” the same James in Acts 12 becomes a martyr for Christ, the ultimate act of service for one who simply would not deny his Savior.

I hope the same can be said of our attitudes.  The opportunities for us to serve one another in our own little congregation are limitless, whether it be on the council, committees, teaching Sunday School, ushering, cleaning, work day projects, helping with fellowship events, or whatever else we may do here.  May our attitude never be one that says, “I have to do this,” or “Can’t someone else do this?”  That’s a me-centered attitude, and that’s the exact opposite of what Christ calls us to do.  Rather, may our attitude always demonstrate a heart of self-giving service and a spirit overflowing with thanks to our gracious, self-giving Savior.  Amen.



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