The following sermon was preached by Michael Buttrey at Wine Before Breakfast on April 12, 2022.
A few years ago, Deb introduced me to the term “Sassy Jesus.” Since then, I’ve seen Sassy Jesus often in scripture, and often found it a helpful way to imagine Jesus’s tone.
This passage has some sassy moments, but reading it in the First Nations Version gives me more “Dad Jesus” vibes. Now, I’m not suggesting Jesus had kids! I … also don’t want to say Jesus is our dad and we are Jesus’ kids. So maybe I’ll say “Mentor Jesus” instead.
Anyway, I feel like Jesus gives off some classic mentor vibes here, such as “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.” Or when a mentor has to sit you down and warn you that you’re on the path to disaster. Or when a mentor gives you some practical advice you don’t understand at the time.
Today’s text is set during the Last Supper in Luke’s Gospel. This chapter opens with Jesus arranging to eat the Passover meal with his disciples, and in verse 19 he says the famous words: “this is my body; do this in remembrance of me.” Some 20 verses later, we get the scene in the Garden, where Jesus prays “If you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
Our passage is between these two scenes. We get Jesus intervening in an argument between the disciples, him warning one disciple in particular about the trials he will face, and some cryptic advice about how to prepare.
What ties it together is Jesus being a mentor to his disciples. He has one last evening with his followers and he’s trying to make the most of it.
First is the argument. Perhaps because Jesus has been dropping hints about his upcoming betrayal and death, the disciples are anxious about what the future holds, and debating who of them is the greatest. We don’t hear the argument, but we get Jesus’s response, and that’s where I see “disappointed Jesus” vibes.
In verse 25 Jesus reminds them, not for the first time, of the difference between his way and the ways of the Nations. Rulers from the Nations force their way on people: they not only tell us what to do, but make systems so that we must do as they want, and it’s hard to imagine what else might be true or possible. And then, they have the gall to tell us that they are our benefactors: they know what is best for us, and out of their greatness of spirit, they donate some of their generous resources to “help out.” Of course, where the queen’s shilling goes, the queen is not far behind, meaning that these gifts come with expectations of compliance.
Jesus contrasts the way of Rulers with the way of being like a child or a servant. Now, the difference is not that only Rulers have power. I agree with Diane Langberg: “even the most vulnerable among us have power.” An infant has the power to cry, and if they have caring parents, their cries cause their parents to act. Servants also have power: they can serve eagerly, doing their best, or they can “work-to-rule,” doing exactly as instructed, no more or less. Or servants can withhold their labor, going on strike, or quit. The consequences may be dire, but there is always at least a little power there.
Nor is the difference that Rulers have more power and servants have less power. In verse 30, Jesus promises that his disciples will sit in council seats and decide all things for the twelve tribes of Israel. If the message is “less power is good, more power is bad,” Jesus is being a little inconsistent!
Rather, in verse 27 Jesus asks rhetorically “Who is greater, the one who is being served, or the one who serves?” Our version adds the comment that the disciples all hung their heads and would not look Jesus in the eye, and that’s very apt. Jesus has explained this, he has modelled this, and they still don’t get it – in fact they’re arguing about it. Imagine his disappointment as he reminds them “Here I am serving you.”
Jesus’ way is serving others. A simple idea. Hard to execute, easy to get wrong. Maybe that’s why he pivots to Simon Peter, and warns him of his upcoming test. Here, Mentor Jesus is telling one of his most eager students that he will make mistakes, big ones. Simon Peter – whose first name means the one who hears – doesn’t hear Jesus: “I am ready to go to prison and death with you!” This time, Jesus is sad, and tells Peter he will deny him three times.
But like a good mentor, Jesus also tells Peter it’ll be OK. He says he has prayed that Peter’s failure will not turn him away from the good road, and when he turns back again, he can help the others to do the same. Note that Jesus says when Peter turns back, not if: Peter will fail, but he will also return to the way, and then he can help the others.
I don’t know about you, but when I’ve tried to serve others, I haven’t always done so. I’ve forced my way upon people and pretended it was for their benefit, I’ve hurt people I’ve tried to help, and like Peter, I’ve made promises I’ve quickly broken. Being a servant is a good and worthy ideal, but it’s no guarantee you won’t harm others – sometimes while loudly insisting it’s for their benefit. For those prone to self-absorption and self-deception – which is all of us – just saying you’re serving others doesn’t mean you won’t make some big mistakes.
