“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
In our gospel reading this morning Jesus is on the way with his disciples and as they follow him and stay near to him he teaches them what it means to be great in the kingdom of God. And right away we are reminded of the posture of a disciple: with Jesus; on the move; open and teachable. And what does Jesus tell them but to reiterate the central fact of not only his own ministry but of human history: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
And the disciples responded, “Ah, yes. That makes good sense! Carry on.” No, actually what Mark tells us is that the disciples did not understand what he was saying. Not only that, but they had questions that they were afraid to ask.
Maybe you’ve been following Jesus for weeks or maybe you’ve been following him for decades, have you ever had questions? Perhaps even questions that you weren’t quite confident to give voice to? Have you ever wondered? Doubted? Been curious? You are in very good company with Jesus and his band of followers. Indeed, the work of theology—a work that we are all called to, by the way—is to seek to understand that which we believe. The Christian life begins with faith but it does not stop there. It presses deeper, seeking to understand that which it affirms.
Why does Mark include this detail about their lack of understanding and what does he mean by it? I think what he wants us to know is that the life of faith is a process, a life-long process, of re-education. At this moment in the gospel narrative the disciples do not comprehend the fact that the one they have come to believe is the Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel, will have to suffer and die. That reality simply does not fit within the world as they know it.
We can press this point further and say that it wasn’t simply that the disciples failed to understand something that should have otherwise been intelligible to them. It was, rather, that they couldn’t understand that which their present reality gave them no capacity to understand. They knew as well as you and I that dead people, even a dead Messiah, do not simply live again.
But of course you and I know what happens. In fact, you and I are sitting here this morning because of what happened. Those very same disciples that lacked understanding became the Apostles through whom the gospel of Jesus Christ spread throughout the Ancient Roman world and continues to transform people today.
The ultimate fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection did not fit within their world so Jesus had to turn their world upside down. The great Canadian poet Leonard Cohen wrote that there is a crack in everything and that’s how the light gets in. That’s a bit like what Jesus does with his followers then and now. See, Jesus wants to break into your neatly arranged world with the light of God and show you that another way is possible. He wants to clear all of the junk that you’ve been hoarding out of your home and refurnish it, repaint everything so that the colours are deeper and more vibrant, and enliven it with new textures and fabrics.
OK, so the disciples as we have seen did not—could not—understand and naturally they had questions. And I love what Jesus does here. He knows that they are reluctant to question him so he questions them: “So, what were you guys arguing about back there?” It’s not as if Jesus doesn’t know but he is inviting them to bring their questions and arguments out into the open. Because a failure to understand is not cause for shame but rather cause for drawing even nearer to Jesus Christ. There is a sermon in here about the virtue of a good debate and learning to be a community that can disagree well with one another, but that’s a sermon for another day.
So, what were the disciples arguing about? Who was the greatest. They are with Jesus on the way to the Cross where he will lay down his life in love and humility and they are worried about who’s going to get the promotion. His eyes are fixed on his suffering and death for the life of the world while they are preoccupied with the question of status. How unlike you and I!
In our Epistle reading this morning we heard James ask us a question: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” Sounds a bit like Jesus’, “So, what were you guys arguing about back there?” We get the sense that James knows the answer. And indeed, he breaks it down for us.
There are two kinds of wisdom, says James. There is a wisdom that is, “earthly, unspiritual, devilish,” that is characterized by envy and selfish ambition and leads to disorder and wickedness. Then there is a wisdom that, “comes down from above.” This Godly wisdom is, “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy,” and it leads to a harvest of righteousness says James.
Where do those conflicts and disputes come from? They come from that old wisdom that we are so protective of. But Jesus wants us to know this morning that even now the Holy Spirit is searching your heart and that he wants to root out every last scrap of envy and selfishness and disorder and wickedness and he wants to come in and take up residence in your heart and furnish it instead with the beauty of peace and gentleness and humility and love.
Only Jesus can do this. Only Jesus is gentle and yet loving enough to question us when we fear questioning him and to open us up to a new way of thinking and living in and with and through him.
The disciples are arguing about who is the greatest and they probably think that they know what that means. But again, here Jesus upends their notions of success and greatness. Does he reprimand them for their folly? No, rather, he sat down and invited them to come near and he said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
What makes someone successful or great? Is it the ability to bombastically assert oneself over another and humiliate or steamroll those that disagree with you, as the recent surge of populist politics might suggest? Or, maybe greatness has to do with conspicuous displays of one’s wealth, prestige, and sex appeal like we see in celebrity culture. Or, if you are active on social media platforms, maybe greatness and success is found in living a perfectly curated life or the number of ‘likes’ you receive? Or, depending on what stage of life you are at you might think that greatness is getting into the right school, or having the perfect family, or traveling the world in retirement.
Does becoming the servant of all constitute greatness or success in your world? Of course not. But those who commit to following Jesus Christ are going to have their world turned upside down. If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus you’re going to experience a life-time of re-education. And Jesus Christ demonstrates in word and deed what greatness in the kingdom of God is all about—becoming a servant. Of. All.
Jesus Christ demonstrates his greatness not by making much of himself but by making little of himself. Not by gathering worldly wealth but by living generously in love. Not by clinging to power as the world understands it but by spending his life for the sake of others. He shows us what greatness in the kingdom of God is like by going to the Cross and by bringing us there with him. And Jesus wants you to know this morning that if you want to be great in God’s eyes then you have to give yourself away in love. Because in the kingdom of God greatness is measured by lowly service and indiscriminate love.
So if you want to be a student of Jesus Christ that’s how you’re going to grow, first by a downward, lowly motion. The seed of a tree first goes down, fastening its roots low in the ground, in order then to reach skyward. Do you want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Become a servant of all.
However. Lest the disciples think that their greatness in God’s kingdom, like their greatness in the world, is a result of their own doing Jesus does one more thing. He takes a little child and places it among them and taking it in his arms he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Being great in the kingdom of God is not the result of our effort but of faith in Jesus Christ who comes to us and gives himself to us as a helpless child. Because what sinners need is not motivation but resurrection. That’s why the invitation of Jesus to follow him is not, “Come and try harder,” or, “Come and do better,” but rather, “Come and die that you might live.”
If you devoted the rest of your life to contemplating this great mystery you would never want for anything again. God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, has come among us in the weakness of a human infant. As Christians have been singing for seventeen centuries in the Te Deum, “Thou are the King of Glory, O Christ. Thou are the everlasting Son of the Father. When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.” The King of Glory! The everlasting Son of the Father! In the weakness and vulnerability of a human child that we might welcome him yesterday, today, and forever.
Do you want to be great? Do you want your life to be a success in the only way that will matter in the end? Receive Jesus Christ in faith and allow him to transform you from the inside out so that you might go and transform the world by your witness of love and service. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”