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6th Sunday of Easter – 2021b

Old Testament – Psalm 98:1-9

New Testament – John 15:9-17


Gotta Serve Somebody


INTRODUCTION: In the late 70s, Bob Dylan had some sort of conversion experience and became an evangelical Christian. 


Perhaps not surprisingly, his next few albums, often referred to as his “gospel period,” were laced with Christian themes. The first album released from that period, called Slow Train Coming, had a song on it called “Gotta Serve Somebody.” 


While the song was ridiculed by many, including John Lennon who wrote a parody of the tune, “Gotta Serve Somebody” actually went on to win the Grammy for the Best Vocal Performance by a Male in 1980. 


The song, in a nutshell, proposes that all people, regardless of how famous, rich, popular, or successful they might be, must ultimately answer to a higher authority. Or as Dylan playfully says at one point in the song:


You may be an ambassador to England or France

You may like to gamble, you may like to dance

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world

You might be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody


The idea, of course, is hardly new, right? Truth be told, all of us, in the end, are taking marching orders from someone or something. Or as another man has put it, “In the modern world, we answer to a number of masters - our peers, our family, our friends, the government, popular fad, our image of the ‘good life.’ All of us are doing ‘what we’re told’ in one way or another.”


Of course, fresh on converting to Christianity, for Dylan the question had mythic qualities to it. Or as he says at yet another point in the song: 


You’re gonna have to serve somebody (serve somebody)

Well, it may be the Devil or it may the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody


Interestingly, over the years Dylan’s evangelical fervor dwindled to the point that in the 90s he stated he no longer subscribed to any particular religion, although he did still believe in a higher power. 


But even today Dylan still has a point worth pondering. We all, eventually, gotta serve somebody, right?  The question is - who are we going to serve?    


ONE: Of course, as followers of Jesus Christ, the answer to that question is actually pretty clear and basic. 


It’s not like we have to spend hours pouring over dusty books or in deep conversation with some well-trained theologian to find the answer. Dylan says we all gotta serve somebody, and that somebody, for us, is none other than Jesus Christ.          


“You are my friends, if you do what I command you…” says Jesus, “I am giving you these commands…” 


To be a disciple, then, is to take our marching orders, so to speak, from Jesus Christ. It’s to hear his instructions and teachings for our lives and then follow them. 


The same idea, of course, is presented at the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. After giving his inaugural sermon where he encourages his followers to be kind, merciful, forgiving, charitable, and humble, Jesus wraps it all up by saying, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.”


Meaning, if we want to follow Jesus, if we’re going to serve him, then we need to follow his commands. So, strangely, we don’t even necessarily need to understand why Jesus tells us to do some things to be a follower; we just simply need to do them. 


Why, if you’re like me, you might even find some of the things Jesus tells us to do to be far-fetched and even a bit odd. After all, offering someone the left side of your face after getting smacked on the right cheek, or voluntarily giving away the rest of our clothes to someone who has already stolen our coat (just a few of the strange things Jesus instructs us to do), well, that hardly seems like a smart way to live in the world.


And yet to follow, we don’t really need to understand why we’re told to do such odd things. Nope. We just need to do them. 


TWO: And obviously loving one another is also yet one more big command that Jesus gives us: “This is my commandment,” says Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” 


You see, for Jesus, love is never just an emotion that we get to have toward another person. No, for Jesus to love someone means to actively work for their well being even if that means having to sacrifice some of our own well being. 


It’s the kind of love that Thomas Aquinas liked to refer to as benevolentia, which is a love that wills another’s good even when it costs us something in the process. 


And it’s not as if Jesus didn’t practice what he preached, right? Jesus talked about the need for us to love and then he went and showed us exactly what he meant. He hung there on that cross in redeeming, healing love. 


There’s that story about a young girl who was dying from a disease her older brother had actually survived a few years earlier. Said the doctor to the boy, “Only a transfusion of your blood will save your sister. Are you ready to give her your blood?”


The boy’s eyes grew wide with fear, but after a moment he said, “Okay, doctor. I’ll do it.” About an hour after the transfusion had been performed, the boy asked hesitantly, “So, doctor, when will I die?” It was then that the doctor realized why the boy had been so afraid at first. For the boy clearly thought in giving blood to his sister he would die in the process. And yet, the boy did it anyway.  


This is my commandment,” says Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” 


THREE: So one of the earliest confessions of faith made by our ancestors was actually pretty concise and to the point. 


While the church over the years has developed all sorts of nuanced and complicated statements about Jesus Christ’s nature and status as a member of the Trinity, our earliest ancestors were primarily interested in confessing one basic idea: “Jesus is Lord!” they would proclaim during worship services and baptisms. “Jesus is Lord!”  


Of course, we can forget just how radical such a declaration by them really was. For in the world of Rome, it was Caesar who was supposed to be called Lord. Yep, while our earliest ancestors were declaring “Jesus is Lord!”, everyone else was saying “Caesar is Lord.” And so when confessing Jesus as Lord, his earliest followers were essentially committing what amounted to high-treason.


Or as one man has put the matter: “Christians were not persecuted so much for obeying Jesus as they were, in their obedience to Jesus, for disobeying Caesar.” 


Back in the 2nd century the Bishop of Smyrna, a man named Polycarp, found himself in a bit of jam.


After being arrested by the Roman authorities for being a leader in the Christian church, Polycarp was given a chance to avoid standing trial. According to the Roman governor that was handling his case, if Polycarp would just declare “Caesar is Lord!” while also offering a bit of incense to Caesar’s statue, he could go free.


That simple proclamation and act, in other words, was all that stood between Polycarp going back to his life as the Bishop Smyrna or being put to death. 


But as legend has it, Polycarp famously replied to such an enticing offer by saying: “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and he never did me any wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” And so with that, Polycarp was taken away to be burned alive at the stake. 


Who knew such a simple phrase as “Jesus is Lord!” could get somebody into so much trouble! It’s only three little words, after all.               


FOUR: Many of you have probably heard about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 


A Lutheran minister who opposed Hitler, Bonhoeffer ended up in prison and was finally hanged just weeks before the war ended. Safely tucked away teaching in America where he could have stayed, Bonhoeffer eventually decided he had no choice but to return to Germany. Even though returning might cost him his life, Bonhoeffer felt that was the only way he could be obedient to Christ.     


But there is another man in Bonhoeffer’s life story that you may not have heard of. His name was Arthur Forbeck, and he was the judge that oversaw Bonhoeffer’s trial and eventual execution. 


As legend has it, after receiving word from Hitler to have Bonhoeffer executed, Forbeck headed to the city of Flossenburg to personally oversee the matter. But about 20 kilometers from Flossenburg, the train Forbeck was riding was unexpectedly delayed.


But the judge was so intent and eager to carry out his orders, he acquired a bike and promptly peddled the rest of the way to Flossenburg rather than wait. And after arriving on his bike, Forbeck did as commanded. He executed Bonhoeffer.    


Interestingly, Forbeck was also a devout Lutheran, who presumably claimed to worship the same God as Bonhoeffer. And yet, the two men were as different as night and day. Well, maybe it’s because each of them was also obeying two very different people.  


CONCLUSION: Well, we all gotta serve somebody.


You may be a state trooper, you might a be a young Turk

You may be the head of some big TV network

You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame

You may be livin’ in another country under another name 

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes, you are


The question, of course, is who. Just who are we gonna serve? 


And now to One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.                 

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