Making up for your mistakes is hard, in part because apologies aren’t always enough. Another reason it’s hard to make things right? Shame. Later in this chapter, Peter indeed betrays Jesus just as was prophesied, and then weeps bitterly. I don’t know how Peter felt after Jesus was crucified, but I’m certain it was even worse. Not only was his mentor and teacher dead, but Peter had betrayed him shortly before his death. Can you imagine the shame Peter felt? The agony he put himself through?
I believe that’s why Jesus makes a point of giving Peter a warning. Jesus is sad, but I don’t read him as mocking or berating Peter for what he’s going to do. Rather, Jesus tells him there’s hope. He promises Peter that he’ll return to the good road, and help his companions to do so as well. In other words, there is life after failure, and our relationship with Jesus doesn’t have to by defined by our worst moment. That’s good news for me, and I hope for you too.
Serving others instead of being served. Turning back to Jesus when we fail. And trading in your cloak to buy a long knife. It all fits together. Right? …
Actually, the buying knives bit is a little confusing! Jesus reminds his disciples that when they went out to share the good story, they took nothing, and that turned out fine. This time, though, he warns them they’ll need their money pouch and travelling bundle with them to be prepared. And then he says in verse 36, “if you have no long knife, then trade your outer garment for one.” Or as another translation puts it, “the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.”
Understanding this verse is challenging. I’ve seen it come up in debates about pacifism, as a proof-text to show that Jesus is OK with violence. However, in verse 38 the disciples show Jesus the two long knives they have, and he says “that’s enough.” Which is strange, because a dozen verses later a crowd of priests, elders, and police officers come with swords and clubs to arrest Jesus. Two weapons aren’t enough to hold off an entire armed group, unless the disciples happen to be master swordfighters. Spoiler alert: they aren’t, because the one who tries to fight only manages to cut off a servant’s ear. And then Jesus rebukes them for fighting, saying “No more of this!”
Clearly, Jesus is not trying to arm his disciples for a coming insurrection. So what’s going on? Verse 37 gives us a clue. Jesus says there’s a prophecy that must be fulfilled, and then quotes part of Isaiah 53, which reads “because he poured his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.” Or as Jesus puts it, “He was numbered with the rebels.” Basically, Jesus tells his followers to get some swords to fulfill a prophecy that he will be considered a sinner, or even a terrorist. Which I think means that the swords are not for the disciples to fight with, but are meant to function symbolically, as a signal that Jesus and his followers are no longer law-abiding citizens.
If this interpretation is right – and that’s a big if – what should we make of it? I think it may come back to power, again. Jesus could have had his followers all buy swords and fight to protect him. Or in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus claims he could summon twelve legions of angels to his side. Perhaps he even could have had his disciples train in secret with the zealots and start an insurrection. Regardless of the strategy, Jesus had the power to start an armed conflict; and yet he doesn’t. The two swords are just there to drive that point home.
How does this apply to us today? Lots could be said, but when I look at the text, I see the beginning again. We’re supposed to serve others, not lord it over them. That’s the way of Jesus. But what lengths can we go to in serving others? Can we use the same tools as the Rulers of the Nations?
No. To quote Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Using the tools of the Rulers to serve others can work for a while, but unless you turn back to the Way of Jesus, you’ll end up being just another ruler, lording it over those you claim to “help.” It’s a constant temptation, which is why we need the welcome of Jesus to bring us back.
However, we can and should still buy swords. Perhaps not literal swords, but to really serve people, we may have to look like rebels. Growing up as a Canadian, a Mennonite, and a peacemaker, I’ve spent my whole life thinking that being nice, polite, and easy-going was the apex of Christian life, and everything would be better if people were just nicer.
I don’t think that anymore. Which isn’t to say we should all become cruel, mean, and selfish. There’s enough of that. Rather, like John Lewis said, we need to be willing to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
When and how to make trouble are hard questions. I’ve certainly gone off half-cocked and hurt people. I’m glad Jesus welcomed Peter back. I need the same welcome, to release my shame. I also need people holding me accountable and asking me to apologize for my mistakes.
But Peter didn’t live a trouble-free life after he turned back to Jesus. Following the good road led him to his death. The road is long – as long as a lifetime. You don’t have to be prepared to die today. I’m not. But one day, if you follow the Way, you will need to be counted among the rebels, and get in some good trouble. Hopefully not for the gratification of your ego, but to truly serve others.
Just like our mentor, Jesus.