Sermon - 26th May 2019
Who is the greatest?
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
The idea of personal status is something so deeply rooted in our society that we sometimes are inclined to overlook some challenges which Jesus puts to us.
We are aware of the modern trend to live our lives in a more individual, less dependent way. It is becoming easier than ever before to exist in a kind of private isolation, unaffected by the direct needs of those around us - if we choose not to connect with them.
But the teachings of Jesus, particularly in today's gospel, don’t allow us to isolate ourselves from the needs of others. In fact we're told that the needs of other people, as daughters and sons of God, come right at the top of our personal agendas. And if they don't, then we may have missed one of the cornerstones of our faith.
We read in Mark's gospel that Jesus is on a teaching journey and arrives in Capernaum, where he and his disciples “go indoors”. Other translations say they go into "the house." Since Capernaum had been the place central to Jesus's ministry in the Galilee area, it is possible that this house was actually Peter's house, and had become Jesus's Capernaum "home”. So in these safe, familiar and private surroundings Jesus continues his lessons to the disciples.
Before the formal teaching sessions get underway, Jesus calls on his disciples to tell him about the arguments he had overheard between them as they have been travelling. He clearly knew what the topic had been, and sensed what had been going on, but he wanted to hear it from them.
In today's terms, Jesus seems to be playing the part of the teacher who asks some disruptive children -- "Why don't you share that with the whole class?" And like any students caught out by the teacher, the disciples respond with a startled, guilty silence. How could they admit to Jesus that they had been arguing about who among them was to be the greatest?
We’re not told how this argument came about. It may be that it was prompted by some very recent remarkable events, when James, Peter, and John had been chosen to go up on to a mountain with Jesus where they observed him become bathed in a heavenly light so that his face shone.
Jesus had strictly charged them to tell nobody what they had seen. They probably kept this charge and didn’t say anything to the other disciples. But the others would surely have known that three of their number had been singled out for something secret and mysterious.
It doesn't take much to spark jealousy, insecurity and rivalry in any group - this may have been the spark.
So, in the calm of a house in Capernaum, Jesus sits down and calls his disciples to gather round and to listen. These are the ones who have been given authority to preach, teach and heal in Jesus' name. In their hands, hearts and intellects lies the future of Jesus's ministry. They desperately need to be transformed from immature students into the foundation stones of the new realm of God.
Jesus immediately takes up this issue of greatness and rivalry - we could even call it 'ambition' - and gives a radical new perspective on it. To those tempted in the future to proclaim greatness for themselves, Jesus now teaches "whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
This lesson turns to dust all the disciples' arguments about "who is greatest". The pride of these "chosen" twelve must have cracked and splintered badly at his words. Were they, his select group of teachers and preachers, expected to become "servants" to all? How far beyond their usual comfort zones were they supposed to go with this concept?
Jesus is giving his disciples these private lessons in the midst of a warm, comforting environment - a home.
While Jesus may have been focusing his attentions on his disciples, they must have been aware of all the normal activity of a busy household in a bustling lakeside town going on around them - people talking, bread being baked, water being drawn and carried, children at play. Jesus takes advantage of this environment to vividly illustrate something about greatness to his disciples.
He takes hold of one of the children in the household, and immediately makes the child - who had only moments ago been a totally insignificant part of the surroundings - the central focus of all attention.
The child represents the powerless, the lowest status members of any society. Even when well-loved by their parents, children still had few legal rights in the culture of that time; they owned nothing and were completely dependent upon others for all their care. To place a little child in the midst of a circle of adult men being taught by their rabbi was a tremendous breach of all the social and cultural boundaries of the day. Children were separated off, part of the realm of women's world and women's work with which men did not have much contact.
But Jesus wraps his arms about this child, giving the child his protection and his most heartfelt welcome into their midst. And to his astonished disciples he says that whoever "receives," that is, "welcomes," or "accepts," such a child in Jesus's own name, receives Jesus himself.
And this is only half of the message. Jesus also reminds his disciples that when they welcome Jesus, they also welcome the one who sent him. This was in line with Jewish tradition which taught that a great person's messenger was to be treated with the same deference that the person himself would receive.
So Jesus's words have twin meanings. They bring God's loving concern and presence down to the very lowest and weakest of human beings - symbolised by a tiny child. But they also remind the disciples that nothing less than the power of God the Creator stands behind all of Jesus's actions and teachings. When they hear the words of Jesus and do his deeds, the disciples are hearing and doing the work of God.
It’s a radical message. What is the deeper meaning behind Jesus’s words? Is all ambition bad? Is it always wrong to achieve some kind of status or standing in our community or society at large.
We sometimes overlook one very significant point about Jesus's teaching on greatness: he did not, on this or on any other occasion, rebuke his disciples for wanting to be the best they can be. Never does he take them to task because of their desire to achieve success.
We know from our own natures, that there is somehow built into every human being the desire to succeed at whatever we do. It is strongly bound up with our sense of self-esteem or self-worth. We defy our biological survival instinct if we seek to be last of all at everything and on every occasion.
Jesus did not rebuke his disciples for their need for self-esteem: what he did do was to tell them the true way to greatness.
What Jesus is really saying is that there are different kinds of greatness, different kinds of ambition. There is the ambition to receive approval and applause from our fellow human beings, and there is the ambition to receive approval and acceptance by God.
These are as different as night and day.
There will always be people who want to gain fame and attention and influence and power. The measurement of their ambition to be great before their fellows is always: "How many people serve me? How much power do I exercise over others? How wide is the extent of my authority? How famous am I? How impressive is my title?"
And many of us will admit, perhaps privately, to having enjoyed the taste of being recognised, being admired, savouring our 15 minutes of fame, being considered important within our own circles of influence.
But Jesus points out that true greatness is never found there. For him, the measure of true greatness is: "How many do I serve? How many am I willing to minister to? How many can I help? What more can I give?”
Compared to the drive for personal ambition, it is the willingness to service which is the mark of greatness in the eyes of God. This, in Jesus’s teaching, is lasting greatness.
The difference between the two kinds of ambition revolves around our motives, our beliefs, and our priorities. And if we as today's disciples are to learn something about this from the disciples in Jesus's classroom in Capernaum 2000 years ago, we will recognise that, yet again, our faith turns our instincts on their heads.
Christianity is still a radical and revolutionary faith! And, as we grow as Christians, we learn more and more to act not always according to our immediate desires, but to act according to a different set of standards which we learn from our continuing relationship with Jesus.
There are marks of greatness, in God's eyes, in people all around us - if we would but look for them:
- people who have overcome their desire for personal status;
- people who welcome and engage with others simply because they are people and therefore God’s children;
- people whose offer of friendship doesn’t depend on whether there is something to be gained in return;
- people who are not concerned whether knowing someone enhances their own influence or image.
I have heard this approach described as our challenge to live fully, to love wastefully, and to be all that God calls us to be.
During our quiet times in the service today, I invite you to think about the people in your lives whom you respect, not because they have status, or have received awards, or have gained a degree of social recognition, but because they serve their fellow human beings knowing and believing by their actions that we are all children of God.
Those people may be the models for our own lives because those are the marks of true greatness; they are the characteristics of the child whom Jesus drew into his arms; those are the good ambitions we should all be proud to strive for; and perhaps surprisingly, that is how radical and revolutionary the Christian faith really is.