Press the play button to listen to the recording or click on the download link to download a .mp3 file to your computer.

The best, the greatest, the wisest, the favourite, the most valuable, the fastest, the strongest, the most popular, the richest, and so it goes on……in many ways we acknowledge and celebrate those things considered to be the best.

But it’s not just our modern culture. There’s something in most of us, in fact probably all of us that likes being recognised, or certainly likes being right.

Both our gospel reading in Mark chapter 9 and the reading from James 3 capture something of this reality.

Jesus lived out his ministry on earth surrounded by lots of different people, but his disciples were part of a particular community that knew and learnt from him in a special way. There were various groups within the disciples, with the 12 being those who shared life with Jesus in the closest way.

As Jesus taught them and others, performed signs and wonders and interacted with all kinds of the people, the disciples were invited into seeing a different way to live. They saw different values, different things being important. Jesus was helping them to understand the ways of the kingdom of God. They were after all those who were to continue on after Jesus’ death, as those commissioned to share the Good News further in the power of the Spirit.

There were of course many expectations about what the long awaited Messiah would be like. Many were hoping for a mighty warrior, who would destroy the oppressive Roman Empire. That he would indeed be stronger, better, greater than everyone else and that he would rule over them.

But instead Jesus took the form of a servant, born in human likeness and he was soon to die a death on the cross, that would look to most a defeat and a humiliation.

We know however, that Jesus’ life which was spent pointing away from himself towards His Father, His death and His resurrection, would be the ultimate victory, which would forever break the power over sin and death. He truly was and is the greatest.

The ways of the kingdom and therefore the ways of those who were to be kingdom people, would reflect all that Jesus revealed to us. And the disciples in our gospel reading today, where just beginning to learn this.

Just after Jesus had been teaching them, and had told them once more that he would be killed and then rise again we see this conversation between Jesus and those disciples.

It seems as if they have been arguing during their journey along the road…. And the topic of their argument – who was the greatest! I’m not surprised when Jesus asked them about it, they responded with silence. But it was an opportunity for some kingdom teaching…

‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ It sounded like a contradiction, particularly in a world were it was normal to vie to be the best. They were to be servants, to be those who chose to serve, choosing last over first and this being the true way to be the greatest.

Jesus then took a child, we hear, and put it among them, took it in his arms and then spoke of the truth that whoever welcomes a child in his name, welcomes him. And the incredible truth, that whoever welcomes him, is actually welcoming the one who sent him.

It’s a profound and powerful moment and an image that I often use during a baptism service. As we gather with the family and friends often of a small child, we are celebrating together that before they have really achieved anything noteworthy in this world, that we can be confident of God’s welcome to them, and of his total commitment to them for the rest of their lives.

But to us this is in many ways quite easy to understand. We put children right in the centre of our families and lives. They are in many ways idolised in our culture. The same wasn’t quite true at the time of Jesus. They were definitely valued as the future, those who would inherit and continue the family name, but in a practical sense in many ways while still children they were an inconvenience. They were very much kept in the background, on the sidelines. They were part of the family, but in many ways excluded.

This makes it an interesting picture that Jesus paints. When he says to welcome the children, he isn’t picking the most valuable, most highly regarded group, those who would be already guaranteed a position of great respect. No… he was choosing to highlight those who would in many ways have been considered ‘the last,’ particularly within family life.

The welcome from those in God’s kingdom was to be one that extended further, that was done from a heart of servanthood, that didn’t follow the expectations of patterns of the prevailing culture, but looked for a deeper value.

A lesson for the disciples, that no doubt came into focus when Jesus went on to time and time again show such compassion to the outsider, and then to wash their feet and finally to go to the cross.

Our reading from James however, shows us that as the Christian community developed believers still needed reminding about how we should be living. James is known for his straight talking and this reading is no exception!

It is clear that there is ‘envy,’ ‘selfish ambition,’ ‘conflicts and disputes’ among them. He wants them to see that these attitudes and resulting actions are not a demonstration of God’s wisdom, but is rather the earthly way. He tells them ‘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’ (James 3:17). That sounds to me a lot like choosing last over first and living a life of welcoming servanthood.

James’ advice to us is ‘Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.’ (v7-8). When we draw near to God, we do so in humility and we find ourselves laid bear before him. When we come to him time and time again we can know his grace, his love for us. This is what equips us to be those who are able to live in the way that he is calling us to.

There will always be at times that desire in us to be first, noticed, to be the greatest. There will always be opportunities for us in our disagreement and different points of view to choose to let those things divide us. But God is urging us to look to the example and words of Jesus and to choose the greater way, the way of love. As his kingdom people we are not meant to be communities of strife and division, but people who are able to work through our difficulties with love, grace and forgiveness.

Although we live in a world that celebrates the best and the greatest, it is also a world that finds itself deeply moved by acts of love, welcome and service to those who are least likely to be on the receiving end of such things.

There is a real opportunity for us to choose to extend our welcome, to choose the way of love and see through us God’s Spirit at work in the hearts and lives of those around us.

Questions:

  1. How do you think you would have felt if you were one of the disciples in this conversation with Jesus?
  2. How good are we at dealing with our conflicts and disagreements? (Perhaps spend some time in discussion or even in prayer together)
  3. What could it look like for you and your community of faith to further extend it’s welcome?