So one kingdom was Lutheran and another was Catholic. All this was fine if you were Lutheran in a Lutheran territory Catholic in Catholic territory. But if you were Mennonite, you had a problem. Martin Luther did not like Mennonites because they refused to baptize babies. So Lutherans persecuted Mennonites on their territories. One winter night in the sixteenth century a Mennonite was feeling a Lutheran magistrate. The Lutheran was supposed to drag the Mennonite back to town to be tried and executed as a heretic. So the Mennonite fled across a frozen river. Lutheran followed, but the Lutheran fell through the ice into the frigid water below. The Lutheran could not get himself out of the water, and so called for help. “Help, help.” The Mennonite, who had made it to the other side, remembered Christ’s command to love your enemy, and so returned to the river and rescued the Lutheran, got him to the safety of share. Then the Lutheran said, “But I still have to take you back to town to be tried and executed as a Mennonite. The Mennonite said, “But I just saved your life.” The Lutheran said “I still have my duty to do.
Unfortunate episode in Christian history.
In 2010, the Lutheran World Federation held its convocation in Germany. Representatives from all over the world were there, as well as a delegation from the Mennonite church. Lutherans and Mennonites had been in dialog for about seven years, and one of the results of that dialog was that the Lutherans decided to ask God and the Mennonites for forgiveness for the persecutions that their ancestors had done all those years ago. See, if you celebrate the good things about your history, you also have to acknowledge the bad things about your history.
So in a worship service they did a confession and forgiveness like we do at the beginning of worship here, where they asked God for forgiveness. They knelt down, like we do every Sunday. So at that one moment, everybody in this huge convention hall was kneeling, to the cross, and the only people left standing were the Mennonites.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says “The rulers of the Gentiles, that is, the nations, the peoples, lord it over them, and their leaders exercise domination over them. That is, the powerful do whatever is most convenient for them, and make up the flimsiest justifications to make themselves s feel better, or just don’t worry about it at all, because, well, who’s going to stop them?
But it will not be so among you. Among you, the greatest among you must be a servant, and the leaders must be slaves of all.
Why? Because Christianity is supposed to be a milk toast religion, where everybody is concerned only with their own salvation and cowers and stays quiet in the face of oppression and human suffering?
No. Precisely the opposite, because the Son of Man, the one prophesied to bring about God’s great change of the world toward life, the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
So, the Christian contribution to the human conversation about meaning and purpose is that something happened at the cross of Jesus Christ that changed everything. Like any absolute wonder, different people are going to describe what happened at the cross in different ways. For example, Paul says that the cross is substitutionary, that is, Jesus substitutes himself for us, puts himself in our place, takes on the consequences of our destructive behavior. Hebrews, which we have been reading in our second lesson for the last few weeks, describes Jesus as the Great High Priest, who offers himself as a sacrifice to heal the relationship with God which we have wounded. In the Gospel of John, Jesus at the cross shows Gods glory, which is God’s willingness to sacrifice out of love. Jesus shows us what real love is. Seeing God’s love at the cross, knowing that love, understanding it, changes us.
In Mark, Jesus goes to the cross as a ransom. Greek word is Lutros. Greek version of the Old Testament translates it as release, deliverance. A ransom was what you paid to get your brother or nephew or father back when he had been taken as a prisoner of war. Otherwise they would be sold as slaves. A ransom was also what your daughter of sister or brother or uncle paid to get you back when you had been sold into debt slavery. So here was what might happen. You get sick in planting season, you can’t work for two weeks. You don’t get enough seed in the ground with the result that your harvest is about half what it should be. You take out a loan to buy enough food to make it till the next harvest. Well the next year is a drought. You get only half the harvest again, and now you can’t pay back the loan. Your creditors can sell you and your family into slavery to recoup their losses.
Your four year old son and your eight year old daughter go into slavery. You are sold to another house unless your sister or mother or uncle or brother pay your ransom.
Jesus is the ransom. He sets us free. One of the things he sets us free from is this idea that, if we are powerful and important, we’re better than someone else so we can do anything we want to them. Or that we are not powerful. Someone else is stronger, we are nothing, they can do whatever they want to us. Jesus sets us free from bondage of our minds, of our souls.
It shall not be so among you, for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom.
I want to finish with a more fortunate episode in Christian history. It’s from a friend of mine named Kurt Gardner. He’s a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America. Presbyterian Church of America differs from the ELCA in a number of ways, and Kurt and I have different positions on a lot of issues. But I think Kurt is a fantastic Christian. He is humble; he loves his family. As a good Presbyterian, he is intensely focused on submitting to the will of the sovereign God. I would not describe myself that way, but I admire that about him.
Kurt tells about the foreign aid arm of the Presbyterian Church in America, they went to Iran. This was after the Iranian revolution, which some of us might not remember. So here’s a little background. In 1952, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, a guy name Mohammed Mossadegh, nationalized the oil industry in Iran. That is, he booted out the British who controlled the industry. He planned to use 25% of oil profits to pay the British for refineries and stuff, and used the rest for schools and things like that in Iran. British didn’t like it, asked for help from the Americans, and the British MI6 and the American CIA brought about an overthrow of the Iranian government, put the Shah in power. CIA admitted this in 2013. From 1955 till 1979, the Shah modernized Iran, more quickly than many people liked, let the British have the oil, and tortured and killed opposition. A radical Islamist government took over in 1979, chanting death to America and burning the American flag doing other nasty things, such as torturing people and killing opposition party members.
Well, some years later there was an earthquake in Iran. Iranian government blamed the United States for the earthquake. It also let in several aid organizations to help. One of those organizations was the Presbyterian Church in America. The government had liaisons who visited the groups, to coordinate the work and communicate, and, I’m sure to keep an eye on things and makes sure they were doing what the government wanted.
This one liaison kept coming into the Presbyterian office. He’d come in the morning, stand there a while, go out. Come back early afternoon, one more time later. Come back the next day. Finally the head of the Presbyterian delegation came up to him and asked him. “Is everything all right? Are we following all the rules and stuff?” Liaison says “Yes, yes, everything is fine.” “Then, may I ask, why do you keep coming in here?” Iranian guy says “Here is the only place I find peace. I come here for peace.” “Why do you find peace here?” “Because of all people in all the groups who have come here to do work, you are the only ones that clean your own latrines.”
“Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”
This is the power of God moving in the world. Do not underestimate the power of God moving through you, when you seek to serve. God makes us a part of the ransom, of Christ’s freeing of the world.