9:30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;
9:31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
9:32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
9:33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”
9:34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
9:35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
9:36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,
9:37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
It’s good to know our character defects. Maybe even to laugh at them a little. One of mine has always been that I can get a little too competitive. Some of my more competitive friends and I would compete at everything growing up. It didn’t matter what it was: golf, grades, anything. When we were in grade school one of my friends and I got so competitive about Monopoly that his mother staged an intervention before we stopped being friends altogether. I think I’m better as an adult, but I still see signs of it every now and then.
That’s why when I read today’s text, I couldn’t judge the disciples too harshly. It turns out that they were pretty competitive too. In today’s text they were walking with Jesus, and Jesus is telling them some disturbing things. He’s telling them that he is going to be betrayed, he is going to be killed, and then he will rise again. But the disciples don’t understand what he is saying and instead they start arguing amongst themselves.
When they get to their destination Jesus asks them, “What were you fighting about when we were walking?” I’m sure the subtext was “did you not hear what I was talking about”. And the disciples are ashamed and don’t want to say anything, probably because they didn’t realize Jesus had heard them. On the way they were fighting about which of the twelve of them was the greatest.
The irony is not lost. They are too busy arguing about who is Jesus’ favorite that they fail to understand that Jesus is telling them he is about to die. At this point you might expect Jesus to call them out, or say “right now none of you are”. But instead he does something unexpected. He takes a small child, and holds it in his arms and tells them “if you want to be first, you have to be last…you have to be a servant…and you have to welcome even the children…that’s how you welcome me.”
Now, you have to remember here that 2000 years ago, Jesus was not living in a child-centered society. There weren’t soccer leagues and speciality stores and school bonds for kids. They weren’t seen as the hope or the future, and they certainly didn’t rank as priorities for families or religious leaders. Children had no rights, and were preferred to remain in the background, along with women and slaves.
So Jesus picking one up and telling his disciples to welcome the children is more than unexpected. It’s shocking. This is not just Jesus reminding us present day folks to be concerned about kids, though that’s a good message too. This is Jesus turning his attention to a whole segment of society that never got any. And for the disciples who had spent the trip arguing about who was Jesus’ favorite, it’s a real reality check. Jesus is more concerned about the kid than their own egos.
You would hope that the disciples would get it after this. The message from Jesus is clear: this is not about you. And yet time and again we see the disciples jockeying for position, trying to prove they are his favorite. It happens all the way to the death of Jesus, and then it happens again after his resurrection. In the Scripture you can see that disciples like Peter and John formed their own little communities in the years after the resurrection, and their disciples believed they were the greatest. And when Paul, who didn’t even know Jesus, comes into the picture, there is plenty of tension all the way around.
Now, we can kind of laugh at it today. We can say, “those disciples could be so clueless and dense sometimes”. We can talk about how they missed the point. But the reality is that a lot of the time, we are a lot like they are. Competitive. Focused on ourselves. So distracted by our own insecurities that we miss the point. More concerned with being the greatest than we are with following the greatest.
I’m pretty sure that had I been on that road with Jesus, I might have joined in. I might have told John and Peter and the rest that they had no idea what they were talking about, and that they clearly weren’t Jesus’ favorite. I think many, if not most, people would have.
But the thing that’s important not to forget is that while we might not be on that same path back 2,000 years ago headed out of Galilee, in a way we are on the same path as the disciples. We are walking that same journey, trying to follow Jesus to the cross and to resurrection. We are back there, a few feet behind him, while he is telling us what really matters. And we are wanting to listen, and we are wanting to do the right thing, but more often than not we are getting distracted by the other folks on the road, and we are vying for position instead of paying attention.
Have you ever felt like you were in an endless competition? Have you ever felt like you had to keep up with the neighbors, or your college classmates, or the guy in the next office over? Have you ever argued that you were the greatest, not so much with words, but with the bigger house, or the nicer car, or the more perfect family complete with 2.5 kids?
Maybe from time to time, when things looked up for you, it felt good. At least for a few minutes. But then someone else pulled ahead for a little while, and you were off to the races again.
I get that. I sometimes look at my high school and college friends who are purchasing not just homes, but second homes, and I think “I am so far behind”. Or I see “vice president” come up beside one of their corporate profiles, and I think, “wow…they must not want for anything.”
But really, they probably do. Because we all do. All of us on this path find that after a while arguing amongst ourselves about who is the greatest ends up bringing us nothing but more need for argument. And in the end competition gets old.
And that’s when Jesus, and the child, become not a symbol of humiliating conviction for the arguing disciples. They become a promise of something better.
Now, I’m not one for saying that children have it easy or that we are only truly happy as children. The reality is that many children go through much more than they ever should have to. Jesus wasn’t holding up that child to say, “remember when you were a kid? How much easier it was? Don’t you wish things were like that again?”
I think Jesus was holding that child up as an example because he was trying to show them that greatness comes not in our own deeds, or competitions, or claims of greatness. We do not become faithful disciples by proclaiming, Muhammed Ali like, that “I am the greatest”. Rather, we become faithful Christians by coming to Christ the way the child did. We don’t come arguing our greatness. We come delighting in just being with him. And we become disciples by welcoming the others who are like us.
In a way, it’s a release. We don’t have to argue our greatness anymore. We don’t have to try to acquire more and more. We just have to follow the Christ who unexpectedly picks us up, and places us in the center of his attention, and open our hearts to his love and grace.
Now, I want to be realistic for a second. It sounds good on paper, and maybe from the pulpit, but the reality is that most of us will stumble on this road a little. Personally, I’ll probably get about a mile down the road before I slip back into old habits. But the good news is that Jesus knows that about me. And he knows that about you. And he knows that about us all. That’s why we don’t have to walk this road alone.
One of the blessings about being a part of a community is that we walk the road together. We aren’t alone, on our own private paths, following Jesus. We are doing it as a group, and we are there for one another when we get distracted or when we veer off. We are there to welcome one another back the way that Jesus welcomed that child. Even if the child is sometimes a little too competitive during Monopoly games. We are here to see their value, and help them as they walk the path with us. Because one day they will return the favor.
I’ll close with this. Yesterday we had our first community lunch here at the church. Were we packed? No. Not yet. But we served our community, and we welcomed our neighbors. And six months from now I think we will be packed. But what is more important is what we did together. You baked, you made soup, you washed dishes, you talked with our guests, and you pulled off a free community meal. And next month we will do the same. And the month after.
We are not doing it for the admiration. We are not doing it because we want to be the greatest. We are doing it because that’s what those of us who walk this path with Jesus do.
And for those who couldn’t be there yesterday, or on some other day at some other activity, you might be feeling bad or like you’re not doing enough. To you I say, you are. Christian fellowship is not a competition. We do what we can do when we can do it. Your being a part of this fellowship is enough. And we are grateful for all who are walking with us on this path.
As we walk this path together, let us continue to support each other, wherever we can, however we can. God needs all of us on this journey, and we are in good company. Amen.