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'The Greatest'
Series: Lenten/Eastertide Sermon Series
Leader: Rev. David Thomas
Scripture: Matthew 18:1-20
Date: May 9th, 2021
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We are reminded quite pointedly in the words of Jesus today, that being his follower, that being a disciple of Christ was never meant to be done in, as someone has put it “splendid isolation.”  It was never supposed to be about “I’ve got my thing between God and me and I’m good with that.”  To be children of God and adopted into the family of God means we’re a family.

The question that is always before us is “What is this supposed to look like?”  We get a very good idea of what it’s supposed to look like in Matthew 18.  Matthew 18 is famous for being the chapter about church discipline, particularly in the Baptist tradition.  Whenever there is a problem or an issue between people in a church (or perhaps I should say between people in the family of God so we keep that image ever before us too), we say “Well we’re going to have to Matthew 18 it!”  All the while hoping that everyone has actually read Matthew 18.  I’m talking of course about verses 15-20, which, while we often say Jesus is not laying out a new rule book in Matthew, constitutes a pretty specific set of rules or guidelines at least.  To view Matthew 18 solely as a guideline for church discipline is needlessly reductionist and simplistic.  There’s been nothing simple about sitting with Jesus’ words and savouring Jesus’ words as we’ve been going together through these weeks of Eastertide. So we hardly want to start now.  Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at God’s word for us this morning.

This one’s, particularly for the church.  This one’s particularly for those of us who have said “I want to be part of this kingdom of God that Jesus talks about.  I name Jesus as my king.”  This is where I find myself this morning and where I’ve found myself in some varying degree (and at times it's varying and we can stray but more on that later) for the last 45 years or so.  This doesn’t mean I’m advocating that you skip the sermon if you’re watching this and don’t consider yourself a follower of Jesus.  Jesus’ invitation to follow him is always before us and you might be looking for more information at this point in terms of what it’s all about.  In that way, you’re really very much like the rest of us – questioning what life with Jesus is supposed to look like.

Or at least how the rest of us are called to be.  What is this all about?  What then, shall we do?  This is what we’re asking.  This is the fourth of the five major discourses or speeches that Jesus gives in Matthew’s gospel.  This one is about what life is meant to look like in the church.  It won’t surprise us at this point to find out that, what life together looks like in the kingdom of God, is much different than what life looks like elsewhere.  It won’t surprise us to hear Jesus use language to shake us out of our indifference, stupor, inattention, somnambulance. We’re not called to sleepwalk our way through this following after all.  One of the amazing things about this passage is that it’s in Matthew’s gospel at all.  It prefigures that we are going to mess up.  It prefigures that we are going to be stumbling blocks for others, that we are going to stray, that we are going to have issues with one another.

And I mean really what family doesn’t?  Every family, no matter how well our lives are curated on social media, has their thing.  “Happy families are all alike,” as a great novelist put it, “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Every family has their thing and we err when we try to pretend that everything is great all the time.

Speaking of great – this whole discussion comes about as the result of a question (as many great discussions do).  When Mark tells this story he tells us that the disciples had been arguing as they walked along the road about who among them is the greatest.  Matthew spares the disciples this detail, though the “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (the “then” is left out of our NRSV version but you might have it in a different translation – it’s in the original) points to something driving this question, like an argument, or debate at least.  Of course, we get this thing that’s driving the question.  “Who’s the greatest?” We have to know. We have to rank people.  Someone has described our situation like this – “In a world left to its own devices people are continually trying to lord it over one another: the rich over the poor, the intelligent over the simple, adults over children, man over woman… on and on goes the list.”  The non-racialized over the racialized.  The citizen over the non-citizen.  Millenials over Gen-Z over Baby Boomers over Gen X and thank God for the voice of Jesus that cuts through it all and says “Not so with you.”

