Sunday 19th September 2021
Becoming Great - 20th sun ordinary time
Mark 9: 30-37
When I read the prescribed Gospel text for today -
…..and having reflected for a while Jesus’ words -
I was reminded of a TV interview I watched a few years back,
… in the run up to the referendum on whether we stay in Europe or not.
The rather high profile politician championing Brexit,
…. Famously argued that coming out of Europe would help put the GREAT back into GREAT BRITAIN.
The interviewer asked him to define what he meant by GREAT -
And so the politician spoke about increased economic benefits -
…he also spoke about the opportunity it would undoubtedly give to put the the UK at the forefront of global progress -
to be a worldwide LEADER in areas such as the sciences, innovation, technology, geopolitical influence etc -
No longer one among the pack (of European nations) -
…………but a nation than can once again ‘move ahead of the herd’
His definition of greatness pretty much accords with a definition I found in the WIKIPEDIA dictionary:
“Greatness is a concept of a state of superiority affecting a person or object in a particular place or area. Greatness can also be attributed to individuals who possess a natural ability to be better than all others”
Our text reminds us that about 2000 years before that TV interview,
…another prominent world leader spoke on the theme and importance of achieving greatness
(OK - he didn’t quite have the same world profile at that early point)
His initial statement was only to a few faithful followers rather than a TV audience,
….but his words would be recorded and repeated to many millions upon millions in the millennia to come
WHAT'S SO FASCINATING -
Is that the 2 definitions Couldn’t be more diametrically opposed if they had tried!
The people he was speaking to -
………..…his small band of followers,
………………would probably have related more easily (at least initially) to the definition give by our contemporary Brexiteer proponent
IT SOUNDS RIGHT
Whereas the one they received was counter-intuitive to say the least:
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”
Q- let me ask an honest question -
……..Which definition has shaped your life most to date?
I know that I like Jesus’ one best -
…I hear it in Church on Sunday - agree with it,
……..and then MONDAY comes:
Am I happy to always step back as it were?
not have the last word in a debate
Not have my opinion as respected at least as everybody else?
Watch somebody else have their back patted while my contribution goes unnoticed or uncommented on?
If I’m in a park run, regardless of my ability, do I not at least desire to come first
If I’m watching my team Northampton’s Saints play the Scarletts play in the European cup don’t I want them to completely stuff them and thus earn the bragging rights with Mat my nursing colleague?!
That’s all natural -
And while much of the above isn’t harmful or even intrinsically wrong-
…that desire towards GREATNESS/one upmanship can and does,
………and historically HAS,
= led us down some pretty dark and ungodly paths.
I’m not knocking the politician I mentioned at the start for using the language of GREATNESS -
…No politician could surely ever hope to get elected without at least a sprinkle of such talk,
BUT JESUS WASN’T LOOKING TO WIN AN ELECTION OR IMPRESS PEOPLE -
….he was just saying it as it is from God’s perspective.
Accept it or reject it -
But effectively he’s saying that you can’t call yourself a follower of his …..unless you accept GOD’s definition of GREATNESS.
One of the great ironies about Christian history -
….is the number of people who want to be powerful and number 1 -
………in the CHURCH.
Even today’s Churches -
…whether large denominations or small groups,
……..there are lots of politics,
lots of people stropping off in a huff when they don’t get their way,
….or posturing and competing and comparing
…………… and feeling envious or superior
We’re human -
The Church is full of loud human voices:
Which is why we need to hear the voice of God
“What were you arguing about on the way?”
Jesus asks them/us
I like the next line -
because it’s exactly how I responded,
when I’d been found out by my mum or Dad
about something as a child:
“But they were silent for they had argued with one another who was the greatest”
Just Like my mum who,
… when she asked her guilty child a question that she already really knew the answer to,
= Jesus didn’t get an answer
They knew that HE knew.
Jesus isn’t being grumpy or argumentative -
…he asking them this really important question for THEIR and OUR sakes
It’s really important teaching
The author Michael Marsh doesn’t see this passage as a telling off moment,
…but rather a chance to REFLECT,
…….and to GROW
“Their argument happened on a public road, out in the open. His question, however, is asked in the privacy and interior space of a house. This is about more than a change in physical location. Jesus is moving the conversation inward. He’s not gathering information for himself but inviting the disciples to self-reflect on what it means to be great”
I think overall in his writings Michael Marsh is saying,
…… that Jesus is presenting his disciples (and by extension US),
………with an image and the reality of our better selves.
