Who Is Great?
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“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
We are at an end but we’re not stopping. We have arrived where we began all those weeks ago when we first heard Jesus’ call in the Gospel of Mark. “Follow me.” I pray that we arrive where we started and know what it means to follow in a whole new way, as if for the first time. There is a reason that following Christ was known as “The Way.” There’s a reason that travel stories resonate so with us as a metaphor for life as a journey. The way of the cross. The way of discipleship is where we’re ending today, and it’s a good place to end. We’re hearing the last words of instructions which Jesus gives to his disciples as he sets his face to go to Jerusalem. “The way of the cross leads home,” we used to sing. What is the way of the cross? What is the way of discipleship? How is your way going? How is our way going? It’s very easy to put ourselves into the story here. “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those that followed were afraid.” (32) We are on the road. We are going toward that city. We are amazed, and we are afraid. Jesus goes ahead of us. His face set like flint. Resolute. Unwavering. Maybe our amazement comes from the combination of authority and humility which is seen in this Jesus. Maybe it’s the combination of humanity and divinity – the truths about Jesus that go far beyond words. Then there is the fear. Fear of what is going to happen. Fear of what Jesus might demand of us. Fear of walking into an unknown future. Fear of any one of the number of things that make us afraid. And yet, and yet. They’re still following. And yet and yet. We’re still following.
We come to Jesus’ third passion prediction. For the third time, Jesus tells his disciple what is going to happen. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him, and after three days he will rise again.” (33-34) Each time the disciples hear Jesus predict his death and resurrection, they reject it, ignore it, or completely misunderstand it. The way of the cross is the way of the cross, and we (I!) reject it, ignore it, or completely misunderstand it.
Let’s keep on following through nonetheless. Keep on trusting, believing, resting in him. His patience with us is amazing (speaking of being amazed). Like the slab of marble that Michaelangelo turned into the sculpture of David, we are marred. Like a sculptor, the Holy Spirit keeps on working on us. The first time Jesus’ told his followers what would happen in Jerusalem, Peter rejected such a plan. Matthew tells us Peter said, “This must never happen to you.” “You are setting your mind on not divine things but on human things,” Jesus tells him. (Mark 8) The second time, the disciples are engaged in an argument about who among them is the greatest. They reach a house, and Jesus asks them what they were arguing about along the way. They are silent. Jesus tells them, “Whoever wants to be the first must be the last of all and the servant of all.” Then we read 9:36-37.
After this third pronouncement by Jesus in Mark 10, James and John come forward to him (approach him as we would say these days). Jesus talked about being like a child in order to have a part in his kingdom, but surely not like this. They make a childish request “We want you to do whatever we ask” because it’s all about what we want right? Jesus says “Tell me what you want.” They want to be his right and left-hand men in his glory. Jesus doesn’t chide them per se. “You don’t know what you’re asking,” Jesus tells them. Someone has put it like this: Their request “…is misguided because it assumes that identification with Jesus, involving leadership in his cause… is characterized by power and honour and glory. Instead, it is characterized by a cup, a baptism, and a cross. There is glory on the other side of the cross, but James and John want a shortcut to that glory.” A cup in the Old Testament was symbolic of whatever God has planned – whether it be a cup of blessing or a cup of suffering. Water in the Old Testament was often a sign of troubles (Ps 69:1-3) Of course, the cup will come to mean our participation in the death and life of Jesus. Baptism will come to mean a symbolic dying to self in the water and the promise of new life on the other side of the water. The two go together. The cross is not just something that happened to Jesus on the way to glory, it is Jesus’ glory. It is as if James and John are saying, “We’ve been with you from the beginning and we want something for ourselves in all this talk once you get the crucifixion out of the way.” The way of the cross is the way for all followers of Christ. It is the way of death to self and what we want. It is the way of suffering. It is the way of self-sacrifice. The risen Christ bears the wounds of the cross. “Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus tells Thomas. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” (John 20:27) When the one known as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, the one who has conquered” appears in what was revealed to John, he appears as a lamb who had been slaughtered. (Rev 5:5-6)
James and John don’t know what they are asking for, but they will know. “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized,” Jesus tells them. They’re going to know what it means to die to self, and in James’ case literally die. Following Christ is not simply a risk-free proposition for our benefit (though it does benefit us and in Christ we have a joy and a peace beyond understanding and a hope and love beyond measure). Let us not take a simplistic self-serving view of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Discipleship is a costly pouring out of one’s life for others, and in so doing, knowing life.
