This was the second time the disciples heard Jesus speak of His death and resurrection. “The Son of Man must be handed over into the hands of men, be killed, and they will kill Him, and after He is killed, He will rise again after three days.” There was no mistaking what Jesus was saying, as He taught His disciples on their way through Galilee. There was no mysteries, no riddles, no parables. Plain and simple. Jesus was about to die and rise. And the amazing thing is that the disciples didn’t get it. They did not comprehend this. In spite of everything Jesus has taught them. In spite of His miracles, His power over diseases and the demonic. In spite of the vision on the mountain where Jesus’ divinity shone like the sun through His humanity, they could not accept His death and resurrection.
And they were afraid to ask Him anything about it. The first time Jesus mentioned His death and resurrection, Peter was the one who objected, you remember. We heard that last week. And Jesus had to rebuke the devil out of Peter in front of all the disciples. So it’s not surprising that they were afraid to mention anything to Jesus. Who would want to be the next to hear, “Get thee behind me, Satan”? Once was enough!
So they talked quietly among themselves as they walked through Galilee on their way to their home base at Capernaum. They had a lot of time to talk, since you traveled on foot in those days. You had hours and days of transit time to talk about a lot of things. I kind of envy them, in a way. No hurtling here and there at 70 mph. No notion of next day deliver, and absolutely positively having to be there. No red-eye flights and late night cab rides. They had time to think and discuss what Jesus had taught them. Time to ruminate, to “inwardly digest.” We run from one thing to the next without even a moment’s thought – gulping a fast food meal in between. But they had time on the road to think and to talk. I can imagine Jesus walking ahead (or behind) his little band of followers, by Himself, leaving the disciples to discuss things with each other, knowing what they were talking about but staying just out of earshot.
When they finally came to Capernaum and the house they used as headquarters (perhaps it was Peter’s house), Jesus asked them, “What were you talking about on the way?” And again, silence. Kind of an apprehensive, embarrassed silence. No one wanted to say out loud what everyone in the house was thinking. While Jesus was speaking of His own suffering, death, and resurrection, His disciples were having a little debate about which one of them was the greatest.
Now that surprises you, doesn’t it? Jesus is teaching the cross, and His disciples are preoccupied with their own glory. Jesus is teaching them that the way of the Messiah, the Christ, is to be handed over like a criminal into the hands of the very people who should have been applauding His coming, to suffer many things, to be killed at the hand of His own people, and, on the third day, to rise from the dead. And right on the heels of that the disciples are arguing over which one of them is the top dog. Perhaps they were even planning for Jesus’ departure and who would be in charge after He was gone. Was it Peter, plotting to be pope, perhaps? Or James? Or his brother John? Or (gasp) one of the others? Who was most qualified to be boss? Who was the greatest among them?
We are surprised by this, but then again, not surprised. That’s how it’s been with the church since the beginning. If you look at a cross section of the church at any moment, you will find a struggle for power and control going on right under the cross of Jesus. And you don’t even have to look at Rome or synodical bureaucracies or church bodies. You need look no further than the little, local congregation. The same thing is right at work here among us, between you and me, just as it was with Jesus’ disciples
The Church proclaims Jesus Christ crucified and then wants to be great in the eyes of the world. We proclaim the cross, but don’t want to be pinned there ourselves. We’d rather boast of our successes than confess our sins; we’d rather deal with life on our terms than life throughdeath on a cross. Luther called this a “theology of glory” as opposed to the “theology of the cross.” The disciples were engaged in glory theology, wanting to be first, greatest, best. Not settling for the bronze they wanted gold. They wanted to win the race, not place or show. They saw themselves as winners and wanted to be recognized for being winners. They were the chosen few, the Twelve, the inner circle. Handpicked by Jesus, no less. When all the crowds were gone, and they returned home to Capernaum, they were the ones who hung around with Jesus, the celebrity, Jesus the hero, Jesus the superstar. They were like roadies on a band tour. Jesuspalooza and they had the crew passes. Access to Jesus. They were the inner circle. Didn’t that entitle them to greatness?
And what’s wrong, after all, with wanting to be great? Aren’t we raised on the notion that we can achieve greatness if we really wanted to, if we put our minds to it. Greatness can be ours. Most of us never make it; few come even close. But we are raised to believe that with the right combination of hard work, practice, training, and some dumb luck we can rise to the top of the heap and be recognized as someone great.