AND I THINK SOMETHING REALLY IMPORTANT FOR US TO UNDERSTAND IN THIS TEXT-
= is that Jesus ISN’T saying that we should not or cannot be great,
……..he is inviting us to reframe our understanding of greatness.
Maybe a paraphrase of Jesus’ question to us today is:
“What does it mean and look like for you and me (as Christians) to be great in today's world?”
WHAT IS CHRISTIAN GREATNESS?
But he doesn’t just leave the question dangling -
…He answers it with an object illustration…
He takes a little child in his arms -
…looks us in the eyes,
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me”
HE’S NOT SAYING
-greatness is in being a child or being child-like
-greatness is WELCOMING the child
And of course Jesus isn’t being ageist here -
….the CHILD is a symbol:
A symbol of VULNERABILITY,
Children now are generally treated as precious -
…but FAR LESS SO BY SOCIETY in Jesus’ day.
They had no RIGHTS, STATUS or ECONOMIC VALUE
They took - but didn’t produce much,
….and as death rates were high many people were loathe to invest much in them until it appeared clear they were well on the way to adulthood and usefulness!
Jesus was saying,
…is welcoming and valuing one like this -
= Regardless of their value and usefulness to you.
IN OUR CULTURE greatness is generally attributed,
… to those who have clearly ACCOMPLISHED or GAINED something -
our latest female tennis sensation has been tagged great because she won the US open
The GREATEST business leaders are GREAT because they have built the biggest businesses and fortunes
IN JESUS VIEW,
…GREATNESS is attributed by God to people who
……………. accomplish or gain something -
NOT FOR THEMSELVES but -
‘For the least of these’
In Matthew 25;40,
…Jesus gets specific by describing them as the ‘hunger, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned’ -
= these are the SYMBOLIC CHILDREN of our lives -
…those who can only take but often have nothing to give back or benefit us.
I like sports stars -
…I followed a number and I’m impressed by their attainments -
…..I also admire really intelligent, funny, beautifully voiced singers and other high profile people,
They’re brilliant -
….but they're not GREAT
According to Jesus’ standards, caring for the sick, the elderly, the dying, the homeless, the refugee
= that’s GREAT
….not to mention the difficult, the ungrateful, the downright obnoxious.
Which I think we’re doing every time we forgive someone who clearly doesn't deserve it!
Greatness never feels superior -
Greatness doesn’t seek power -
Greatness doesn’t seek recognition -
GREATNESS IS NOT ABOUT -
My bank account,
GREATNESS is doing something for somebody,
REGARDLESS of their ability to pay/repay or return the favour.
JESUS described GREATNESS in LUKE 6:32 when he talked about loving those who don’t love you
JESUS described GREATNESS in Luke 6:33 when he said do good to those who do not do good to you
JESUS described GREATNESS in Luke 6:34 when he spoke about lending without expectation of getting back
And JESUS described GREATNESS in Luke 14:12 as inviting to supper those who can’t invite you back.
**And the caveat to all the above,
…is those who do it without blowing their own trumpet.
I’m throwing myself into running at the moment -
…I’m almost 50 and I want to see how fast I can run the 5K before my body says ‘enough’
I’m never going to be super fast -
….I doubt I’ll ever come fast in a 5K run,
…….but I’d like to discover my middle-aged potential
I’ll only achieve that if I earn it though EFFORT and TRAINING
And that’s the problem with this whole TOPIC of GREATNESS
….Because we approach it like I’m approaching my running
We humans naturally want to be GREAT
(even if that’s in a very quiet and humble way - like a great Gardner, baker of cakes or whatever)
So we approach it like I’m trying to approach my running -
..as something to BE ACHIEVED OR EARNED
BUT JESUS say’s that true greatness arises in us,
…when our lives are in balance with him
…..allowing him to help us to step in to our better GREATER selves.
JESUS says that GREATNESS happens,
……. in the apparently simple, ordinary and mundane
OUR GREATNESS is hugely celebrated by God,
I’m sure he’s even prouder than Emma the tennis players parent are of her
….but it often goes unnoticed and unnamed in our world.
I said at the start that the greatness definition of one powerful worldly leader is diametrically opposed to that of Jesus. -
= that’s always been the way.
We need to see that,
…to recognised that we have a choice -
…we HAVE to choose:
The greatest of the last and the servant of all.
I wonder who the child is that Jesus will put in our path this coming week?