This sermon was prepared by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., on September 20, 2009.
Psalm 1; Mark 9:30-37
I suppose humans in every age have pondered the issue of greatness, how to become great, and what being great means. It should not surprise anyone that the first followers of Jesus thought about it, or even that they argued among themselves about who was greatest among them. The temptation to be greatest, most powerful, most wealthy, or most influential appears to be common to our human experience. Humans seem to have an obsession about pecking orders.
It is unsettling, however, to read that the disciples were arguing about which of them was the greatest when Jesus was telling them that he would be betrayed, killed, and that he would rise again after three days. What a crass lot they were?
Yet, are the followers of Jesus different today? Do we not devote ourselves and our energies more fervently in trying to out-perform one another than trying to understand and follow the life and ministry of Jesus? Our constant claims and quibbling about the size of church memberships, church budgets, building spaces, and other things are only some of the ways that we imitate the first followers of Jesus in quibbling about who is greatest. In focusing on those things, we show that we do not understand some fundamental truths about the life and ministry of the leader of our faith.
The first thing we do not understand is the model of Jesus in ministry. It is amusing to see how much energy, emphasis, and enthusiasm we pour into constructing, outfitting, and maintaining buildings. The New Testament contains no account of Jesus owning a personal residence, let alone having a building from which his ministry was based. The Gospels tell us that people came to meet Jesus and that Jesus went to meet people—not that people identified any building or location with Jesus or his ministry. The Bible presents Jesus to us as a moving agent of grace, truth, compassion, and hope. The funds contributed to and by the first century Christians were used to help the needy, not to outfit buildings. We have replaced the model of Jesus with something far different from anything we encounter in the Gospels.
Our quest for greatness also shows how much we have strayed from the standard Jesus set for ministry. He embodied a standard that focused on presenting God’s truth, grace, compassion, and hope to people by entering into fellowship with them in their struggles—whatever the struggles were. He touched lepers, and thereby embraced them to counter their social and religious ostracism. Jesus socialized with men and women who were social and religious outcasts. In doing so, he affirmed that their divine worth and dignity did not depend on wealth, religious association, or other social status. Jesus, of whom there is no record of professional religious training, was pastor and priest to more people than anyone else during his earthly ministry because he was the presence of God’s truth, grace, compassion, and hope. He was not trying to build the biggest congregation. Jesus was trying to bring people into God’s great community!
The object of Christianity is not to erect physical monuments to our congregations and denominations. The object of Christianity is to bring people into community with God and one another. Jesus showed us how to do this by his life and ministry. We do not have to figure out what Jesus did, how Jesus did it, or even why Jesus did it. We merely have to follow what Jesus did.
Jesus patiently taught his bickering disciples that anyone wanting “to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And to illustrate his point, Jesus took a little child into his arms and said to them, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me (The Message).” Jesus chose one of the least influential and most vulnerable people of human society as the test for whether we are following him. Jesus chose an unnamed child of unnamed parents in a working class community and declared that to embrace such a person in his name is to not only welcome him, but to welcome God. That is weird.
In doing so, Jesus challenged his first disciples and us to understand that our social interactions are divinely meaningful. How we treat people is a window into our relationship with God. In a real sense, Jesus tells his followers that we cannot embrace God unless we embrace people, and he does this by presenting a child—the image of humility and vulnerability. Weird, isn’t it?
Little children follow leadership. They imitate what they see adults do. They learn to talk from hearing adults talk. They play the way they see adults interact. Children are natural learners. In presenting a little child to his first followers as the model for discipleship, Jesus taught that his followers must be learners and imitators of the life of service that he was living and leading.
If we will not embrace the life of service to others, irrespective of their moral, social, or religious status, we do not embrace the life and ministry of Jesus. Remember what he said to the first followers: Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me.” If we are to follow Jesus, we must embrace people as he did. If we are to follow Jesus, we must love people as he did. If we are to follow Jesus, we must affirm people, forgive people, confront people, and receive people as he did.
