Trinity 16 – Who is the greatest?

Sunday 20th September 2015

St Mary’s Hadlow

James 3:13 – 4:3-7-8a, Mark 9:30 – 37

May I speak this morning in the name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Yesterday there was a terrible accident in the Nestlé factory warehouse. A worker had been walking between the stacks of packaged chocolate when a pallet load fell on him and pinned him to the floor. It was made worse by the fact that the injured man had to wait over an hour to be rescued. He kept calling for help but every time he shouted, “The milky bars are on me,” all the other people in the warehouse just cheered.

I apologise. That was completely gratuitous and bears no real relation to the sermon but there is just so much gloominess about the world at the moment that I felt the need for a joke.

Someone said to me recently something very interesting and which gave me pause for thought. He said that the church is nothing special. He didn’t mean, I don’t think, that St Mary’s is nothing special when compared to other churches I believe he meant that the church as a gathering of people is nothing special or different from other clubs or societies. That we are no different, say, from the historical society or the rotary club or whatever.

And, of course, on one level he was absolutely right. We are a gathering of people who come together regularly to meet with people with broadly similar interests and to do something that we enjoy, at least I hope some of the time.

But on another level, with huge respect to him, I think he was wrong. For me the church is, and ought to be, very different from the other clubs and societies to which we may choose to belong. It is also, or at least ought to be, very different from the wider society in which we live. Because if our church culture cannot be distinguished from our wider culture then this can mean only one of two things: Either: That the whole of society have come into step with what God wants for the world and that the work of re-creation is complete or that the church has come into step with what the world wants us to be.

So the church ought to be different and special from the world whilst we are still this side of Jesus returning in glory because if we are not then there is no simply point to us or, worse, we may hinder the work of God.

Although we are not perfect I do think that the church is different and special and that there is indeed a point to us. For me, the specialness of the church comes from a very deep place: The church is God’s gift to the world. Did your mum or dad ever say to you, especially when you were a teenager: “You’re not God’s gift to the world you know”? Well, I am sorry to say it but they were wrong. You are an integral part of God’s gift to the world.

God sent his Son Jesus into the world to redeem the world and when Jesus’ ministry on earth was done God sent the Holy Spirit to create a church that would continue to be the body of Christ here on earth. And God sent his Holy Spirit on each of us to call us to play our part in the continuing drama of salvation. Whatever our conscious reasons for coming here this morning I believe that we are ultimately gathered here as a church because God calls us together, first to transform us as individuals as we worship God and meet with him in word and sacrament but, but just as importantly, to transform us collectively into a corpus, into a body, which is the body of Christ and whose purpose is not to serve our own interests but to transform the world around us.

But on that journey of transformation we are still all fallible human beings and it is all too easy to bring the values of the world into the church. In today’s reading from Mark we encounter the disciples of Jesus who were still struggling with the difference between discipleship and worldliness.

We heard a moment ago that as Jesus and his disciples were travelling through Galilee he was teaching them once again that he would be betrayed and killed and would rise again. But they didn’t understand what he was talking about and were too afraid to ask him. You may remember that the disciples were afraid when they saw Jesus walking on the water and that Peter James and John were terrified during the transfiguration. We kid ourselves if we think that it was always cosy being in the presence of Jesus – when the divine breaks through into the profane then fear is a common reaction. But fear is nothing to be afraid of because as we know from Proverbs 1: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Unfortunately the disciples hadn’t quite made it to wisdom yet and couldn’t bring themselves to address the hard questions that Jesus was raising for them. But there was something that the disciples did understand and had been arguing about on the journey. It wasn’t the deep theology of who Jesus was and what his words meant rather it was a rather more worldly question:

“Who is the greatest?”

Rather than listening to Jesus’ teaching it seems that the disciples had been quietly trying to work out their own hierarchy. Wouldn’t it have been great to have heard them squabbling about who was called first, who Jesus preferred, who could read and write and who was just an ignorant smelly fisherman. There’s a one act play right there.

It is perhaps understandable that at this point in the narrative the issue has arisen. Shortly before, as we touched on, Jesus had singled out Peter and James and John, and led up a mountain to witness his transfiguration and not long afterwards the brothers James and John asked to sit on his right and his left in his glory.

And of course, as we know, if you put any group of people together in almost any situation then they start to work out pecking orders and hierarchies. It’s the way of the world. And that, of course, is the distinction we need to bear in mind.

But it is clear that the disciples knew that they shouldn’t have been arguing about such things because when Jesus asked them what they had been arguing about they went silent. Again you can imagine them looking like a bunch of naughty school boys who have been caught by the head teacher, and they are looking at their feet and mumbling:

“Who is the greatest?”

And so Jesus speaks to them about status in his kingdom. He does this in a remarkable way. First, St Mark says that he sits down. This detail is important because it tells us that here Jesus is teaching them in a very formal way, indicating to them the importance of what he is about to say. Moreover, he calls the twelve to him. It might seem obvious that the twelve men who are named earlier as apostles should be there among his disciples but again this underlines for us that this teaching is imparted to those who will be sent to proclaim the gospel.

He says, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.

This is turning the values of the world on its head because surely the one who is most important is the one who gets to order all the servants around. But Jesus is saying that in order to be the greatest you have to be the least and to serve everyone else. And, of course, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one who became the servant of all by giving up heaven to go to the cross for us all. If the creator of the universe can give up glory to be sacrificed for our sake then it puts our human hierarchies and squabbling over precedence into stark perspective.

And then Jesus used a visual aid to illustrate the point further, by bringing a child into their midst. We can speculate about the meaning of a later saying of Jesus that it is to such as children that the kingdom of God belongs (10.14) but in this passage the key point about the child is that in that time and place a child had absolutely no status whatsoever. A child was totally dependent on others and in this sense powerless. If you wanted to select a person of the least importance then a child was a good choice.

Jesus puts the unimportant child in the centre of the gathering. He gives the child the most important place and then takes the child in his arms. The one of no status is given the position of greatest honour. The last is placed first.

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

It is in receiving such a person notwithstanding his or her total lack of standing or status or importance, that a follower of Christ will receive God the Father. Jesus turns their whole way of looking at themselves and others completely upside down.

And so for the church to be distinctive and special we need to rethink they way we think about ourselves and others. The letter of James talked about the sin of ‘selfish ambition’ which is exactly what the disciples were guilty of, and can so often be what we are guilty of when we live by the values of the world and of lording it over one another. We achieve greatness in the kingdom of heaven by serving one another. So this is firstly about quelling selfish ambition and aligning ourselves with the servant hood of Christ.

But it is also about the way we value others. If God values most highly the least important, the most vulnerable, the least wise then we should do the same and when we do Jesus tells us that we are receiving him and therefore we are receiving God.

Every person ever born was created in the image and likeness of God. We heard last week that one child dies every minute because of contaminated water and every one of those children, powerless and worthless in the eyes of the world is not only made in the image of God but is highly valued in the kingdom of God.

We are currently in the middle of the biggest movement of refugees around the world since the second world war and the countries of Europe are confused and panicked in their response – some borders are open and some are closed. The tabloid response similarly alternates between charity and demonization. And the refugees are not just from war torn Syria but many are fleeing from the kind of poverty in Africa which kills one child a minute through contaminated water and many others through preventable diseases and malnutrition. If our children were dying in that way and a better life lay a boat ride away what would you do?

There may be different political views taken on the right way to deal with this situation, and I accept that there are no easy answers, but as disciples of Christ I hope we can agree that we are called to put away selfish ambition and to welcome and serve the least important in the eyes of the world for their own sake and for the sake of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Amen.

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