1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12
November 2, 2014 - All Saints Sunday
I want you to think of the most spiritually mature person you have known personally, not one of the great saints from history but a saint God has used to shape you as a disciple of Jesus. Do you have just one person in mind? Good.
What about this person prompted you to identify them as a model of Christian spirituality? What personal qualities did they have? What did they do and say?
Now imagine how they got that way? What happened to them? What did they do to nourish their spirituality?
Before I was born, Nils Friberg was pastor of the church I grew up in. He spoke with a heavy Swedish accent. As more English speakers joined the church, the leaders got him to move on. Despite that hurt, he came back when he retired. He occasionally offered the pastoral prayer, which I loved as a child. He raised his arms and looked straight up, I thought into heaven, and spoke his booming Swedish accent with such authority I was sure God had to pay attention. Years later, into my own pastoral ministry, I realized my aspiration to be a pastor like Nils Friberg who grew past injury and prayed with power.
Last week we heard how Jesus’ responses to the Sadducees and Pharisees shut down all further questioning. In Matthew 23:1-12, he taught that the path up to exalted spiritual leadership necessarily leads down through humility.
Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
All of these confrontations between Jesus and the Temple leaders ultimately were about who Jesus was. In verses 8-10 Jesus cautioned his followers not to usurp the roles that are rightfully his: teacher (rabbi), Father and Messiah. Some Protestants are fond of picking out Jesus’ words about calling someone “Father” as a criticism of Roman Catholics and other “high church” traditions. I’m inclined to think Jesus’ caution applies to all honorific titles when they are used to manipulate, oppress or flatter.
Jesus criticism of the scribes and Pharisees was not the content of their teaching, but that they did not practice it but turned it into heavy burdens laid on those who could not bear them. Similarly, Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church, that he wanted to be sure that his ministry was not a burden to them (v. 9) but that like a gentle father, he encouraged them (v. 11). The teaching of the Gospel out to relieve people’s burdens and uplift their spirits.
The “life worthy of God” (v. 12) that Paul nourished in the Thessalonians was a joyful righteousness of following Jesus by loving God and loving neighbors. Jesus contrasted it with the judgmental piety of the scribes and Pharisees, just as he said in the Sermon on the Mount, to enter the Kingdom of God our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. (Matthew 5:20) That doesn’t come by coercion but overflowing love and joy.
Jesus concluded that the path up to exalted spiritual leadership necessarily leads down through humility (vv. 11-12).
Jesus didn’t invent this principle. He combined and paraphrased Proverbs 3:34; 15:33. It is a life axiom that shows up in many other religions as well as throughout Scripture. James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5-6 quote it. In all three synoptic Gospels, Jesus held up a child as the example of humility as greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:4; Mark 9:35; Luke 9:48).
Jesus extended it to make service the hallmark of humility in his personal mission statement in Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Here in Matthew 23:11, being the servant of your fellow disciples is Jesus’ path to greatness and spiritual leadership.
Humility is tricky. Just when you think you’ve got it, you know you don’t. Some of us have been known to protest that we don’t have humility as a way of prompting others to tell us that we do. Some of us have even figured out how to act humble with such apparently real humility that others will affirm us.
At the risk of falling into this trap, today’s Scriptures do prompt me to acknowledge how I feel about “sitting on Moses’ seat” as one who is called to preach and teach. I love and thoroughly enjoy both preaching and teaching. I am enriched by the study of preparation in which I learn far more than I can teach. I enjoy the lively give and take of teaching, in which I see lights go on in people and gain new insights myself. I find preaching exhilarating as a vigorous element in the high drama of worship. With music, reading, prayer, sacrament and preaching, we act out our redemption week after week for the greatest of all audiences: God! Having said that, I find teaching and especially preaching terrifying. What if something I say, or worse something someone sees me do, points a vulnerable person in the wrong direction to their spiritual detriment? I know I would not want the responsibility of making decisions that affect the whole world the way the US President or other world leaders do, but I am acutely aware that I have some responsibility for, dare I say, the eternal destiny and spiritual well-being of the people God puts in my care and in range of my influence. I know God has called me to teach and preach, and given me experiences, gifts, education, and opportunities to do so. To teach and preach is a great privilege, but how dare I presume to stand in front of God’s people and speak on God’s behalf every week if I have not spent quality time with God during the week.