A number of years ago, St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City was seeking a new president.
Over 100 candidates applied for the position.
The search committee narrowed the list to five eminently qualified persons.
While they were asking themselves how they would go about finding the best candidate of the five, someone suggested that they send someone to each of the five locations where the candidates were currently employed; but instead of speaking with the higher ups, they would interview the janitors, asking them what they thought of the person seeking to be the president.
One janitor gave such a glowing appraisal of Dr. William MacElvaney that he was selected to be President of St. Paul School of Theology.
Someone on that search committee understood that those who live close to Christ become so secure in their love that they no longer relate to other people according to rank or power or money, or prestige. They treat governors and janitors with equal dignity and respect.
They regard everyone as a VIP.
Their greatness lies in the fact of their recognition that we are all both saint and sinner at the same time, and that the love of God is not lost on any of us.
However, in our gospel lesson for today we witness among Jesus’ disciples a lack of understanding about true greatness as it is found in the servanthood of Jesus as Messiah.
Jesus catches them arguing among themselves about who among them was the greatest of Jesus’ disciples.
When Jesus asked them about it, none of them would fess up for fear of embarrassing themselves; but Jesus already knew.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
They apparently were having a problem understanding what he meant by that, so Jesus chose to use a visual aid to bring home his point.
There were children among the surrounding crowd, so Jesus picked up one of the children and said: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Now, at first glance, we may not catch the full significance of Jesus’ picking up a child and using him/her to prove his point, because you and I react totally differently to children than first century Jews and Gentiles did.
If we are to fully understand Jesus’ point in using this child as an example, we have to let go of our image of little children running around freely before adoring and smiling adults.
Among the Jews, as well as in the Graeco/Roman world, children were considered to be physically weak burdens on society who added little value to the wider life of the community.
In fact, it was an acceptable practice among the Romans to abandon orphaned or unwanted children along the roadside with no regard for their safety and well-being.
So, when Jesus held up that child, his disciples were probably somewhat taken aback by his action.
Jesus was telling them that if they wanted to be great in the eyes of God, they should become like children who in that day were largely unwanted, burdensome, and disposable, much the same as the poor and marginalized in the community.
This meant that they should become more like Christ, himself, open to being servant of all with a sense of humility and self-sacrifice.
This was a total departure from the image of Messiah in Jewish religious thought of that day.
No wonder the disciples were having such a hard time with it.
And little wonder that Christians today are still having problems grasping the radical servant concept of discipleship.
From the earliest days of the organized Roman Catholic Church a hierarchy had developed with its popes and archbishops and bishops and priests.
Yes, there were religious orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans and others who tried to live simple lives of service and self-sacrifice, but there was also a separation of the religious elite from the peasant class and those who were considered to have been born into their place among the poor and disenfranchised.
There was little attempt on the part of the Church to help them better themselves or even to consider them to be worthy of being anything other than who they were.
That certainly was not Christ’s intent for his Church, and it took someone like Martin Luther to begin calling attention to these injustices within the Church.
In his writings and in his sermons, Luther asked hard questions, such as: “Are we willing to be the kind of disciples the Messiah is calling us to be?
Are we willing to take upon ourselves the authority that Christ has bestowed upon each of us as both “subject to none, yet servant of all?”
A short time before his death in 1546, Martin Luther made the startlingly simple theological observation: “We are beggars, it is true.”
Nathan Hilkert writes: “If we don’t find Christ in the beggar at the church door, neither will we find him in our midst.
We are all vulnerable in this world totally dependent upon God’s love, grace, and salvation.”
It is out of our child-like weakness and dependence upon God for everything in this life that we truly come to know just how valuable we are to our Father in heaven and to our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Once we come to cherish that relationship with our Savior to the point of giving ourselves totally and completely to him, we can avoid the kinds of enmity and strife James is writing about in our second lesson: “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
We all could certainly use that kind of peace in our lives right now, couldn’t we?
All we have to do for that sense of peace and well-being is to allow God to fill our hearts with his gifts of compassion, love, and grace; then to allow these gifts to permeate throughout our lives and relationships with one another like a warm blanket in the winter or a gentle breeze in the heat of a summer day.
But in order for that sense of peace to take hold, we have to be willing to be vulnerable just as Christ was vulnerable on the cross and handed himself over to God’s amazing grace and mercy – just as Martin Luther knew himself to be as vulnerable as a beggar as he faced the last hours of his life; just as vulnerable as a child standing before the throne of God with nothing to offer but our faith in God’s promise of salvation to eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
It takes great courage to be vulnerable in today’s world; in fact, people go to great lengths not to be vulnerable, even to the point of walling themselves off, physically and psychologically.
But when it comes to being the church in the world, we must be willing to take risks, not for the sake of greatness, but for the sake of exposing the world to a gracious and loving Savior who puts everything on the line, even his own life, for us.
Thank God, we have a someone like that in our corner. How far are we willing to go to follow that kind of Savior?
Let us pray:
Christ, greater than hatred, teach us tolerance when we encounter hatred.
Christ, greater than death, help us appreciate life when we encounter death.
Christ, greater than night, help us realize sunrise follows sunset when we encounter discouragement.
Christ, greater than sin, teach us penance when we encounter our faults.
(Christ, Lord of all, inspire us to put our faith and trust in you).
(From a prayer by Tom Schleder)