Not so with you.  Jesus does one of my own favourite Jesus-type things to do and remakes the question.  “Who is the greatest?” is the question and you might think that can be a pretty easy question to answer, particularly where there are measurements involved like the amount of money earned or standings or number of home runs or goals or who wins the championship or what have you.  Of course, even such objective measurements can become tainted when we consider how such greatness is achieved.  Is it through buying a team like the Brooklyn Nets? Is a home-run title earned through PED still great?  In a day when making things great is very much in the public conversation, we need to ask this question. Jesus takes the question “Who is the greatest?” and remakes it into “What does it mean to be great?”  So let us consider what it means to be great in the kingdom of heaven, and as we do, consider those words of Jesus – “Not so with you.”  They’re from Matthew 20 and another talk about greatness.

The foundation of the kingdom of heaven is  God stepping into history in a whole new way in the person of Jesus Christ and in the person of the Holy Spirit.  The invitation before us is to enter into that kingdom.  This kingdom is not primarily about an ethic, though we are called to an ethic.  This kingdom is not primarily about values, but there are things that are valued.  It’s a kingdom where conventional wisdom is turned upside down, as we’ve been hearing for months now.  We’ve been challenged by the words of Jesus to understand in the depths of our hearts what it means to be part of that kingdom.  For a few moments though, Jesus doesn’t use words.  We’ve heard about Jesus taking symbolic action and the meaning behind some of the symbolic action we take as Jesus’ disciples.  Here in this scene, we have Jesus not talking immediately but taking symbolic action.  He called a child, whom he put among them.

I love that.  Were we able to gather physically I might have called up some kids to the front of the church.  We can do this though.  The question that has been posed is “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  Time for me to stop talking.  (video of children)

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

We’ve spoken before about being child-like followers of Christ.  Knowing as children do that we are in need of help from outside of ourselves, just like a child who stands with her foot thrust out for you to tie her shoelaces.  She hasn’t learned and she knows it and she’s not prideful about it.  Remember the beatitude about the poverty of spirit -blessed are the poor in spirit.  Why?  For they will be called children of God. Knowing like children do that we can’t do spiritual life or any kind of life on our own and no wonder because that was never the idea. What child ever thought they could do life on their own?  Knowing that we need to learn, just like children.  Is there any worse phase of life than the one in which we believe mistakenly that we’ve learned everything we need to know?  Life-long learning needs to be the call and again, we’re not called students of Christ for nothing. 

All of these truths may flash through our minds as we watch these children.  In this context though there’s a particular thing about children to which Jesus is calling our attention.  Something which is all the more shocking/different when we consider the ways children were thought of in 1st century Roman/Judean society.  Outsiders.  On the margins.  Someone has put it like this, “In Mediterranean culture of his day… children were without status or power, treated more like property and never held up as examples of anything. Their social location was one of “’ insignificance, marked by powerlessness and marginality,’”

Not so with you, Jesus will say. In a society where greatness is measured by wealth, education, social status, looks, youth, fame, power over others, getting one’s way…  This family will look like something else.  “Therefore whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  Let the little children remind us.  Let us not forget the little children, and indeed not only not forget, but welcome them.  “For whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” says Jesus.

Of course, we’re not only talking about children at this point, though the children are still involved in the discussion.  Jesus so identifies with those whom the world sees as powerless that to welcome one such child is to welcome Jesus himself.  Let us humble ourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God.

