Now here’s one of those phrases that I’d never noticed before. They were going towards Jerusalem, Jesus going ahead of the disciples, who were filled with alarm; and those following behind were afraid.
The passage follows on immediately from last week’s discussion, the camel and the eye of the needle, and Jesus’ promise that “with God, all things are possible”; Peter’s interjection that they, at least, had left everything behind for him, and Jesus’ assurance that their sacrifice would not go unrewarded. Not really something to instil fear in the disciples, or in those who followed.
But Jesus walked ahead of them, and they were afraid. As if they followed, but reluctantly, not wanting to go the way he was going. Perhaps they already had a sense of what Jesus was about to tell them. Perhaps they knew what would happen when the things that Jesus had been preaching – his challenge to the assumptions of the wealthy and powerful that their status was right and just in the eyes of God – his talk of ‘Kingdom’ and his non-conformity to the religious expectations of the day – perhaps they realised that he was not going to be well received in Jerusalem: by the crowds, perhaps, but not by those in power, not by the Temple, not by the Romans.
So of course, Jesus, realising that his followers were afraid, stopped, and spoke words of comfort to them, gave them the assurance that all would be well? “We’re going to Jerusalem, but don’t be afraid”? Surely, that’s what Jesus would do?
“‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him”
Some pep-talk. Jesus refuses to sugar coat the message for his followers, refuses to tell them just the good. He wants those who would follow him to do so with their eyes open, grasping that the work of the Kingdom of God, the lives of those who choose to serve the Kingdom of God, is not easy, peaceful, glorious; but hard work, sometimes suffering, often not respected, rarely valued.
But it seems that whatever Jesus does, he isn’t able to shake the sense amongst his disciples that there is glory to be had. And that makes sense, right? He’s just told them those who have left everything behind will be rewarded with a hundred-fold; and that plays pretty straight into their expectations – a new Kingdom is being established. And where there is a Kingdom, there is a King. Jesus. That’s fine. And where there is a King, there are advisors, ministers, generals, ambassadors – there are a whole load of great jobs, roles with responsibility and – not to beat around the bush – wealth and power.
And who better to sit at Jesus’ side when he takes the throne, who better to be the advisors that Jesus turns to, his council, his cabinet, than those who’ve been with him right from the start.
It seems as if, whatever Jesus says and does, he can’t get his followers past these deeply ingrained assumptions about what the Kingdom of God is like.
But he tries once more. This time challenging what they think it means to be great.
Because, he says, you know what it means to be great, right? Because you look at those who are great today – you see what greatness is. Greatness is the power to lord it over others. Greatness is the tyrant who can compel others into obedience to their will. Greatness is power, greatness is force, greatness is control of others.
And I love the way Jesus starts his description “among the Gentiles”. As if to point out to those who follow him that what they are looking at is not the greatness of the people of Israel, not the greatness of the people of God, but the greatness of some foreign power, some godless heathens.
It’s like he’s saying to them – don’t you remember? Those stories you heard as a child? Jewish greatness was never like Gentile greatness. Don’t you remember that it was Moses, the outsider rejected by Gentile and Jew, and not Pharaoh, who was great. That it was David the youngest son of a shepherd, not Goliath, who was great. That it was Gideon and his undersized army who was great. That it was Deborah, sitting under a palm tree who overcame Sisera and his army of 100,000.
That you’ve always been the underdog, measuring greatness with a different measure, marching to a different beat, to the nations around you.
Jesus doesn’t say “it shouldn’t be like this amongst you” – he says “it is not like this amongst you”. It’s not a declaration of a new idea; it’s a reminder that, for the people of God, it was always thus: whoever wants to be great must be the servant of all; whoever wants to be first, must be the slave of all.”
And then he moves their eyes from the past, from the life of the people of God through the ages, to the immediate present and the coming future. “You’re following me, you’ve named me as king, as great – so look at how I show greatness. Do I have servants? Do I send people out at my beck and call? Do people bring me sweet drinks, rich food, comfortable clothes? Do I look like the rulers of Rome, in their fancy chariots and show-off clothes?”
“Or have I given my time, my life, my ministry, in the service of others. Have I been there when people needed to talk to me? Have I provided for the needs of others; needs physical, spiritual or emotional?”
“And more – that you have not yet seen, but that I have been trying to explain to you – do you not yet understand that the path my greatness demands I walk is one that will lead to death?”
But of course this is a message that we have all heard many times. We sing “servant king”, we sing “brother sister let me serve you”. The idea that the life of the followers of Jesus is a life of service, a life of giving of oneself for others, is not a new one to us. We don’t expect glory from our faith, we don’t expect respect, we certainly don’t expect to get rich serving God.
We know that the call to greatness in the life of the disciple of Jesus is a call to service.
But I wonder what we think that means?
So it got me thinking – who has been great in your life?
Who is the person, who are the people, who have been great for you? Who comes to mind?
Think about that person, those people.
Some of them might have been “great” in the measure of the world, but I’m guessing that most of them weren’t. Even if they were, I’m willing to bet that the reason they were great for you was not because of their prestige, their wealth, their power, or their title.
And I’d like you to think, for a moment, about what it was that made them great for you. What was it about their lives, their words, their attitude, their actions?
I’m going to give you a few moments to reflect on that, and then we’ll join together to sing #650, “Brother, Sister, let me serve you”. And as we sing, I’d like you to allow your reflections and your memories of those who have been great in your life to shape the prayer that is this song, a prayer that we each, in our turn, may be great in the way of the Kingdom, great in our willingness to serve one another, to serve those to who God has sent us, those God sends us across our path.