Sermon: Who is the greatest?

James 3:13-18, Mark 9:30-37

You have to feel some sympathy for the disciples. They were out of their depth. They were struggling. They spent most of their time with Jesus trying to catch up. I don’t mean trying to catch up physically, like when you’re chasing after somebody ahead of you. I mean trying to catch up spiritually, conceptually, theologically with Jesus. However plain and simple his teaching, they just didn’t get it. They found it hard to understand who Jesus was, what he had come to do, what he meant when he spoke about the kingdom of God, what was involved in being his disciple.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is explaining that the time is coming when he will be betrayed and put to death but on the third day rise again to life. It is not the first time he has told them this, but that doesn’t make it any easier to understand. Mark writes: “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (9:32)

Have you ever had that kind of experience? I had a phone call this week. Someone was calling from a mobile phone and her voice was coming over distorted. And try as I might I just couldn’t understand exactly what she was saying. She had repeated herself several times and all I could say was “I’m sorry but it’s a bad line, could you say that again please?” Eventually on the fourth or fifth repeat I got it . Or a teacher at school or boss at work gives an instruction that you just don’t understand. You want to ask but you don’t want to look like an idiot. What do you do in that situation? Afterwards ask somebody else who was there. “What was he talking about?”

Well, if that’s ever happened to you then you will be able to imagine yourself into the situation of the disciples. There they are, walking along the road to Capernaum, engaged in an animated and increasingly heated conversation. I can picture Jesus out in front on his own, while the disciples, distracted by their discussion, lag behind. Perhaps they were prompted by Jesus’ latest, mystifying comment. What did he mean by all this talk about dying and rising? What is going to happen to Jesus? What is going to happen to us?

But somehow, as conversations often do, they got sidetracked and started to go off on a tangent. Which disciple was the most important? You can imagine how the conversation might have gone:

Maybe Simon Peter said: I’m the most important, after all I was the first to realise that Jesus is the Messiah. And look at the special name he gave me – Peter the rock! And I’ve been with Jesus ever since the beginning.

To which I can imagine his brother Andrew replying: Peter the rock? More like Peter the hard headed! Anyhow it was me that introduced you to Jesus in the first place, so I’ve been a disciple even longer than you!

And one of the others, perhaps Bartholomew, reminding Peter: and no sooner had Jesus called you Peter than he was saying ‘get behind me Satan’ – not the greatest endorsement for the greatest disciple.

And which point James and John could have pitched in: well we were with Jesus on the mountain top and saw him shine with a heavenly light and heard a voice from heaven speaking – so Peter isn’t the greatest, it must be one of us!

And so on and on, like children squabbling.

And no doubt as they walked along the road voices were raised and Jesus could overhear their argument and decided it was time to teach these boys a lesson.

Eventually they reached Capernaum, where Peter and Andrew’s family lived and in which house they would stay the night. I guess the house would have been very crowded. Imagine the scene: there’s Jesus and the 12 disciples, all hot and dusty from the journey on the rough road. There must have been members of Peter’s family about, maybe mum getting food ready and bringing drinks for her guests. As usual there may have been neighbours and passersby peering in through doors and windows, curious to see what was going on. But before they had time to relax, Jesus had a question to ask:

When we were walking on the road, what were you arguing about?

I wonder, how did the disciples feel when put on the spot like that? How would you feel? They had been caught out, hadn’t they? On the road and apparently out of Jesus’ earshot, it must have seemed like a reasonable topic of conversation. Now, in front of Jesus, it just felt embarrassingly silly.  Like a teacher calling out a whispering pupil: if it’s so important, perhaps you would like to share it with the whole class. I bet they just stood there in silence, looking at their feet.

Jesus took this very seriously. We know this because Mark tells us ‘he sat down’. This was not because Jesus was tired, but because he had an important lesson to teach and he wanted the disciples to hear it. Nowadays preachers and teachers stand up when they have something to say, but in those days, when Jewish rabbis and teachers were instructing their disciples, they always sat down to teach. In effect Jesus was saying: ‘gather round, I have something important to teach you.’ The disciples sat or stood around Jesus and we can imagine him looking around the room, looking into their faces, as he said “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

And then Jesus got up for a moment and left the room. When he came back he had a small child with him. Perhaps it was one of Peter’s nephews or nieces – or a neighbour’s doesn’t matter. Whoever the child was, Jesus brought the child into the middle of the room and held the child in his arms. And he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

It’s a wonderful scene. And it makes us smile. How could the disciples not see something so obvious? But a word of warning, for it is easy for us to both sentimentalise and trivialise what is going on here. We live in a culture which in many ways is very child centred. One statistic will illustrate this. Last year 384 million toys were sold in the UK worth a total of £3billion. We spend vast amounts of time, attention and, yes, money on educating, entertaining and caring for our children. But it was very different in Jesus’ day. For a start, childhood was a dangerous time. Mortality rates were high. Children had no status in society. Oh, I’m sure that parents loved their children, but it was very much a case of be-seen-and-not-heard.

When Jesus brought a child into the room full of disciples, he didn’t say ‘isn’t she cute. You really ought to spend more time playing with the kids.’ He said ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Children had no power, no status and were the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.

The lesson for the disciples is this: instead of worrying about yourselves and your own status, you should be concerned for others and especially the weakest and must insignificant members of the community. Concentrate on serving others – especially the lowest and the least. That’s what true greatness is all about. Jesus’ words find an echo in the letter of James. Beware of bitter envy and selfish ambition, James writes, for this can lead only to disorder and wickedness of every kind. Instead “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”

Remarkably, Jesus seems to be saying that when welcome a child, we are welcoming Jesus himself. Just reflect for a moment on what this means. The way we treat the youngest children in our community is the way we treat Jesus. When they are welcomed and included, it is as if we are welcoming and including Jesus himself. If they are ignored or held as of little importance, then it is as if we are ignoring and disregarding Jesus himself. Let’s be honest: are we really all that child-friendly? How important is the children’s ministry in our church? Do we see only welcome children on our terms: be good, don’t talk, behave – rather than accepting the gifts that children have to offer?

‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” It is a happy coincidence that this little text about the importance of welcoming even the lowest and lease is read a week before ‘Back to church Sunday’. How are you getting on with your invitations? We hope that next week we will have people worshipping with us for the first time and old friends who have come back to us after a while. Apart from sending out the invitations, we haven’t done a great deal of preparation as a congregation for Back to Church Sunday. I will do my best to make the worship as welcoming as possible, but we all have a responsibility to create a place of welcome and hospitality. Actually we should be doing this every week, but sometimes we need these special Sundays to jog our collective memory and spur us into action.

Who is the greatest? Today Jesus teaches us that true greatness is not measured by status, achievements, wealth, power or any of the things by which our society measures greatness. True greatness is measured by our willingness to welcome the child, the vulnerable, the marginalised, the lowest and least. And discovering that when we do this we are welcoming Christ himself.


About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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