We have no record in the Gospels of Jesus refusing to embrace someone because of their lifestyle. He embraced the woman of Samaria who had been married five times and was living with a man without marriage. Jesus was not interested in building a status congregation. He was focused on reclaiming people for God and bringing them into community with God and one another. The divine passion is that you and I will be in community with God and one another no matter what our social, cultural, or economic background may be.
If we are to be followers of Jesus, we must learn to play with other children, work with other children, laugh with other children, console other children who hurt, and correct other children who misbehave. We must see each other as God’s children and siblings. We are not here to establish a pecking order. Because God loves us, each person is worthwhile. The challenge we face as Christians is to affirm that worth in others that God has affirmed in Jesus Christ.
When we do this, we are following Jesus. When we do this, we are doing the work of Jesus. When we do this, we are building community. Buildings and budgets are not proof of ministry effectiveness. What is important is that we have community by embracing each other in God’s love as God’s children. The weird notion of Jesus views community as the only result worth attaining in God’s name, not our petty arguments about rank. If we want religious rank instead of living as a loving community with God and others, shame on us!
If we love God as Jesus did and love others as Jesus did, then can we truly deny healthcare to other children of God simply because they have no money? Can we deny healthcare to other children of God because they were not born in this society? Can we deny healthcare, education, or any other basic service to other children of God because of their religion, ethnicity, nationality, or any other social identifier?
How can people who profess to follow Jesus find anything about his life and devotion to God that resembles such an anti-community spirit? Where is the love of God in this? Where is the devotion to community demonstrated by the truth of God and the life that Jesus demonstrated in this? To claim to follow Jesus in one breath while declaring opposition to loving other people the way that God loves us in Jesus is to prove that we either do not know Jesus or that we do not want the Jesus revealed in the Gospels. This is a sanctimonious notion of greatness. It is religion devoted to a pecking order, not to building and maintaining a sacred community.
So, Preacher, how do we learn to love like Jesus loved? We learn by faith and practice. We learn by taking other people into our embrace as Jesus embraced that little child. We learn to love by loving. And as we learn to love, the people we embrace learn that they are lovable and that they can love also. Love is the key to building the community—kingdom—that Jesus leads. We must learn to love by loving if we will be part of that community. Pecking order religion must go.
Until we learn that lesson, our quibbling about greatness is nonsense. It is impossible to be great in something one does not do. Great love requires great loving. Great servants must render service. Great healing requires great fellowship with people who hurt. Great peacemaking requires sacrificial involvement with people in conflict. Great encouragement requires service to discouraged people. Great teaching requires patient service to people who need to learn. Greatness in the community of God’s Christ requires sacrificial service to people in the name of Jesus Christ. Greatness for a congregation is not defined by the size of the budget, but by the service rendered to God’s children.
God’s children need help raising families. Where are the servants? God’s children need help building neighborhoods that are safe. Where are the servants? God’s children need help healing loneliness and abuse. Where are the servants? God’s children need help finding peace in our confused and unstable society. Where are the servants?
Where are the servants for Boy Scout and Girl Scout units? Where are the servants for senior citizen reading groups? Where are the servants for social justice efforts? Where are the servants for peacemaking?
Finally, let’s remember that the disciples were quibbling about greatness while Jesus was talking with them about his upcoming sacrifices, including his arrest, eventual execution, and resurrection. They were quibbling about rank while he was plodding toward redemptive sacrifice. Judging from the amount of chatter within religious circles about the size of budgets, number of baptisms, and how much of this or that a congregation or minister claims to its credit, it appears that Christians in our time are doing the same kind of quibbling that Jesus encountered in his first followers.
Let’s stop quibbling about greatness and replace our competition with the service that Jesus has shown us. Pecking order religion is not faithful to Christ. Let’s be imitators of our Savior and Lord by following him in serving God and others. Then we will do great things for the only one who matters: God. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.