One of the unintended consequences of the 21st century priesthood is the email forward. It isn’t uncommon for me to get an email or two a week of funny bulletin bloopers or church jokes. I read most of them because you never know where a sermon illustration might be hiding. This week, as I thought about how to approach our Gospel text, one of those stories I read several years ago came to mind. It is the story of a small jet with five passengers. While flying at thirty-thousand feet, the engine malfunctioned and the plane started to descend toward earth. The pilot came running out of the cockpit with a parachute strapped to his back and said, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The bad news is that the plane is going to crash and there is nothing I can do about it. The good news is that there are several parachutes on the wall back there. The other bad news is that there are only four of them left and there are five of you. Good luck. Thank you for choosing our airline, and we hope that you have a good evening, where ever your final destination may be.” With that, he gave the stunned passengers a thumbs up, opened the door, and jumped for safety.
Immediately, a man jumped out of his seat and said, “I am the greatest brain surgeon in the world. My patients depend on me and the world is a better place because of my breakthroughs.” He grabbed a pack, strapped it to his back, and jumped.
Then a woman stood up and said, “I’m a partner in the greatest law firm in the country. We go up against big tobacco, asbestos companies, and fight for the little guy. The world is a better place with me in it.” She grabbed a pack strapped it to her back, and jumped.
Next, another man stood up and said, “I am arguably the smartest man in the world. My IQ is so great that I won’t even tell you what is, but surely you understand that the world needs me, so I simply must take a parachute.” He grabbed a pack, strapped it to his back, and jumped.
That left only two people on the plane, a middle-aged priest and a teenage boy.
“Young man,” said the priest, “you take the last parachute. You’re young; you still have your whole life ahead of you to do great things. God bless you, and safe landing.”
The teenager grinned at the older woman. “Thanks pastor, but there are still two parachutes left. The smartest man in the world just grabbed my backpack.”
Like this joke, our Gospel lesson today is a story about how human beings misunderstand greatness in the eyes of God. It begins with something of a replay of last week’s text. In Mark’s Gospel, it has been eight or nine days since we last encountered Jesus and his disciples in the coastal resort village of Caesarea Philippi. Jesus had taken his disciples there for the first ever clergy conference. Having stepped away from the hustle and bustle of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry, they were able to have some deeper conversations about who Jesus was and what he had come to do.
When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, Peter was quick to respond with the right answer, “You are the Messiah,” he boldly proclaimed. Surely, Peter was thrilled to finally have it out in the open. It’d been almost a year of following Jesus around – a year of uncertainty about to whom they had hitched their wagon – and now, finally, they could say that Jesus was the Messiah, the Chosen One of God. Instead, Jesus sternly ordered them to tell no one. He went on to describe what being the Messiah meant. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Peter, blessed, impetuous Peter, knew for sure that that was not what the greatness of the Messiah was supposed to look like, and so he tried to rebuke Jesus. To Peter’s mind, there was no greatness in vulnerability. There was now power in dying. There was no future kingdom in that plan. No, that couldn’t be what God had in mind at all. Jesus’ response is strong and clear, “Get behind me Satan! If you want to be my follower, then deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” It’s been about a week since that difficult exchange. Just yesterday, Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain. They heard him talking with Moses and Elijah about God’s plan for the salvation of the world. They had experienced Jesus at what they thought was his greatest.
As they set off for their next stop, making their way through the Galilean countryside, Jesus again warns his disciples about what being the Messiah will mean. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Mark tells us that the disciples don’t have the slightest clue what Jesus is talking about. They simply cannot understand how God’s plan to restore Israel to greatness could look so weak. They are totally confused, and are also completely unwilling or unable to admit their vulnerability. They simply cannot buy Jesus’ assertion that greatness looks like self-sacrificial love. Greatness, in their mind, is power, strength, and knowledge – not vulnerability, weakness, and death.
As their journey continues, this idea that greatness is best expressed in power and privilege spills over into an argument. The disciples fight over which one of them is the greatest. Like the passengers on that airplane, each one of them used their resume to make a case for greatness, angling for which one of them would sit at the right hand of Jesus when he finally gave up on this silly idea about being arrested and killed, and instead used his power to take his rightful place on the throne of David by force. I imagine Jesus, hearing what was happening behind him, rubbing the dull ache in his forehead, and wondering aloud if they will ever get what he is trying to tell them. “Here is how greatness works in the Kingdom of God. If you want to be the first, the best, the greatest, then you have to put yourself last. To be great, you have to be the servant of all.”
Spoiler Alert – the disciples won’t get it this time either, and every day since, the Church has continued to largely fail to understand it as well. For two thousand years, the institution of the Church has been tooting its own horn, grabbing backpacks that it assumed was a parachute, and struggling with what greatness really looks like. It isn’t about being the biggest. It isn’t about having the most money. It isn’t about being the closest to the ear of political power. It isn’t about fancy buildings, or educated clergy, or flowing vestments, or giant organs, or having that Bishop who preached at the Royal Wedding. Jesus is clear that what being great is all about is how we use all of those resources to reach outside the walls in loving service to our neighbors.
The Greek word that gets translated as “servant” is diakonos, from which we get the word deacon, but it simply means “to minister.” Being first in the Kingdom of God, being the greatest church on the block, is about how each and every one of us, as followers of Jesus Christ, lives into our unique calling as ministers of the Good News. Our greatness is defined by our willingness to be vulnerable; listening to our neighbors, and trying to understand how God is inviting us to love them. Our greatness is defined by acts of humble service – through Wednesday Community Lunch, Churches United in HELP, Living Waters for the World, MEALS, INC., and Room in the Inn, among many others. Our greatness is defined by how we pool our resources to make the greatest impact. Our greatness is defined by how we work together to empower one another for ministry – raising up a community full of disciples of Jesus Christ who are committed to a life of servanthood. This week, as you receive your pledge card for 2019, I hope you will begin to prayerfully discern how God is calling you to take your place in the greatness Christ Church as together, we share in the ministry of Jesus, a ministry of compassion, vulnerability, and grace. Amen.