Death and Glory
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of the Year. Fr Colin Carr preaches on the call to radical humility.
We think we know what counts as winning: doing better than other people; we think we know what counts as glory: everyone telling us how great we are, and treating us with great respect; we think we know what counts as power: being able to make things happen the way we want them, and people obeying us when we tell them what to do. We want to be big rather than small, strong rather than weak, praised rather than blamed. It’s normal to think like that, isn’t it?
Well, Jesus didn’t seem to think so.
It’s not that he thought being killed was a bundle of fun. But where we would think it was the worst thing that could happen to us, Jesus knew that it wasn’t. It was the cost of being obedient to the Father, and it wasn’t the end.
But try telling that to the disciples. They didn’t know what he was talking about when he said he was going to be killed and was going to rise again. And they didn’t dare ask him. Maybe it was partly because the last time they’d shown they didn’t understand what he was talking about, they got a real telling off for being so obstinately stupid. But more importantly, they didn’t want to understand the terrible thing he was saying. If they were stuck in the view that success means everyone praising you, then Jesus was telling them he was going to be a failure. And who would want to hear that?
So instead, they talked about something sensible as they travelled toward Capernaum: they argued about which of them was the greatest. Now that’s something real you can argue about; that gets us out of this strange world Jesus was showing them, in which the best man they had ever met would be killed. Arguing about who’s the greatest gets you back into the real world, of competition, of league tables, of big and small, strong and weak, successful and unsuccessful. You know where you are in this world. You know your place in the pecking order; there’s always someone you can boss around, even if other people boss you around. There are winners and losers. A world like that makes sense.
But when Jesus asked them what they had been arguing about, they felt a bit ashamed; they knew they weren’t thinking his way, even if they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – understand how to think his way. They realised they were not really following Jesus. They couldn’t follow what he said, but more importantly they didn’t have the attitude he had, so they couldn’t follow his way.
So he sat down. In those days the teacher would sit down and the learners would stand. Jesus sat down to show that he had something very important to teach them.
And what did he have to say? A typical Jesus remark: ‘If you want to be first, make yourself last.’ Did he say this just because he liked upsetting people? Or could it be that he was simply telling the truth?
Being a good teacher, he used a visual aid. They were in a house, and there were kids around. In that sort of society children would not have been seen as charming little things. Kids were a nuisance until they could make themselves useful. And Jesus collared a little child, who was no use to anyone, and said ‘Welcome this child and you’ll welcome me; and by the way, if you welcome me you’ll welcome the God who is my Father.’ He chose a child as an icon of God, to show that God does not think in the competitive way the disciples were tempted to think – the way Christ’s disciples in our own day are tempted to think. The child was simply there, no use to anyone, but simply loved by God, precious to God.
And that’s what our Christian vocation is about. It’s allowing Jesus to call us into his crazy world of death=glory, weak=strong, leader=servant, child=God. It’s refusing the league tables that turn at least half the world into failures, to be despised and written off. It’s saying that obedience to Christ sets you free, that refusing to possess other people makes you happy, that not having control over your life through such things as wealth makes you fully human.