A sermon from Matthew 23:1-12 by Fr. Justin Clemente, delivered to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican) on October 23, 2022. Part of our ongoing “The Hard Sayings of Jesus” series.
Father Doctor Daddy…Slave
Let’s start with a little humor this morning. If, like me, you’re a priest and a dad, your title could doubly be Father Father. If you’re a priest, dad, and have a doctorate, you could Father Doctor Daddy.
How do we thread the needle on this Hard Saying: Call no man your father? One the one hand, we could be overly literal and say we need to get rid of any titles whatsoever in the body of Christ! But that would be to interpret this passage in a way that is repugnant to other in the Bible.
Today we heard the Apostle Paul tell us that he became a father in God to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 4:15). That is what we mean when Anglicans call their priest “father.” Paul rightfully called himself a capital “A” Apostle of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:1). Moreover, he called fathers, father and mothers, mother. Clearly, he did not interpret this passage to say that all titles must be abandoned.
On the other hand, Jesus’ Hard Saying here highlights the fact that all leadership titles in the body of Christ bring the risk of misuse. Today in the church, pastoral training can sometimes resemble more something that would come out of a school of business rather than a school of ministry. Sometimes pastors are taught to lead in a way that resembles brand marketing and CEO best practices rather than Christ’s way. And that doesn’t even begin to deal with the problems of personality cults and celebrity pastors.
Rather, all leadership must be used to serve others and bring glory to Christ (vs. 11-12). I wear a collar because, first, priests are fashion backwards, but, second, because it is the collar of a dog or a slave. Outside of my calling to be a minister of Jesus and his gospel, I have no authority. I am on his leash. I am a soldier at the King’s command.
And the higher up you go, the lowlier you must become. That is true leadership in the body of Christ. Christ’s words here remind of the example of our Bishop.
Our passage today makes me think of a scene from a few years back in the life of our church. Bp. John was on Visitation with us here. We were in our old building on Leitersburg and we were preparing for a service. Folks were vested, ready to process in, and I remember us talking over the order of how we would walk in. We didn’t want to get that wrong, you know.
We were pretty sure the Bishop walked in last, certainly because he is the most important. He is, after all, a successor to the office of the Apostles. But Bp. John shared with us a different interpretation. The Bishop walks in last because he is the place ignominy – of disrepute. Paul writes, “God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools [literally morons] for Christ’s sake.” (1 Corinthians 4:9-10)
The picture here in these verses is of a Roman general returning in triumph from a great victory in battle, with prisoners in tow, awaiting death in the arena. Here, God is the victorious general and the Apostles of Christ are his slaves. It was the same Paul the Apostle who nearly always referred to himself as the doulos (slave) of Christ Jesus.
And so it is right that when we present Christians to be Confirmed and Received by our Bishop, we do call him “Right Reverend, Father in God.” For so he is. Those who lead must serve, those are called higher must go lower, pointing all the more to our one Lord.
We Are Fundamentally Brothers and Sisters in Christ
The core of Jesus’ teaching here is to be found in the fact that no one can take the place of Christ (vs. 8-10). He alone is the source of God’s family. Each of us may be a vessel for the Lord, but he is the source! If you exalt yourself in such a way that you point, not to him, but to you, then you are both forgetting who he is and who you are. He is not just another rabbi – he is the Lord. In fact, as F.F. Bruce notes here, the only disciple who calls Jesus merely “Rabbi” in Matthew’s Gospel is Judas.[i] In order to elevate yourself, you must go to the point of trying to dethrone Christ. To know Christ aright is to know yourself aright and your siblings aright, too.
A couple of directions here:
First, this is the perennial temptation for pastors. As Paul Tripp puts it in his book, Dangerous Calling, the number one temptation in the heart of a pastor is to forget or downplay the reality that he too is merely a sinner saved by grace. Listen to his words here:
“Being a pastor [is] my calling, not my identity. Child of the Most High God [is] my cross-purchased identity. Member of the body of Christ [is] my identity. Man in the middle of his own sanctification [is] my identity. Sinner and still in need of rescuing, transforming, empowering, and delivering grace [is] my identity.”[ii]
Pray for me, that priest would remain a vocation, and not my dearest identity. Pray for Garrett as he discerns God’s call as a Deacon.
But this can be true of any Christian, especially veteran ones. The temptation is to look down on those who are just starting on the path and don’t have it all together. The temptation can be to say, “I don’t really need the mercy and grace of God in the same way these other people do.” Christ points to scribes and Pharisees here (vs. 6-7). and calls out how they love the place of honor at feasts, the best seat in the synagogue, honorific greetings in the marketplace and being called rabbi. You see, they had stopped pointing others to the God of Israel and instead become glory-sucking black holes – taking the honor to themselves. We need to remember that there is a little scribe and a little Pharisee in all of our hearts that wants to take glory from God instead of give glory to him. Who wants to elevate ourselves instead of humbling ourselves to serve others. What happens is that we quit being on eye-level with one another. We start to be unable to see one another as Jesus sees us in the passage – brothers and sisters under his gentle and loving care.
All Titles Bring Temptation (Because We Are Sinners)
I began my sermon kind of defending titles, but I don’t want to put myself at odds with Jesus here! Titles bring temptations – for all of us! It doesn’t matter what it is: senior warden, vestry member, acolyte, minister of music, anything! They are either a chance for us to exalt ourselves or to exalt Christ.
We have some today who are wearing special outfits. I’m a guy who smart he has to wear a robe! But all of these vestments point to Christ. Remember that. They are his righteousness, his gifts, his call to serve. As you here today serve in the Divine Service of Holy Communion, remember that!
The longer you persist in the Christian life, the deeper the temptation becomes to believe that you are the one who is truly great. When it comes, remember this passage. You will never outgive or out serve Jesus. You love him because he first loved you. There is only one Father, one Christ, and one Body – all of them brothers and sisters. Amen.
[i] The Hard Sayings of Jesus, pg. 218.
[ii] Pgs. 23-24