Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
Staying with my sister and her family for a few days over the summer, something woke me early the first morning. As I opened my eyes, my niece’s face was inches from mine. She was patiently staring me awake. Once I’d opened my eyes, she dumped a pile of books on my bed and said, ‘Auntie Anna, I’ve brought you these so you can read me some stories.’
It was 6.30 in the morning. Trying to give my sister a bit more time to sleep, I think we worked our way through Messrs Greedy, Tall, Messy, Small and Bump before I deemed it an acceptable time for breakfast.
I thought about her when reflecting on today’s gospel reading. My niece doesn’t really understand what my job is, and doesn’t care. She’s unimpressed by academic qualifications, because she doesn’t know what they are. She doesn’t care what other people think of me, or how much money I have in the bank (as long as there’s enough to buy her an ice cream). She doesn’t look admiringly at my pattern of prayer or church attendance. All the things by which I might be tempted to measure success or worth are pretty irrelevant when it comes to her, and it would be absurd to try to engage her on those terms. She cares about whether I love her – which very practically means giving her time and attention, reading books and playing endless make-believe games, and ceding half my breakfast to her.
And this, Jesus says, tells us something important about discipleship. ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’
In Jesus’ day, children were not objects of sentimentality, or models of innocence. They were, in many respects, non-people: they had no legal rights of their own, and no status. Utterly dependent on others for their lives, they had nothing at all to offer in a social and political economy which so often traded on status and favours. Welcoming a child, as Jesus commands, would curry no favour, create no reciprocal obligation, or advance your desire for greatness one bit.
The child in their midst is a reproof to the disciples’ bickering about greatness. They’ve seen Jesus perform miracles of healing, of feeding, of exorcism. They’ve watched him best the Pharisees in debate and felt the press of bodies as crowds clamour around him. Peter has called him the Messiah, and though Jesus said some perplexing things about suffering and death, he accepted the title. The disciples know themselves to be close to greatness.
But they are still thinking of greatness in the world’s terms, wondering how they can use their closeness to Jesus to advance themselves or their agenda. Jesus is trying to tell them that the Son of Man will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and after three days he will rise again, and the disciples are jostling for position. When what Jesus is speaking about comes to pass, of course, the disciples are nowhere to be found. They are arguing on entirely the wrong terms.
For how do you go about measuring what makes for a great disciple? Is Peter the greatest? He was called first, was first to acclaim Jesus as the Messiah, is called the Rock. But he gets it wrong a lot. What about James and John, who, with Peter, have been witnesses to special revelation the others haven’t seen in the transfiguration? Or do you measure greatness by how well you pray, or minister healing, or fulfil Jesus’ commands? Or is it rather that greatness is a category that makes no sense around Jesus?
‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,’ says Jesus. Which doesn’t sound like greatness as we usually understand it. And he sits a child in their midst to show them what he means. Welcome this child, he says, and you welcome me. Welcome those who can’t advance your cause, those whose greatness won’t rub off on you because in the world’s eyes they don’t matter. Welcome people who have no power or influence to do anything for you, because that’s where you’ll discover you’re welcoming God. And where, just maybe, you’ll discover that the world’s standards of greatness don’t apply to you, either: that you’re not loved because you’re successful or powerful or good. You’re loved because God made you, and you’re his.
The Church is supposed to be a society that is ordered by the reality of the kingdom that has come in Jesus Christ. But as the reading from the letter of James indicates, from the earliest days the struggle for greatness in worldly terms has caused division and conflict – and scandal. ‘Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?’ asks James. ‘Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?’ In the gospel reading we see the disciples’ craving for greatness. In other instances in the contemporary Church we can see cravings for power and status and wealth and followers. It’s what gives us prosperity gospellers and the sidelining or silencing of minority voices. At its corrupt worst it leads to the scandals of abuse and its cover up that have been a consistent story throughout the summer – from the Roman Catholic Church in Chile and the US, to the further revelations of the Church of England’s sinful record in the IICSA hearings.
‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’, says Jesus. It is children’s very powerlessness that makes them models of the way of Jesus, and a church seeking to live out the gospel will welcome them and keep them safe, not make them prey to the predations of abusive clerics who care only about power. It matters that the disciples are talking about greatness when Jesus is talking about suffering and death, because it shows how far we often are from understanding Jesus. He shows us, in the child he picks up, and in his own life offered as a sacrifice for us, what it means that those who are first must be last of all and servant of all. The kingdom turns the world’s priorities on their head, and rewrites everything we thought we knew about greatness and power and success.
If we think following Jesus will make us great we have misunderstood what sort of Messiah this is. Following Jesus faithfully will make us like him. If our faith ignores the weak, protects abusers or exploits the vulnerable, we will find that we have put our faith not in Jesus Christ but in something else. If, however, you want to be a better disciple, try playing with a child, volunteering with the homelessness project, or visiting your lonely neighbour. They can give you little that will make you great in the world’s eyes. But they will help you know what it means to be part of Christ’s kingdom.