GOSPEL: Mark 9:30-37
35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
As we round into the final weeks of this long season of green, on our way to the end of the Church year and Advent, we continue to hear Jesus interact with his disciples. Last week, Jesus asked them who they thought he was. It was a moment of revelation followed by rebuke. Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah but then turned around and lost the plot, getting upset with Jesus for following the path set out for the Messiah, the path of suffering and death.
This week, following this key revelation, as they are traveling between towns, the disciples begin to bicker about who among them is the greatest. It sounds childish considering who they are following and the teaching about what it means to take up their cross that Jesus had just given. Arguing about who is the greatest feels like it is something that belongs on the playground, a conversation for children….
And yet, it is an argument that drives so much of our world these days. Only about a month ago three billionaires raced to see who could be the first private citizen to fly to space. As we speak, Canada is in the midst of a Federal election with the leaders’ debate was last week, where every question was a nuanced version of ‘who is the greatest?” And of course, our society is full of controversy over COVID-19 public health measures, including vaccine requirements. My home province of Alberta tried to win the race to be the greatest in declaring the pandemic over in July, only to now be looking at a total healthcare system collapse over increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases.
So this argument that the disciples are having might seem immature, but it is certainly not an unusual one. Maybe it is worth considering just what is really going on.
As Jesus continues to preach and teach, he has been speaking more and more about what is the come for the Messiah – more and more about his impending suffering and death. And the disciples have started to put it all in the context of understanding Jesus to be the Messiah – just as Peter confessed last week.
Yet, the disciples still don’t understand what this all means for them. Before, when they were fishermen and tax collectors, they know their place in the world and their place in their communities. In their extremely ordered Hebrew society, they knew their rank and station.
Yet now, as Jesus has called them out of those known places and into this unknown position of being his followers, followers of the prophesied Messiah, they are struggling to know who they are and where they fit. The place of the Messiah in the world comes predicted and described, but where Messiah’s number 2 through 12 followers fit might not be clear.
So they do what human beings so naturally do, they try to sort out where they fit and who they are, within the context of their community. They try the best they can to answer that deep question within all of us that asks who we are and how to we fit into the world around us.
But also like us, they go about it in toxic and self-destructive ways. They try to order their community by rank, putting themselves on top and those around them below. It comes from the same place that the question that the serpent posed to Eve came from, the question about knowing her place in the garden.
This question is one that continues to plague us today, this desire to know where we fit and who we are. And even though it can feel like the kind of question that children ask or argue about – think “my dad is stronger than your dad” – it is is one what drives so much of our world.
It is a question subtly asked in car commercials, suggesting that a new car would improve our station in life. It is one baked into the marketplace and corporate world, constantly demanding more productivity, more profit, more loyalty. It is part and parcel with every political move and decision, and at the heart of every political campaign. It often shows up in churches when we look at and wonder about the neighbour congregation down the street and how they are doing.
And in the midst of crisis, as we are now, it shows up as we try to figure out what to do and how to proceed. And when opinions differ, especially when agreeing to disagree isn’t possible but instead decisions have life and death consequences, we can be guilty of posturing according to our position rather than searching for the course of action that it is best for all.
Trying to sort this all out, trying to understand where we fit – or more specifically “Where do I fit?” is something deeply imbedded in how we understand ourselves. We need to know where we stand and where we fit into the world around us, no matter how destructive the search for the answer can become.
When Jesus hears the childish argument of his disciples, we might expect the grumpy Jesus who called the needy but persistent Syrophoenician woman a dog two weeks ago or the angry Jesus who rebuked Peter.
But instead Jesus stops and calls his disciples to gather around and asks “What were you arguing about on the way?”. When none of them has an answer, Jesus has them sit down with him. You can imagine that Jesus sees beyond the childish argument, and instead sees disciples who are struggling to understand their place in the world. Disciples who need reassurance rather than competition, disciples who need to be reminded that they belong.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all.” he declares.
Then Jesus brings in a little child and puts it among them. But not just any child, but greek suggests that Jesus has brought an infant into their midst. Children in this world were considered to be blessings but also people for whom you didn’t get too strongly attached, lest they didn’t survive childhood. Children’ weren’t considered full persons until grown.
So with this baby in his arms, Jesus holds one who is considered to be the least of all in that world. And Jesus says that whomever welcomes this one, who is the least and lowest in world, welcomes him.
Jesus is chipping away at the disciples need to establish an order, their need to know where they fit by creating ranks and status among themselves. Jesus is using the tangible example of this baby as the means of showing his disciples what it means to belong to the Kingdom of God. There is no rank, first and last have no meaning. Belonging is what matters. God welcomes them, they belong to the Kingdom. They are children of God, servants to one another, members of the Body of Christ.
The question about who is the greatest doesn’t apply here, instead who do you belong to is what matters. And with God, all belong in the Kingdom.
It is a message that almost does’t compute in our hyper competitive world. Defining ourselves by who is on the top feels like the only way to understand ourselves. But God gives us a different understanding, an understanding based on belonging and not on rank.
It is a part of our understanding of who we are that has been challenged by this pandemic. Our sense of “we” or community has been shaken. We have had for more opportunity than we really need as individuals to contemplate our individual identity.
Yet, God reminds us again and again, there is no greatest among us.
There are only sinners to whom God gives grace, mercy and absolution.
There are only suffering people for whom God promises healing and reconciliation
There are only the lost, least and forgotten, whom God welcomes into the Body of Christ.
There are only the unwashed, whom God makes clean in the waters of Baptism.
There are only the hungry and starving, whom God feeds at the table of the Lord.
There are only disciples, whom God sends out to heal a world in need.
In confession, in the Word, in praise and prayer, in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God reminds us again and again of not who, but whose we are – we belong to God. There is no greatest and there is not least, but instead there is a place for all in the Body of Christ – all belong to God.