Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 9:30–9:37, James 3:13–4:10
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13–4:10
Looking into the week ahead, the big news around town surrounds Pope Francis’ visit to D.C. And while we might have some significant theological differences with the pope, he is undeniably a very important person. People from all over will be descending on the nation’s capital in the days ahead just for a chance to see him or be nearby when he addresses our country’s leadership. Security on the Mall and around downtown D.C. is looking to be about as tight as it’s been in recent memory. That doesn’t happen for just anybody. And while Pope Francis certainly doesn’t seek out this attention, there’s no doubt that he occupies ones of the most influential offices in the world.
Who’s the greatest person in your family? In your school? At your job? None of them are going to be as well-known as the pope – unless, I suppose, you’re related to or work for the pope – but they’re still influential. But what makes them great? It might be skill in a particular field or sport. It might be popularity or power or wealth. What is it about them that has people looking to them and thinking that they’re somehow set above other individuals? What makes them the greatest?
Jesus’ disciples seemed to be preoccupied with greatness; that’s one thing reinforced by Mark’s account of this one trip through Galilee to Capernaum. We don’t know what kind of criteria they were using to figure out which one of them was the greatest, but chances are their discussion might not have been too different from one that could happen today. From the world’s (or worldly) perspective, greatness generally has to do with how important you are, your standing above and beyond other folks. But like the disciples, we want to be great because of the trappings that come with it: the power, the popularity, the wealth, the influence. That much hasn’t changed in two thousand years.
And yes, I said “we.” Even if we aren’t deliberate about it, you and I might inadvertently be seeking after greatness as we chase after friendship with the world. In his letter to early Christians, James warned against just that, because it’s a pretty easy thing to fall into. Desire is a pretty powerful force: you see something and you want to have it. You look at other people and want them to like you or look up to you. Underneath all that is another power force: pride. It’s not good pride, though, like the pride that comes from accomplishment or joy; it’s the pride of self-importance. That’s the pride that seeks worldly greatness, the pride that wants to have friendship with the world.
Friendship with the world is a tricky thing. We want to – and we should – be friendly with the people around us. But “Friendship with the world” is something different. As James cautions us, friendship with the world is sharing in all things with our fallen world, going along with it in your thinking and your acting. And since the world is in opposition to God and His authority, that means that you and I are – even inadvertently – putting ourselves in opposition to God. That’s definitely not a place that you want to be, especially as Jesus’ disciple; however, each of us is constantly tempted to stand with the world against God.
Spend some time considering the subtle ways that world’s propping up and encouraging its friendship, calling you to enjoy the benefits of greatness in its eyes. It wants you to want luxury and comfort, even if that comes at a cost. It wants you to put your faith in a box, hidden from most of the people in your life instead of having that faith as a foundation for your life. It tells you that you need to be important and admired, that you need to be great.
But what does God say about greatness?
Seeking to teach his disciples about true greatness, Jesus put a little child before them and pointed to him to show how God sees greatness. Back in the New Testament era, people wouldn’t have looked at a child as someone deserving of importance. Children were marginalized, without status or standing, about as far from worldly greatness as you could get. But that’s Jesus’ point. Greatness in God’s eyes isn’t about how important you are or the kind of welcome you receive from others, it’s about how you welcome and serve those who God values, people who aren’t “great” in the world: the least.
A few weeks ago while we were on vacation, my family went to worship at a smaller congregation in the nearby community. We received a friendly welcome and noticed in the day’s bulletin that the church there had a cry room located off the sanctuary, should our not-quite-two-year-old need it. Before long, we were enjoying the familiar patterns of worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And then it happened. Our daughter was on pretty good behavior, with the occasional babbles and chirps that are common for her age. But as the pastor was preaching the sermon, a man in the row ahead of us turned around to (unsubtly) tell my wife’s parents that the church had a cry room for little kids – and that we might go ahead and take her there. Stunned, we left the sanctuary with our daughter and watched the rest of the service from the cry room. The pastor’s wife, who’d noticed our departure, came by later on the service to invite us to the Lord’s Supper and offered a heartfelt assurance that children are indeed welcome in their congregation. The pastor, too, upon learning what had happened after the service, was mortified that his member had acted that way and asked our forgiveness. I do not doubt that congregation is, in fact, a welcoming place that seeks to have children present in worship. The one man who’d shooed us out is an outlier. But how do we welcome the least?
What if it were the pope who came to visit? Would he be shooed out, or a little child with him? Or how about someone who looks different or dirty or disheveled? And what if such a person came not to your church but your home or your school or your workplace? What welcome would you really give?
As James writes, the antidote for our pride of self-importance and our friendship with the world is humility: humility before God and our fellow human beings, regardless of their standing. The only way to resist the devil and the temptations toward pride that our fallen world throws at us is by submitting to God and drawing near to Him. Instead of chasing after the trappings of worldly greatness, you and I are called to follow the one person in history who was truly great: Jesus.
Jesus is the one who was the servant of all, you included. In ultimate humility, he came down from heaven to be born as a dirty, tiny baby in an insignificant town in a backwater part of the Roman Empire. And in that humility, he lived the life that you and I have not in our pursuit of worldly greatness. In love for both the greatest and the least in our fallen world, he gave all he had to serve us in his suffering and death on the cross. If true greatness is about how you welcome and serve those who God values, then Jesus is the embodiment of greatness. His arms are arms stretched out in welcome for us all, offering and forgiveness and life to you and me.
As Jesus’ disciple, you are called to welcome the least. One of Pope Francis’ primary efforts has been to lift up the Church’s calling to care for those in need in the world around us. In response to the massive refugee crisis that is unfolding in Europe and the Middle East, the pope has encouraged congregations around the world to provide support and housing for these refugees, especially their brothers and sisters in Christ; he’s even seen that a refugee family has been given an apartment at the Vatican. If you want a practical way to serve those whom God values, consider how you might support the work of organizations like Lutheran World Relief in this time of crisis.
What’s greatness? Going out today and in all the days ahead, let go of friendship with the world, knowing that God meets your deepest need in His Son. Humble yourself before God and draw near to Him in Christ, who gave himself for you. Living as Jesus’ disciples, welcome the least as Jesus has welcomed you. In God’s eyes, that is greatness.