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The Reverend Deacon Abigail Davison (Curate)
Sunday 23 September 2018 – 10am Sung Eucharist
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a and Mark 9:30-37
If there’s anyone in my household who would argue that they’re the greatest, it’s my 2 year old daughter. She’s certain that she’s the greatest at finishing her cereal: she expects a round of applause when she does. Likewise, no one can jump from the bottom step of the stairs as well as she can. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to tell you, she might just be the greatest at finding biscuits I thought they were safely hidden. She has no qualms about asking for praise and acclaim for how great she believes she is. And of course, as her mum, I have no qualms giving it.
This probably isn’t the same standard of greatness the disciples had in mind but, from where Jesus is standing, I wonder if it’s not just as absurd.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus warns his disciples for a second time that he is going to die. Their apparent response is to argue among themselves about their own greatness. In the Gospel reading last week (Mark 8:27-38) Jesus had also warned the disciples what was about to happen, and we heard Peter rebuke him for it. Jesus’ response to this seemed excessive: ‘Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.’ Maybe it’s in this that we’ve found the route of the problem. The same issue came up in the first reading today, in the letter of James. He puts it just as strongly: ‘Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?’
I wonder if it was Jesus’ original outburst that made the disciples reluctant to ask him what he meant when he raised the issue of his death for a second time. Instead they seem to choose to overlook his predictions and start this argument about which of them was the greatest. I don’t want to seem too harsh on the disciples: I completely understand why they do, for two reasons. Firstly, the first thing you do when someone says something you don’t want to hear, is (if you possibly can) to pretend they didn’t say it at all (do ask my toddler about this technique, she’s very good at it).
The second reason is this: last week we heard the disciples establish just who Jesus is – he’s the Messiah, King of the Jews, the whole of Israel has been waiting for this! Jesus is now, for the second time, trying to teach them what this actually means. But they already know what it means, in the same way they know what it means to be great. They know this, because they have the likes of Caesar and other great rulers, to show them. When those Kings rode in to take possession of their kingdoms, the people nearest to them got a share in the accolade and the spoils and, often, became known as ‘great’ themselves. At least, for a short time.
The disciples had been promised that the good news was here, and good news looks a lot more like this, then like your king, your friend, dying on a cross.
Here we see most starkly the disparity between the divine and the human, between God and the world. Jesus wasn’t looking to emulate any kind of earthly ruler, and in hindsight we know that fleeting, earthly greatness wasn’t what awaited his disciples either. So what kind of greatness should we be looking to emulate? What does it look like when our standard of greatness is set by God: when it’s divine and not human? It looks, Jesus tells us, like the greatest acting as a servant: it looks like the welcome of a child.
As the mother of a little child, I have some things to say about welcoming little children…
I get a very twee image of this scene in my mind, and I don’t think it’s the whole truth. I picture a young child who is brought in just long enough for Jesus to make his point, then scurries out to play in the street again. That’s not welcome, that’s just saying hello. This is a much more powerful image then that: welcoming a little child is hard work. It means welcoming spaghetti handprints on your walls and grapes squished into the carpet and toys hidden in your dishwasher and all of your biscuits gone! And it can mean weeks without sleep, the long term loss of earnings, and a life that’s lived almost entirely around meeting the needs of someone else, supporting them to be great.
And this is what we’re asked to welcome?
There’s no quantifiable reward to be gained here: nothing that could be measure by the world’s standards. Nothing that will lead to us being regarded as ‘the greatest’. Can you imagine a world leader asserting their greatness by this standard, or promising to make their nation great by using its resources to make other nations greater than it?
Are you ready to give that welcome?
Are we, as a church, ready to give that welcome?
I can’t answer this for you, but what will the rest of your week look like if you offer that welcome? I don’t know either what this church will end up looking like if we offer this welcome, but I am desperate to find out.
Finally, I want to ask, are you in need of that welcome? (And I suspect at some point in our lives, we all are.)
I want to encourage you, if you haven’t received such a welcome, not to be afraid to demand it of us. Because it’s in you we have a chance to welcome Christ himself.
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