Tina works in the NHS at a major hospital. As a consultant she works alongside people from all walks of life – hospital porters, doctors and nurses. One of the most important people is Tina’s overall boss – let’s call her Elizabeth. Elizabeth co-ordinates a large team of regional specialists. She’s capable, organised, perhaps we might say formidable. It is said even some of the consultants are a little scared of her.
One day recently Tina was passing through the hospital foyer when she saw Elizabeth pushing a shopping trolley into the ladies loo. It wasn’t just any shopping trolley either, it was laden with old carrier bags, blankets and bits of junk. When the shopping trolley was safely inside, Elizabeth lent her arm to an old woman who was obviously sleeping rough, and helped her in too. The old lady was desperate for the bathroom, didn’t want to leave her worldly goods outside, but couldn’t get them in on her own, so Elizabeth, the senior executive, lent a hand.
It’s not often someone tells me a story and I think, wow, that’s just right for my sermon next week! But what a wonderful true story of someone who was first, but was willing to be a servant of all!
Jesus did not just ask this from those who followed him. He modelled the principle in his own life. It’s clear in verse 30 of our gospel reading. When it says ‘they went on from there’ it’s referring to the Mount of Transfiguration where Jesus had been revealed in all his glory. There, his disciples saw and heard who he really is: God’s own Son. Now they will find out what that means.
Jesus takes them through the quiet paths of Galilee as he explains to them what lies in wait for him in Jerusalem. It’s an accurate prediction of Holy Week: ‘The Son of Man will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed he will rise again.’ Despite this foreknowledge, Jesus does turn aside, but in love and courage deliberately goes up to Jerusalem.
He is not some general way behind the lines sending men over the top to their deaths. Jesus is a leader who leads the way. He gives himself for his followers. He alone can do this, because only when God becomes human can the broken relationship between humanity and God be healed. Humanity has turned away from God, and our sin, our tendency to go our own way, creates a barrier between us and God. But God comes to meet us in Christ. He deals with the barrier of sin by taking it away, taking it onto himself on the cross and dying as a result of it.
This is how God forgives us – by bearing the cost of forgiveness. Inspired by love Jesus gives himself for us. He serves us in the greatest way possible. No-one else can do what Jesus did, he alone could do that. But in our own way we can follow his example and serve others. Jesus followers must turn away from pride and selfishness.
So it’s particularly bad timing when Jesus disciples take this opportunity to argue about who is the greatest! In v.33 Jesus challenges them – and notice how he does this. He doesn’t let it pass because it’s important to fix the problem. We know that when the Holy Spirit pricks our conscience it’s for our own good. Don’t ignore the Holy Spirit’s nudgings. It may not be comfortable but it’s much better to face an issue than pretend it isn’t there. And like a good friend Jesus doesn’t go straight in with an accusation. He asks a question.
Which meets with a guilty silence. I wonder: were the disciples quarrelling blatantly? I’m the greatest. I’m better than you. Was it like the mother of James and John who shamelessly asked Jesus if her sons could sit at his right and left in his glory?
Or was it more subtle? ‘While James and I were preaching in the last village, God did amazing things. We were so blessed. Of course I thought no-one would turn up, but there were 100! Maybe more. We baptised 30 of them. Isn’t God wonderful! How was your trip Simon?’
If they had Facebook in those days, would their posts have been real? Honest about difficulties? Or would it all have been gorgeous sunsets in exotic locations and happy children, a presentation of a together life? From certificates in the downstairs loo, to subtle visual signs in the car you drive, even the vexed question of jumper or jacket, there are so many temptations to present ourselves as successful, to be the best.
I love the way Jesus deals with this. He’s so refreshingly honest. In the second part of v.35 ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last and the servant of all’. See what he does? He deals with us as we are. He’s not urging us to be dishonest and pretend particular feelings aren’t there. He’s not pretending people don’t have ambition. He deals with it as it is.
Jesus encourages us to be honest, recognising what’s in our hearts. The first step in a healthy spirituality is self-knowledge. Knowing what we’re really like – the best and the worst of what is in our own soul. When we are honest and acknowledge what are like, then God can do something with us. It’s much harder when we’re in self-denial. Perhaps as we look inwards we find ambition. Is it a godly ambition, seeking to excel, to make a difference? Or is it a selfish ambition desiring power and position? We’re human, so often the two are present together.
And Jesus tells us what to do with it. ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all’. He tells us how to act. What to do. To be last, and a servant of all. Jesus doesn’t tell us to repress our feelings or go into denial. He says if you feel this way, then do that. Change what you can, your actions. If you feel you want to do things your way, perhaps it’s time to serve the tea for a bit. I remember arriving early for a big meeting with the Bishop of Worcester. He was busy setting out the chairs.
It’s particularly vital that we serve those who are seen as unimportant. That’s the reason behind taking a child in his arms.
Little children had low status. Until they could work or be married they were unimportant. So when Jesus talks in v. 37 about ‘Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me’ he’s challenging the preoccupations of an adult world. By welcoming children, we welcome Jesus. (I find it interesting how it’s relatively easy to get helpers for a Sunday service at which there may be two dozen people present. But how many people have been to, let alone volunteer for, Little Lights or Messy Church which are larger and reach out into the comunity?)
Jesus tells us to serve because he himself served. We should lead in a servant way because Jesus led like this. Seeing service as being Jesus-shaped will help us to address some of the questions about this passage. For it could be quite easy to misunderstand what Jesus says. He’s not saying that it is wrong to lead or have responsibility. He’s not saying that Christians should be a walkover – the kind of servant who gets told what to do, who has to defer to others’ opinions, who is weak and not able to take care of themselves.
When we look at Jesus do we see someone like that? Of course not. He took necessary care of himself. He knew what was right and wrong and stood up for it. Jesus had a very clear idea of his priorities and refused to get sidetracked into other tasks. Jesus was a servant in that he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many – but he was no pushover!
If we put this teaching into practice it might have many applications: it is good to improve your abilities, to do well, not to reach the top of the tree for its own sake, but to be more effective and make a difference for the Kingdom. It is good to do your best and be satisfied that you have done so. By all means assume the lead role when your gifts suit it – but not if others are better? Let others have a go, train them up and rejoice in their success, not being threatened by their abilities. Don’t stand on ceremony or be stuffy about titles, positions and perks.
Perhaps there are some questions too for us to consider: What is a healthy balance between work and the rest of life? Are all of our aspirations healthy? Or necessary? If you get promoted, will you be able to do more good, or more paperwork? When is it right to take on tasks because they will improve your CV? How much time do you spend on updating LinkedIN versus the job in hand?
No doubt you will have thoughts of your own as the Spirit leads you. Each one of us must answer those questions ourselves. Let us allow Jesus to speak with us as he did his disciples. Let us be honest about what is in our hearts. And let’s ask God to guide us in what we do, so that we too may follow Christ and serve as he served us.