Who is the Greatest?
Mark 9. 30-37
What would you do if you knew that you only had a week to live? Assuming you were fit and healthy, that is. If you had full health, and freedom of movement, what would you do with your last few days on earth?
It's a puzzle isn't it?
If it was me, I'd probably want to spend time with the family that I hardly ever see - because they are scattered around the country. Or I'd want to do something really bonkers - like sky-diving. Perhaps I'd go on that trip to Egypt that I've always promised myself. Who knows?
What about you? What would you do?
Of course, this is all very theoretical. None of us really knows when we are going to die. But that wasn't the case for Jesus. He knew that his journey towards Jerusalem was going to result in his death...and he had to decide what he was going to do with his final days.
He could have gone sight-seeing. Perhaps he could have had a mega-party with all his friends and followers. Being God-on-Earth, he could have held mighty rallies, and shown mighty acts of power to wow the crowd.
But no. Instead, Jesus chooses to spend some of his last days on earth teaching his followers about what it really means to be a disciple. He teaches them about two vital things. Two things that are so important, that he takes his disciples aside to make sure they've got the message. Those two things are:
First, the vital importance of humility, and
Second, a command to reach out to the weakest members of society.
When they arrive at a stop-over in Capernaum, Jesus turns to his followers and asks them "What were you arguing about on the road?" (v. 33). "But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest" (v.34)
Mark adds a nice little detail now. He says; "Sitting down, Jesus called the twelve and said...". Sitting down was what a Rabbi did when they were teaching their disciples. Sitting down was a sign that serious teaching was about to take place. When a Rabbi sits down, you take notice. Now what it is that Jesus wanted his disciples to take notice of? He says to them...
"If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all".
It's the topsy-turvey Kingdom of God again, isn't it? Time and time again, Jesus turns the world upside down - away from people having power over people. Instead, he says that real power is found in service.
The notion of service is absolutely central to the Gospel. Jesus teaches us that it is in serving others that we find the real purpose of life. Rather than being a sacrifice, in fact we find that when we serve one another, there is a kind of freedom, and a kind of joy, that infects us. This is an essential part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Before he died, one of his most significant acts was to wash his disciples' feet. Just imagine that. Smelly, dirty feet. Covered in camel dung. That was a job that usually got done by the lowest member of the household - a slave, or a child. It was certainly not a job that was done by the master of the house.
A member of our Thursday congregation, the theologian Martin Mosse, actually argues that we should take this washing of feet idea much more seriously. His thought is that if, instead of celebrating the Eucharist, we washed each other’s feet, we would open up whole new levels of understanding about what it means to be one of Christ’s followers. It’s a fascinating thought, isn’t it?
Ask anyone who works in our charity shop, or who stewards for our visitors during the day in church. Ask them how they feel when one of their regulars, perhaps an elderly widow who lives on her own, comes in for some warmth, a smile, and a chat. Ask one of our pastoral visitors how they feel when they leave the home of a housebound parishioner. Do they feel that they have wasted an hour of their life? Or do they feel as blessed by the encounter as the housebound person now feels?
The fact is that the church of God, and the work of God, exists entirely on the voluntary service of its members. Without that sense of service...we could not be here. Without the gifts of time that you give, this church would have closed years ago...and with it would have gone all the good that we are able to do in this community.
But Jesus' message in today's gospel was not only about service. After making his great statement that those who would be great must be the servant of all, he "took a little child, and had him stand among them"(v.36). Taking that child in his arms, he said to his disciples, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me".
Why did he do this? What's so special about children? Well that's a question you hardly need to ask if you are a parent, or now, (in Clare’s case) a grandmother! But, in Jesus day, children were treated rather differently. Children didn't have any of the rights that children have today. There was no 'criminal records bureau' protecting them. There was no state education. There was no right to free medical treatment. There was no protection in law against exploitation and child labour. Did you know that in some circumstances, it was even legal for a father to kill his child!
So children were essentially treated as goods and cheap labour...even slave labour. They were the least powerful members of society. They couldn't change anything. There were no school councils asking for their opinion. There were no youth workers and teachers who tried to help them develop as whole human beings.
Jesus didn't take that child into his arms because he was sentimental about kids. He picked up that child to show that he, Jesus, was on the side of the poorest, the most dis-possessed, the most abused and sometimes despised members of society.
And so that was his message, that day, in the house in Capernaum. Anyone who wants to be considered great in God's kingdom must be the servant of all...and especially a servant to the poorest and most outcast in any society. We are called to bless and serve the poor...not only for the sake of the poor, though that would be a good enough reason. But for our sake too. As we bless others, whether it is with gifts of money or of time, we will ourselves find blessing.
So finally, may you discover the liberation that comes from service. And may you discover the joy of taking the lowest, poorest, most struggling members of our society into your arms - and blessing them. Amen