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Biblical Themes :

Cuthbert cross

(Who Is The Greatest ?) 

Mark 9: 30 - 37 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise." But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."  

Don't you sometimes feel sorry for the disciples? There is something so powerful and charismatic about Jesus. They want to be part of his inner circle. They want the power and authority they think that being one of his close followers gives them. Each one wants to be greater than the others. They quarrel about it, like children squabbling in the playground about who is going to be leader of the gang. Each one wants to be the top-dog, the chief disciple. Do we recognise anything from our own experience here?  

There seems to be a constant need in the human psyche to be the most important. It was evident in Jesus' time and it is equally evident today - all around us are examples of people obsessed with being the richest, the most powerful, the most beautiful. Just this week in "The Scotsman" there has been a list of the top earners in Scotland. Why? To satisfy curiosity? To breed envy? To entertain? I don't know - it's beyond my understanding. 

This is not just a secular phenomenon - it pervades the Church itself. Ministers compete with each other in terms of the number of bodies in the pews on a Sunday, or the offerings given by the congregation, or the amount spent on the church buildings. What about the service that the Church and its people give to their local community, to the wider world, and to each other? 

Jesus' response to the disciples' quarrel was to explain his version of greatness. "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." He provides a living example of what he means. He takes a child, puts it right in their midst, and says, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." 

To understand the full force of Jesus' words and actions we have to remember that in the society of that time children had no status, no place in the community. The fact that Jesus chooses a child to illustrate this fundamental tenet of his new community is powerful and shocking. Jesus uses the child as an example, but he is including all other marginalized and disenfranchised people. They too must be brought into the circle, they must be served by those who call themselves disciples of Jesus. 

The disciples' response to this we don't know. But how do we respond? Are we challenged by the nature of the service Christ requires of his disciples? Are we disturbed and surprised by this new understanding of "greatness" we need to assume if we are to be his followers on the way to the cross? 

One person who did accept it was Martin Luther King Jnr. "That's your new definition of greatness," he said. "It means that everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And you can be that servant." 

Greatness is derived not from the power you have over others. It is derived from the way you serve those you are called to lead. Service is the measure of greatness in God's kingdom. 

We can ignore this radical gospel imperative that in order to be first in God's kingdom we must be servants. We can pretend it doesn't really apply to us, or that we are already doing all we can. Or we can embrace it - as Jesus embraced the little child. We can commit our lives to the radical way of discipleship demanded by Jesus - leave our pretensions to power and glory behind, and come ready to serve him who left his power and glory behind, who came "not to be served, but to serve", and who gave his life that we might have life in all its fullness. 

Let us accept and live this radical definition of "greatness", learn what it is to be part of God's upside-down kingdom, learn that to serve is to be great, and remember that all we need in order to serve is "a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love." Amen. 

 Rev Fiona Hutchison , October 2003


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