And in so doing, finding greatness. At this point, Jesus gathers the twelve together. When the other ten heard this, they were upset. Their upset was not likely caused because they thought, “You just don’t get this thing, James and John,” but rather because they hadn’t thought of making the request themselves.
Jesus calls them. I like this image. Jesus calling his followers together, taking a pause from the walking, and saying “Everybody huddle up.” He had done the same at the beginning of our passage this morning when he took the twelve aside. It’s important that we take time together to listen to the words of Jesus, isn’t it? To huddle up as it were. To stop. Let’s stop and think about what it means to be great. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” (10:42) Who are the great ones? Why is the Great One telling me that I should gamble online as I’m watching basketball? What does it mean to be great? Who is the greatest of all time? The GOAT. We like to measure greatness and sports make it very easy. Most goals. Most points/assists/yards/championships/world titles etc. etc. This is not an indictment on athletic excellence (although I would ask “Should that be our number one concern?”) or the spirit of competition. I’m asking what it means to be great.
What is the way of greatness in the world? Power and authority being used for self-interest. Power and authority used to control others for selfish gain. Who are the people that we hold up as leaders or pay the most attention to? One’s greatness is measured by the number of followers, the loyalty of fans, the size of crowds (and if there’s a big crowd involved, then it must be good, right?), the recognition one receives, the amount of money one is bringing in. Greatness is about power and self-promotion, and if you need to manipulate and coerce, that is the way of the world. The golden rule – those who have the most gold make the rules because they are the great ones.
In the middle of all this let us hear Jesus' voice saying “But it is not so among you!” It is not so among us sisters and brothers. There is no place in the way of the cross for self-promotion, rivalry, or domineering action. It’s so easy to fall into or be sucked into or mired in this way of thinking of greatness. Use positions of leadership in the church for ourselves or to get our own way. I was a deacon here at Blythwood many years ago, young in many ways. I remember after the first deacons board meeting that I chaired, a dear brother in the faith telling me “Your job is not to bend the deacons board to your will.”
But it is not so among you. The kingdom of God turns our beliefs about greatness upside down. NT Wright has a great line about this. He likes to say how the kingdom of God is putting the world to rights. I like to say the kingdom of God is turning the world upside-down/right-side-up because you know I like a good paradox. Here’s what Bishop Wright says about this passage: “…it (the cross) is God’s way of putting the world, and ourselves, to rights, it challenges and subverts all the human systems which claim to put the world to rights but in fact only succeed in bringing a different set of humans out on top. The reason James and John misunderstand Jesus is exactly the same as the reason why many subsequent thinkers, down to our own day, are desperate to find a way of having Jesus without having the cross as well: the cross calls into question all human pride and glory.”
One of the great things about this passage is that Jesus does not dismiss our quest for greatness. Who does not wish to be great? It’s an aspiration that lies deep in our hearts, isn’t it? Hold onto that aspiration and listen to Jesus’ words – “But it is not so among you: but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (10:43-45) It is an upside down/right-side-up kingdom where, as someone has said, “the King bows in service to his subjects and commands us to do the same.” In this Kingdom, greatness is shown in the giving of our lives, the outpouring of our lives for others. This generally won’t make us famous, but that was never the point. Think of all of those/all of us who work in “lowly” service. The wife who visits her husband in a nursing home daily. The man who brings groceries regularly to a family in need. The elder saint who sends encouraging cards and notes. The custodian with years of faithful service. The family who serves at the youth shelter faithfully over years. Ironically we sometimes only learn of such people after a great tragedy. Watching coverage of what happened in Buffalo last Saturday, we learned about Pearly Young, a 76-year-old grandmother who loved to sing and dance and who ran a food pantry in the Central Park neighbourhood of Buffalo for 25 years. We learned about Ruth Whitfield, 86, who was on her way home from visiting her husband in the nursing home where she lives. We heard about Heyward Patterson, 67, a church deacon and taxi driver who was always willing to do with less to make sure others had enough. Greatness.
Friends, it is my prayer that God has been forming us over these weeks Lent and Eastertide. We leave this story but continue on the way together, knowing that in God, through Christ, in the working of the Holy Spirit we may be made new. John was made new. He came to Jesus at the start of our passage this morning with his brother, asking for a position of privilege. He would come to know about greatness and his words have been handed on to us: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (1 John 3:16) “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we ought also to love one another.” (1 John 4:11).
- Service. The pouring out of life. The way of Christ. The way of the cross. The way of his disciples. More than a way of life – the way to life. May God help us all to live it.