There’s an old story in Jewish lore of a young student who approaches his teacher and asks, “Rabbi, why don’t people see God today as they did in the olden days?”And the wise Rabbi puts his hands on his student’s shoulders and says, “The answer, my son, is because no one is willing to stoop so low.”
In the reading today, it says that the disciples were arguing about who among them was the greatest. And when Jesus asked about it, no one was willing to fess up to the conversation. I imagine part of it was they knew their conversation was a little on the arrogant side. But perhaps there was something else going on, too.
Twice now, Jesus has told them he’s going to die. And even though the disciples really don’t get why, they know what death is. And so if Jesus really is going to die, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to start thinking about who the next leader might be. I mean, he’s not gone yet, but it never hurts to be prepared! So I suspect some of their question was not just about who is better than who, but who is so much better that they might take Jesus’ place when he’s gone. (Like I said, they really didn’t get it.)
But that is such a human thing! To wonder about power and stability and who’s gonna lead. Our Synod has a bishop’s election in a few months. And anything can happen, really! But it’s kind of like watching sharks start to circle in the waters, just in case something tasty comes their way. So yeah, imagine being caught (by Jesus!) having a conversation about who was greatest. Who might be taking his place. Awkward!
But oddly enough, Jesus doesn’t get mad. Not about this, anyway. Jesus gets mad about plenty of other things, but not about this. I suppose because they’re not totally wrong. Jesus won’t be with them forever. And some will need to step up and take the lead. It’s just not going to look like what they think it will.
So Jesus calls the disciples over and says, “Greatness doesn’t mean what you think it means. The one who is great is the one who serves.” And then he brought a child into their midst and held her in his arms. And the translation we get talks about “welcoming” one such as these. But the word there is closer to meaning “hold on to.” “Whoever holds one such child in my name, holds me. And whoever holds me holds not me, but the one who sent me.”
And it may not seem like much, but there is a difference between “welcoming” and “holding on to.” You can welcome someone without actually giving anything of yourself.
“Sure, the door’s open. Com on in.” There! I welcomed someone!
To hold on to someone means making room and creating space. It means letting go of some of your own agenda, your own wants and needs, to attend to someone else. And specifically, someone with far less power than you. No one, in Jesus’ day, had less power than children. And Jesus calls on his disciples to use their power, use their greatness, on behalf of someone else. Not for their benefit, not for their well-being, but for the sake of another.
Greatness is giving your power away, that the life you have might be the life that all have.
What Jesus is trying to say is that true greatness will take you straight to the cross. To that place where Jesus surrenders all power and might, for the sake of a world in need, that the life he has is the life that all might have.
Greatness is not found at the top, but at the bottom.
That’s what this journey of Lent is about. It’s not a race to the top but a slog to the bottom. 40 days of throwing off our false notions of greatness. Of casting of our delusions of grandeur and making room to hold on to another. Of carving out space in our live and in our hearts for others to thrive. Lent is 40 days of loss and losing. Of giving it all away. Until we finally land at the foot of the cross. And see that in losing everything we had, we’ve gained everything we didn’t.
And when our times comes, one way or another, everything is stripped away. And we are left with nothing. No power, no possessions, no plans. One way or another, we will lose everything. And the only thing that remains is a promise
The promise of the cross. The promise of Jesus. That his death is now our death. And his life is now our life.
This is the promise of the cross, where Jesus gave everything up, let everything go, to make room to hold on to you.
If you want to see greatness, look to the cross.
That’s what greatness looks like.
That’s what grace looks like.