Jesus asked the disciples what they were arguing about as they traveled, and the disciples were ashamed to say anything because they had been arguing about who was greater. Is anyone surprised by their argument?
I mean, really, is anyone surprised that Jesus’ disciples would get into a game of "I’m better than you-u"?
There seems to be something woven deep within the fabric of the world in which we live that pushes living things to be the best, the greatest, the strongest, or to manipulate things in such a way that allows them to get ahead. Now, I know some folks may choose not to see such things. Sometimes, folks like to think our world lives in perfect harmony, but if you study plants and animals long enough, you will see that they are constantly striving with one another oftentimes fighting for control.
Dogs live in packs and establish pack order. There is always a dominant dog at the top of the order, and if someone violates that pack order, fighting ensues.
Those of you with cattle know it is not a good thing when bulls manage to cross fences because they will often fight for dominance over a herd.
Mockingbirds will often chase other birds out of their territories, and I’ve watched them go after dogs, cats, squirrels, and even humans they feel are encroaching on their territories.
White-tailed deer bucks fight with one another over does and territory. Last year while hunting, one morning I watched no less than three fights between young bucks trying to establish dominance in one morning.
All throughout nature, living things desire to rise to the top, to be the greatest, to have the most power, the most territory, the most status. And we, my brothers and sisters are no different. Deep within us lies the exact same thing.
How many of you are willing to admit that as a child you said something to the effect of, "My Daddy’s bigger than your Daddy!" Or stronger. Or smarter or what have you?
Or, how many of you played sports at some point in your life? Was your goal ever to come in second? Did you ever want to finish last? How many trophy ceremonies have you attended for those who came in last or
second to last?
When you went to school, was there ever a push for you to do your worst? Did teachers ever encourage you to have the lowest grade in the class? When you received an "F" on any particular paper, did you rejoice in that "F" and show it off to everyone?
Yes, there is something deep within us that wants to be the best, to be the greatest, to be the top dog in the pack. We are really no different than the rest of nature’s creatures in this except in one regard. And what is that one regard?
I believe, if I have studied this correctly, most of nature’s creatures strive and fight for greatness to control territory, or for sexual dominance, or for food. I believe we are the only creatures on this planet who are willing to fight for ideas and thoughts. We are the only creatures on this planet who will actually fight for something we call the Truth.
Now, some might think this is a bad thing. They might think, "We shouldn’t fight over ideas. They are just ideas. There is really no such thing as Truth. There is only our perception of it. Our perceptions are different, so we should just be willing to overlook things and strive to get along." It’s a noble thought, but it just doesn’t work. Why?
Well, to be perfectly honest, if Truth is relative, then there is no right and wrong at all. This at first might sound rather liberating. There are no boundaries. There is nothing to hold us back or prevent us from doing whatever we want to do. Everything would seem hunky-dory until you run into someone who is bigger than you, stronger than you, and wants to impose his or her will upon you. If you believe you are being taken advantage of, what recourse do you have? None. There’s no right. No wrong. You are at the mercy of those who are stronger than you are–at least you are at their mercy if you are not the greatest. Do you really want to live in a world governed by this?
I don’t. Not at all. There must be some ultimate Truth which helps us discern what is right and what is wrong. And that Truth must be worth adhering to and spreading.
As Christians, we believe we have that Truth. We believe it has been revealed to us through the actions of God, and those actions of God are recorded in Scripture. Those actions culminate with God’s great act of redemption through Jesus Christ, and it is to Jesus that we turn to understand the Truth. And not only do we turn to Jesus for understanding, but He compels us to go out and tell others about the Truth of God. He compels us to go out and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all He commanded.
And now, comes the tricky part. Just how are we supposed to go out and spread this Word? Just how are we supposed to convey to the world the Truth?
If we look at the way the world works, one would think we would need to fight to spread the Truth. One would think that we need to strive to become strong, to rise above everything, to obtain power and wealth and status so that we could impose this will upon others. After all, that’s what nature does. Nature uses strength and power and might to take over, to rule, to become greatest.
But the problem with such an attitude is there is constant combat. There is constant battle. Someone is always taking shots at the greatest and trying to drag them down. There is always someone claiming they are stronger, better, faster, smarter, and they are always willing to challenge–to fight, and many times, they will not play by any rules to win.
Perhaps this is why Jesus offers us an alternative route. Perhaps this is why Jesus tells His disciples, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Jesus tells you and me, "Forget about being top dog. Forget about rising to the top. Forget about strength and power and might. If you really want to make an impact, if you really want the Truth to spread, don’t impose it. Don’t argue everyone to belief. Don’t try to climb to the top of the ladder and then pontificate and tell everyone what to do. Instead, serve. Instead, spread the Truth by being unassuming, doing the tasks others think are lowly and beneath you. Don’t seek power. Seek humility."
Now, many of us probably hear this and shrug our shoulders. We’ve heard it before. We’ve heard this Scripture reading before. We know Jesus says to be a servant, but have you ever tried to implement it? Have you ever tried to give up the pursuit of greatness? The pursuit of power? The pursuit of being top dog? Have you ever tried to go against what seems to be deeply ingrained in you by nature? If you have, you know Jesus’ teaching here is no simple task, but history shows us it is tremendously effective.
Centuries ago, when the plagues were ravaging the Roman Empire, many folks fled for their lives. Whenever someone fell ill with signs of the sickness, people turned tail and ran. Generally, the only folks who stayed to take care of the sick were the Christians. Many of them knew they faced the potential of getting the plague and dying. Some did. But they knew the Truth. They knew Christ would care for them just as they were caring for Him in the sick and dying. They did not seek greatness. They sought service, and people took notice. Christianity grew exponentially.
There is much talk these days about a Church that is declining in North America. There is much talk about a Church which is losing members, and I believe one of the reasons is that parts of this Church have sought greatness. It has sought power. It has tried to impose the tenets of Christianity onto others through such acts of power and legislation. I believe this is contrary to what Jesus teaches us today, and I also believe if the Church is to thrive once again in this nation, it must be willing to set aside any thoughts of greatness and power. I believe it must set aside any thoughts of trying to impose legislation upon others, and I believe it must return to what Jesus tells it to do in our Gospel lesson. If the Church wishes to be great, it must be last of all and servant of all. Amen.