The First Must be Last
Rev. Felicity O’Brien Sermon for St Andrew’s Plimmerton, Thursday September 27 2012, (all rights reserved.)
Can you imagine walking along with Jesus, and he starts telling you about being betrayed, and dying, and coming back to life. Wouldn’t you be intrigued? Horrified maybe? Captivated? He had already been transfigured while some of them watched, and they had heard God speak out from the cloud. There are several episodes like this in Mark’s Gospel, of Jesus announcing who he is, and the disciples failing to understand.
Here he was teaching them some really serious things about what was going to happen to him. But they weren’t even listening. From our perspective they seem so slow, sometimes I want to shake them and say, wake up! Don’t you see?
Were they thinking about what Jesus’ betrayal, death and resurrection would mean? About who Jesus was and the future of the world? Or about their place in that new world? No. Instead of thinking about their future ministry, they were arguing, bickering like children, about who was more important. Jesus knew that they didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, and even though they were too ashamed to tell him about their argument, he knew all about that too.
Jesus always knows what’s truly inside our hearts, all our basest desires, and he loves us anyway! I’m amazed when I read this passage at Jesus’ unending patience with the disciples, – he must have really loved them so much, and seen so much potential in them. Instead of throwing up his hands in horror at how slow they were, yet again, he patiently teaches them – whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. This is a wonderful model for our ministry as Christians in the world – to truly serve our fellow human beings, to be an ambassador for the kingdom of heaven, we don’t need pomp and ceremony, we don’t even need recognition. We just need to humbly serve, in love. Of course, God will be aware of our loving service. Isn’t this freeing? Ambition doesn’t matter, recognition doesn’t matter, because the only one who matters knows about it already!
I wonder how the disciples felt when Jesus told them about being servants. Did something click, as they considered Jesus’ ministry to the poor, the sick, the possessed?
Jesus made the point very neatly, with a wry sense of humour. In picking up the child, who was probably one of his relatives, he was telling the disciples that they were acting like children, bickering foolishly.
But then he used the child as a living simile for how they should be behaving. In first-century Palestine children, while beloved, had very little status. In Mark’s Gospel, which was written in Greek, the word used for child is the same word as that used for slave. Even high-born children had no status. It’s a bit different from children these days isn’t it? They’re taught at school all about human rights, and perhaps some of them have too much sense of their own status. Some of the illustrations Jesus uses are easy to transplant into a modern context, but this one is a bit less direct.
Still, we understand what he means – the disciples need to be innocent, lowly in society, open to the miraculous, just as children are. Jesus went on to tell the disciples that welcoming the lowliest ones in their society was the same as welcoming him, and welcoming his father in heaven.. Again, upside-down mentality! Humble service to the least important in the world is the same as welcoming God – it didn’t need priests and temples.
Jesus didn’t chide the disciples for having ambition – he just pointed the way to Kingdom ambition. It’s upside-down from worldly aspirations – if you’ve ever written a CV you will know what I mean – there you need to add every skill relevant to the job that you can possibly squeeze in, being careful to tread the fine line between blowing your own trumpet and going overboard to the point where truth is sacrificed! But with God there’s no need – being willing to serve is the only CV you need, and do you know, CV, curriculum vitae, means way of life. And what did Jesus say? I am the way, the truth, and the life.