This family of faith is to be about accountability and it is to be about forgiveness.  We see these things operating in the rest of the passage.  We’re accountable for one another.  Do not be a stumbling block to any of these little ones that believe in me, says Jesus.  Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks.  Nicole and I were talking about fears recently (because these are good conversations to have!) and I said that one of the things I feared was messing up someone’s walk with Christ due to my action or inaction.  Look at the language Jesus uses, speaking of shocking language.  It would be better for you if a great millstone (a stone so large it was turned by a donkey to grind wheat) were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea (and you know what the Israelites thought of the sea – a place of chaos in all its dark depths).  Look out for one another very carefully.  Jesus might mean children here; he might mean people who are young in the faith; he might mean people in the church on whom society looks down on.  I would say he means all of these.  Woe to us if our actions or inactions caused such a one to drift away.  Woe to us if all aren’t welcomed as if they were Christ because in a way they are.  They have friends in high places according to Jesus’ words.  “What might this look like?” you ask.  Practically speaking I’ll give you an example of what a stumbling block being might look like.  It might look like me sending out personally written Christmas cards to the big donors while not so big donors get a boilerplate laser-printed Christmas blessing.  This is the kind of thing that organizations do after all – it’s smart business.  Pay the most attention to your biggest donors.  It might look like the loudest voices at the meeting getting all the attention, while others are never encouraged to speak.  It might look like what else?  Be accountable.  Take everyone into account, particularly those who so often are forgotten or overlooked.

Look out for one another.  Be accountable for one another.  Be accountable for one another when people are drifting away because the currents are strong and the likelihood of drifting can be strong.  It’s maybe especially easy when we’re not seeing each other in person.  The question I need to ask myself, the question we all need to ask ourselves, is, “Who’s been forgotten?”  Have we forgotten someone?  If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?   I’m not talking about stalking each other or being overly intrusive.  I’m talking about caring for one another enough so that no one ever has the slightest sense that they’ve been forgotten.  Again we have to think about the context of this parable and how absurd it must have sounded.  Leave the 99 sheep unattended and potentially in danger just to go look for one?  “Yes,” says Jesus.  It doesn’t mean that every sheep is going to be found, or even wants to be found.  Remember there were three ways that the seed which is the word of the kingdom was snuffed out, to mix my metaphors.  It doesn’t mean you don’t make the effort.  Why?  Because it is the will of our Father in heaven that not one of these little ones be lost.  He’s our Father and in so searching we’re coming to bear a family resemblance.  So let us bear that resemblance, my dear family.

This church has a history of such action you know.  It’s in Blythwood’s DNA.  We stand in a long line of people who took the words of Jesus seriously.  There was a time back in the day at Blythwood, in the middle of a marriage breakdown, one of the parties travelled to Reno.  I won’t get into any more details and we don’t need them.  At the time, no-fault divorce was not so widespread.  Nevada was a no-fault divorce state with a limited residency requirement (six weeks). Again – we’re talking back in the day.  Two people from Blythwood flew to Reno, Nevada in order to talk to the person.  It was not their will either that anyone might be lost.  Same Jesus. Same words.  Same family.

Our family.  We should care enough about one another to point out to one another when we’re going wrong, not because we want to judge but because we want relationships to be restored when they’re broken.    There is no “live and let live” in the Christian family.  It’s very easy to ignore one another when we’re going wrong when we are missing the mark.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns of this danger in his book Life Together – “Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin.” Don’t let me be lost.  Don’t let her be lost.  Don’t let him be lost.  “If another member of the church sins against you…”  Or simply “If another member of the church sins, go and point out the fault when you are alone.” If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.  Being regained is the point.  The restoration of fellowship is the point of accountability and forgiveness and the two go hand in hand.  There is a kind of escalation.  Bring one or two others along with if there is no listening/perceiving/understanding.  Bring it to the church if it comes to it and if it really comes to it, let such a one be as a Gentile and tax collector – outside the fellowship, and at the same time, we know what Jesus’ will is for Gentiles and tax collectors.  Remember who started out as a tax collector after all…

At the end of the passage, we have an echo of the same promise that bookends Matthew.  The promise of Emmanuel – God with us – that we read about in the first chapter.  The promise of “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” that we read about in the last chapter.   “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  We may have things coming between us from time to time.  When something comes between us, may we remember who is between us.  The one who is full of grace and truth is between us.  Jesus Christ in the person of the Holy Spirit of God whom we will celebrate in two weeks.  Every week may we all be coming ever more to understand in our hearts what it means that we’re children of God – may the children remind us.  May this be true for us all.  Amen