Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What is greatness? The question of greatness has not gone away since the first century. You see, we think greatness is about being first. We think of greatness as being in positions of power, authority, and might in our world. That’s greatness in our society. Just think about those who we put up on a pedestal as “great”. They’re usually people who have excelled at something and have earned a lot of money, power, and worldly prestige because of it. We often put “great” at the end of people’s names: Alexander the Great, Herod the Great. It’s people like Muhammad Ali who boasted a generation ago about being “the greatest”. Or we may think of the best-known slogan of the recent American election – “Make America great again” – we continue to discuss and debate what constitutes greatness. And that question is at the heart of the Gospel reading appointed for this Sunday.
Greatness for the Disciples
Jesus and the Twelve were returning from a visit to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. They talked quietly among themselves as they walked through Galilee to their home base at Capernaum. When they finally came to Capernaum, Jesus asked them, “What were you talking about on the way?” Silence. It was that kind of an apprehensive, embarrassed silence. No one wanted to say out loud what everyone in the house was thinking. While Jesus was speaking of His own suffering, death, and resurrection, His disciples were having a little debate about which one of them was the greatest. Jesus knows that each wants to rule the roost and that they have been arguing about the pecking order.
Are you surprised by that? Jesus is teaching the cross, and His disciples are preoccupied with their own glory. Jesus is teaching them that the way of the Messiah, the Christ, is to be handed over like a criminal into the hands of the very people who should have been applauding His coming, to suffer many things, to be killed at the hand of His own people, and, on the third day, to rise from the dead. Right on the heels of that, the disciples are arguing over which one of them is the top dog. Perhaps they were even planning for Jesus’ departure and who would be in charge after He was gone. Was it Peter, plotting to be pope, perhaps? Or James? Or his brother John? Or (gasp) one of the others? Who was most qualified to be boss? Who was the greatest among them?
We are surprised by this, but then again, not surprised. Are we surprised with how things are in the church today? That’s how it’s been with the church since the beginning. If you look at a cross-section of the church at any moment, you will find a struggle for power and control going on right under the cross of Jesus. And you don’t even have to look at Rome or synodical bureaucracies or church bodies. You do not need to look any further than our little, local congregation. The same thing is right at work here among us just as it was with Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus teaches us that the Christian community should embody a spirit of lowliness instead of being high and mighty. The church should be about the business of accepting any penitent sinner. No one is excluded. In the church we should find humble service instead of power grabs, and harmony instead of strife and division. The disciples’ behaviour serves as a negative example for us to learn what not to do. The disciples have a mistaken sense of their own self-importance. They want to be great so that others will serve them. A church filled with prima donnas who want to control everything will never minister effectively to anyone, inside or outside the fellowship. It will kill the church because everyone will be too busy trying to direct others rather than trying to get the job done. Then our prickly pride spills over into quarrels with outsiders. It’s in all of us, the drive to power, to control, to be the top dog, to get everyone else to do it our way. It goes beyond ambition. Ambition is simply setting goals and striving to attain them. This is something different. This is climbing to the top on the backs of your brothers and sisters.
Greatness in Welcoming a Child
Greatness, we assume, implies power, accomplishment, fame, wealth, and all the other things that allow you to influence people and make things go your way. But that’s not what Jesus says. True greatness, Jesus says, is not to be above others but to be least of all and servant of all. It’s not about ascending the social ladder but rather descending it, taking the lowest place. True greatness is determined, not by the things you did that got the greatest attention, but by humble service, often forgotten and ignored. True spiritual greatness is humble, selfless service is given on behalf of others, not for any kind of personal gain, but simply out of thankfulness for the grace you have received.
And to drive his point home, Jesus scoops up a young child into his arms and tells them that whoever welcomes a child like this welcomes him. In the first-century world, children were of no account. Oh, of course, their parents loved them, but they had no rights, no influence, no standing. In any culture, children are vulnerable; they are dependent on others for their survival and well-being. In the ancient world, a child was of no account.
Jesus loved to make examples out of little children not because they were cute or pure or innocent, but because they were dependant, helpless, least among the great. In Jesus’ culture, children were considered among the least. You had to wait for them to grow up, to become productive members of the family, to marry off your daughters and put your sons to work. But little children were considered a drain; they were considered the least, the bottom rung. Children require giving. Lots of giving. Time, energy, money. They need to be fed and clothed and changed and trained and nurtured and taught and sheltered. To receive a little child and serve that child, to bend down and give to another, is to know that self-sacrificing love of the cross that saved you and made you God’s child.
Jesus wants us to imagine that true greatness comes from service; by taking care of those who are most vulnerable – those with little influence or power, those the culture is most likely to ignore. God measures greatness by how much we share with others, how much we take care of others, how much we love others, how much we serve others. What ways can you serve others in this congregation? We serve where there is a need, not necessarily where we’re gifted. And we don’t serve by complaining and gossiping. Instead, we serve by asking in every situation, “in what situation can I serve everyone?”
Consider for a moment: the road the apostles are travelling with Jesus when they fall into their petty arguments about who is the greatest is the road to Jerusalem. Even while his apostles misunderstand, don’t believe, or just plain ignore what he is saying, Jesus is walking the road to Jerusalem and the cross willingly to sacrifice everything for them…and for us. The apostles are not supposed to be like children but to be like Jesus, who welcomes them. It is Jesus, not the child, who shows us what it means to be “the servant of all.” Greatness is measured against the wood of the cross. At Calvary, all our ideas of greatness are turned upside down. “Do you want to be great?” Jesus says. “Then go to the back of the line. Those you want to be first need to become last. If you want to be master in my kingdom, then become a servant of all.” That’s the way of Jesus. He left his privileged position at the Father’s right hand to take the form of a servant. He left the board room of the Trinity to join us in our humanity. The One who was first became last, least, lowly to serve us all with salvation. He is the child of the Virgin, born in a cave, laid in a manger. The heir of God with no place to lay His own head. He is the servant sent to suffer for the sin of the world. He is the king crowned with thorns, enthroned on a cross. Do you want to be great in this kingdom? Then you will be least of all and servant of all. And the greater you are, the less you will be, the more servant you will be.
The greatness of the cross is the greatness of self-sacrifice, of serving rather than being served. The point is that true greatness comes from welcoming and caring for those without status. Greatness in the way of the cross is the greatness of humility. The thing about a little child is it’s little. To receive a child, you have to bend down. To receive a child you must reach down, come down off your adult pedestals of power, possession, and prestige, and get down on your hands and knees to meet the child at eye level—the way Jesus did for you. God in Christ reached down to us because we, like little children, could not reach up to Him no matter how high we wave our hands in the air.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.