Do you enjoy a good argument? Some people do while others opt for a peaceful existence. When I was growing up, I used to argue with my mother about all sorts of things while my father would go and find somewhere quiet if he could. Some of the arguments were over facts and figures which today could be resolved by a quick google. Others were more philosophical as I tried to come to terms with the politics of the 1970’s and develop some understanding about faith and the bible. The most serious arguments when I reflect back were of course around the fact that like all teenagers, I needed to establish myself as an independent adult. For many it can be a bumpy ride as we seek to map out new territory and privileges.
Some arguments are inconsequential like whether you put the milk in first or afterwards when making tea. You always put it in first don’t you! The ones which have much more serious outcomes are about establishing a place in the pecking order. When Elaine introduced two new hens to join the established ones in the run, a very noisy afternoon ensued with many feathers being lost. The next few weeks saw a standoff. Only now, months later do the issues seem to have been resolved and the new birds know their place.
These experiences are common to us all in our homes and family life, in work situations and in any clubs or leisure groups to which we may belong. Any place where human interaction takes place is subject to argument and debate around who will lead and call the shots and who will do the jobs no-one else wants to do. There is always more to this than just dishing the work out or matching people’s skills and talents with the things to be done. It is around status. Whether we are full on confident individuals or shy and retiring, status matters. The place we have earnt for ourselves in our social circles; the name we have achieved for the work we do or have done is jealously guarded. Should anyone challenge or rubbish these things, we will resist and fight our corner.
As fishermen and tax collectors, Jesus’ chosen disciples had been used to living independent lives; to being their own boss. But Jesus had called them to be a community around him, asked them to share his ministry giving them responsibilities. The issue of status began to arise. When Jesus had gone up the mountain to pray and experience the presence of God in what we call the ‘Transfiguration’, he had taken just three with him; Peter, James and John. It does seem apparent that an inner core was beginning to form around Jesus. In our gospel passage from Mark today, (9.30-37) the subject of greatness among the disciples has arisen. They arrive in Capernaum which earlier in the gospel appears to be a base for Jesus and the disciples. They probably stay at the home of Peter and Andrew. When they arrive, but before he has sat down, Jesus asks them with some urgency what they had been arguing about on the road. They are sheepish, not answering or avoiding the question. They had argued about their status, who should be top dog and they obviously felt guilty about this.
Even though they remain silent on the matter, Jesus knows what has been going on. He had either overheard them or was aware of it due to his supernatural insight. He does enter into their discussion but presents them with a stark fact that they must understand for themselves: ‘If anyone wants to be first he must be the very last, and the servant of all.’ (verse 35)
Jesus gives his words great emphasis here. They are central to both his identity and his teaching and yet they are the precise opposite of the way in which as human beings we are programmed to think. Jesus teaches clearly that the marks of the Kingdom of God are lowliness and service. The question of rank, position or status is not even appropriate. If we are seeking to follow Jesus, to be a part of the church, to get a feather in our cap, a place on the board or to be seen as a pillar of the community, then we should forget it. It is not about us, it all about the God who loves us and his world so much in the life death and resurrection of Jesus and the continued outpouring of his Holy Spirit.
To seal the deal with a visual aid, Jesus invites a child, probably a member of the household to stand among them. He takes the child in his arms as in an embrace of welcome. When his followers welcome a child, he says, they welcome him and when they welcome him, they welcome his Father, the one who sent him. Why a child? In that society at that time, the child represented the lowest order on the social scale, under the authority of others and not seen as possessing real value in society until they moved into adulthood at around the age of twelve. We talk today as we should about the rights of a child, but that concept was not really current then. So, to welcome a child in the same way as you might a fellow adult was a radical idea. In the Kingdom, while we might each have our roles to play, none can claim a special place over another. Instead we always place others ahead of ourselves and seek to serve them.
Jesus not only powerfully teaches this message, but he models it himself. The teaching arises because Jesus is trying to prepare the disciples for his coming betrayal, death and resurrection. (verse 31) Jesus had the power and the means to avoid the suffering he was about to endure, but he allows it to happen because his calling is to be a servant, the servant of God for our eternal benefit. Later, Jesus teaches: ‘For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10.45) Jesus has the highest status imaginable; Son of the living God, yet for your sake and mine, he took the lowliest place imaginable, allowing himself to be given up to death, insulted, cursed and nailed to a cross. (Philippians 2.5-8)
Just as lowliness and service are at the very heart of Jesus’ ministry, so they should be central in our lives too. If you have trusted in Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life, then your lives should reflect his upside-down ways with last first and the first last. This does not mean we have to be shy and retiring, not putting ourselves forward when we feel have something to contribute. It’s not saying that we stand aside while others apply and get the plumb jobs. Rather, it is about not thinking of ourselves as greater, better than others but serving them and loving them into God’s Kingdom. It is about seeing our fellow Christians in church as part of a community around Jesus, fellow servants with us and not rivals.
In the new testament reading from James, (3.13-4.3) the writer contrasts heavenly and earthly wisdom. Bitterness, envy and selfish ambition is earthly, unspiritual and of the devil. That from heaven is pure, peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
These teachings should apply to the whole of our lives, but especially to the church community where we seek to be the body of Christ in the world. Officially, the church is very good a modelling the last shall be first. Every church procession has the most senior member of the community at the back. If the bishop is present he is always at the end of the line. In reality, I am sure we can all think of examples from our own experience or history when church life has shown little humility and service of others; when the arguments have been allowed to burn out of control instead of being turned to prayer and fasting.
We are not called to be empire builders but to share with the risen Lord in building the Kingdom of God. When, like the disciples, we argue along the road, may we picture in our minds eye Jesus standing embracing the child and realign our thinking with his teaching.
Trinity 17 23.09.2018