“First and Last”
Rev. Jeff Bacon
September 19, 2021
Let’s join our hearts together in prayer. Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, help us to be better servants, like Jesus, your servant of all. Amen.
One night, a man decided to tell his wife how much he loved her. After dinner, he began to recite romantic poetry, telling her he would climb high mountains to be near her, swim across wide oceans, cross expansive deserts in the burning heat, and even sit at her window and serenade her with love songs in the moonlight. After listening to him go on for some time about this immense love he had for her, the conversation ended abruptly when she asked, “But, will you do the dishes tonight?” Is love a bunch of romantic words, even feelings, or is love being a servant to the other?
Our gospel reading this week is similar to our reading last week, in that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, followed by his teaching about discipleship. The big differences this week are that the disciples are afraid to speak to Jesus; and Jesus uses a child to illustrate his statement: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all … [for] whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Jesus and his disciples are beginning their journey toward Jerusalem where Jesus’ Passion predictions will become a reality. The house in Capernaum is likely the home of Peter and his brother Andrew. It’s the same home where, back in the first chapter, we’re told that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, not long after Peter was called to follow Jesus.
The disciples have experienced a lot in the few years that they’ve been following Jesus. The disciples have got to know each other well; each other’s strengths and each other’s weaknesses. And they’ve got to know Jesus well, even though sometimes they still don’t understand him or his teaching, especially his difficult comments about betrayal, suffering, rejection, dying and rising again. As they were walking along, the disciples discussed among themselves who was the greatest disciple, and they must have known that their discussion was inappropriate. They were silent for the second time in this short passage: first when they were afraid to ask Jesus about his Passion prediction; and second, when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about along the way. Jesus doesn’t admonish them, but sits down in the traditional posture of a teacher and refers to the child in their midst as an illustration.
Why does Jesus use a child as an illustration? Does the child demonstrate innocence and dependence? Does the child demonstrate humility and vulnerability? Does the child draw us to the relationship of child to parent as in Jesus’ relationship to God the Father? Certainly, the child lacked power, position and prestige, and would not have engaged in discussions about who was the greatest. But Jesus holds up the child pointing to God; for one who welcomes the child, welcomes God.
Ruth Gruennert, wrote an interesting poem about her welcome into a church when she was new in town. Ruth writes:
The first time I worshipped at their church, about two months ago,
I signed the registration card, so all of them would know,
that I had just moved into town, and needed a little part
of the loving concern for each other, that a Christian has in his heart.
I checked the proper boxes, to indicate my age,
my marital condition, my sex, my spiritual stage.
No one smiled or shook my hand, when the services were through,
and Satan whispered in my ear, “See, no one noticed you.”
But I stayed home each night that week, in hopes someone would call.
It didn’t have to be the Preacher, just any one at all,
who cared enough to take the time, in our dear Saviour’s name,
to bid a stranger welcome, but no one ever came.
And then a thought came to my mind, that I’d like to share with you,
why should I sit and wait for others, to do what I could do?
So, I joined that church and here I am… tonight is “visitation.”
we’re glad you came, we hope you’ll stay, and join our congregation.
Ruth discovered that Christianity isn’t about being welcomed and being served, but about finding ways to welcome and to serve. Jesus was trying to teach his disciples this same message.
When Jesus sat down to teach his disciples, he must have been disappointed with them arguing over greatness. Their earlier silence about the Passion may have grown out of the same concerns over personal greatness and each disciple’s fear of admitting their lack of understanding. So, Jesus invites them into a time of teaching and reflection. A nearby child serves to illustrate his message. Today, it’s difficult for us to appreciate the impact that this illustration would have had. Today, even if children are disruptive, we believe that they have individuality, human rights and dignity. Today, we believe that childhood is a time of privileged innocence. But in Jesus’ time, this was not the case. Jesus’ example would have been shocking. Children were possessions of their father. Children were possessions – not persons. The child should have been with the women and not hanging around the Teacher and his disciples. For Jesus to suggest that receiving a child is in any way like receiving Jesus, the Teacher, would have been totally shocking. Children were socially invisible, and could not possibly represent Jesus, let alone represent God! It’s a totally shocking illustration!
The other thing that we lose in translation is that the word used for “little child” sounds very similar to the word for “servant.” Both were without honour or social standing. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The term “servant of all” refers to the lowest servant, who ate only what was left over after everyone else had eaten – even the other servants. Children, servants, and the first are last. It was a memorable illustration!
During the American Revolution a man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers repairing a small defensive barrier. Their leader was shouting instructions, but making no attempt to help them. When the rider asked the leader why he did not help his men, the officer retorted with great dignity, “Sir, I am a corporal!” The stranger apologized, dismounted, and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers. When the job was finished, the man turned to the corporal and said, “Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you again.” The man was George Washington.
God overturns social hierarchies and power structures, welcoming the lowly into God’s loving embrace. But the message today is not about the lowly as a preferred position in the kingdom of God. Maybe it’s just that the lowly, including children, are not blinded by the corruptive power of greatness, honour, pride and prestige.
There was an old stone monastery tucked away in the middle of a picturesque forest. For many years, people would make the significant detour required to seek out this monastery. The peaceful spirit of the place was healing for the soul. In recent years, however, fewer and fewer people were making their way to the monastery. The monks had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited.
The Abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and on a visit to the Bishop, he poured out his heart and asked what he should do. Having heard the Abbot’s tale of woe, the Bishop revealed that he had recently received a revelation; a divine vision. The vision was simple, but very important; the Messiah was among the monks in the monastery. The Abbot was flabbergasted; one among his own was the Messiah! Who could it be? He knew it wasn’t himself, but who? He raced back to the monastery and shared this exciting news with his fellow monks.
The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s eyes. Was this other person the Messiah? From that day on, the mood in the monastery changed. Two who weren’t talking started talking again, neither wanting to be guilty of slighting the Messiah. Another two left behind their frosty anger and sought out each other’s forgiveness. The monks began serving each other, looking for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offence had been given.
As one traveler, then another, found their way to the monastery, word soon spread about the remarkable spirit of the place. People once again took the journey to the monastery and found themselves renewed and transformed. All because the monks were told that the Messiah was among them.
I have some simple, but very important news to share with you: the Messiah is among us and participating online with us today. Feel the Messiah’s loving presence where the last shall be first and joy comes in being a servant of all. Thanks be to God. Amen.