We are geared to think that greatness means goodness, higher is better. The gold medal stand is higher up than silver and bronze. A little closer to the gods, a little higher up than mere morals. First place goes to the winners; last place to the losers. Stocks that advance are winners, stocks that decline are losers. Everyone wants to be recognized as a winner; no one wants to be seen as a loser.
And so we aren’t really surprised after all that Jesus’ disciples debated who was greatest while Jesus was trying to teach them His death and resurrection. Death and resurrection not our favorite items on the menu. We’d prefer something safer and sweeter. But in God’s diner, they’re the only things on the menu, because death and resurrection is the machinery of God’s grace. This is how God saves the world, how He saves you and me. By suffering, dying, and rising. And you get to suffer, die, and rise along with Him, because discipleship isn’t a spectator sport. It’s not something you can view safely from the bleacher section. Following Jesus means literally following Him through suffering and rejection to death to resurrection.
And in this kingdom, where greatness is measured against the wood of the cross, all our ideas of greatness are turned upside down. “Do you want to be great?” Jesus says. “Then go to the back of the line. If you want to first, become last. If you want to be master in my kingdom, then become a servant of all.” That’s the way of Jesus. He left His privileged position at the right hand of the Father to take the form of a servant. He left the board room of the Trinity to join us in our humanity. The One who was first became last, least, lowly to serve us all with salvation. He is the Child of the Virgin, born in cave, laid in a manger. The heir of God with no place to lay His own head. He is the Servant sent to suffer for the sin of the world. He is the king crowned with thorns, enthroned on a cross. Do you want to be great in this kingdom? Then you will be least of all and servant of all. And the greater you are, the less you will be, the more servant you will be.
All of this talk of leastness and servanthood can get a bit abstract and fuzzy, if not “religious,” so Jesus, ever the master teacher, has an object lesson. He takes a little child who just happens to be in the room, and puts the child in the middle of them. And then He takes the child into His arms (as Jesus usually does with children) and He says, “You want to be great, do you? Then bend down to receive this little child. Because whoever receives one of these children in my name, receives me. And whoever receives me, receives Him who sent me.”
That’s greatness in the way of the cross.
Greatness in the way of the cross is the greatness of humility. The thing about a little child is it’s little. To receive a child, you have to bend down, reach down, come down off your adult pedestals of power, possession, and prestige, and get down on your hands and knees to meet the child at eye level. The way Jesus did for you. God in Christ reached down to us, because we, like little children, could not reach up to Him no matter how high we wave our hands in the air. And the littler the child, the lower we have to bend our knees, our backs, our selves, our egos to receive him.
If you want a picture of greatness Jesus’ style, look at mama and papa bending down at three in the morning to change a diaper or find a Binky or hold a nightmarish little one. Watch parents with their children in church, struggling to teach them how to pray, how to worship. Go to the school and watch teachers reaching down to teach. Go to the Sunday School, and watch adults bend down to help a little one learn the Scriptures. That’s greatness of the cross.
The greatness of the cross is the greatness of self-sacrifice, of serving rather than being served. Jesus loved to make examples out of little children not because they were cute or pure or innocent, but because they were giveable to, helpless, least among the great. In Jesus’ culture children were considered among the least. You couldn’t wait for them to grow up, to become productive members of the family, to marry off your daughters and put your sons to work. But little children were considered a drain; they were considered the least, the bottom rung. Children require giving. Lots of giving. Time, energy, money. They need to be fed and clothed and changed and trained and nurtured and taught and sheltered. To receive a little child and serve that child, to bend down and give to another, is to know that self-sacrificing love of the cross that saved you and made you God’s child.
I’m impressed by the observation that at the end of our lives, we seem to go back to our beginnings, we become again like little children as we approach the leastness of our death. No matter how great we once were, no matter how much money we made, how many people we supervised, how many books we wrote, at the end we become once again as helpless little children. Even the first take their turn at the back of the line. And in our death, we become least of all, which is just where Jesus wants us. When we are least, then He is greatest.
So don’t look for the greatness of Jesus in the high and the mighty. Don’t look for the greatness of Jesus in the winners, the movers and the shakers. Look to the least and the lowly and the last. Look to the helpless Child of Bethlehem, the broken Man of the cross. Don’t reach up for greatness, reach down, way down. Reach down to the little ones, and bend down to meet them. Look into their eyes through the lens of the cross of Jesus. And you will know greatness Jesus-style.
And don’t bother arguing over who is greatest among you. You already know the answer. Jesus.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.