I want to take a minute and put today’s reading into context. Just before our Gospel reading today, two important things happen. First, Jesus goes up on a mountain with his friends; Peter, James and John. The most amazing thing happens: Jesus is transfigured into a glowing white, god like figure right before their eyes. Moses and Elijah show up as witnesses to this amazing moment. This was the greatest experience Peter, James and John had ever had. They were dying to come down from the mountain and brag about it but Jesus warns them to tell no one.
Meanwhile, down in the valley, the other disciples are trying unsuccessfully to heal a sick boy who keeps throwing himself in a fire. Jesus shows up and heals the boy, then yells at his disciples for their lack of faith and healing power.
Now it is time for today’s story. Jesus wants to take some time to teach his disciples. He tells them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed to some people who want nothing to do with God. They will murder him. Three days after his murder, he will rise, alive.” They didn’t know what he was talking about, but were afraid to ask him about it. You can’t blame these guys; wouldn’t you be scared if one of your friends told you he was about to be murdered and then three days later would rise from the dead?
Remember, we have three disciples who have been to the mountaintop and seen Christ as God while walking alongside them on the road to Capernaum, we have nine disciples who are dispirited at their inability to heal. It is not too surprising that these two groups get into an argument about who is greatest. I’m guessing that Peter, James and John just couldn’t help but whisper a little about their grand experience because they just have to let the others know that they are special.
Jesus hears the disciples arguing. He stops and asks, “What are you guys going on about?” The disciples hang their heads and don’t answer. Jesus realizes that they were arguing about which of them is greatest.
Jesus straightens them out; “If anyone would be first, if anyone would be great, he must be last of all and servant of all.” They didn’t understand. So Jesus uses a prop. He takes a child into his arms and says, “Unless you turn around from your self-centered ways and glory seeking ways and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this little child is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
How do you think the disciples responded to this? Did they all murmur, “Aha” and change their ways? They probably just shook their heads and went off to argue out of Jesus’ hearing. Remember there is another story where the disciples are arguing about who will sit at the right hand of Jesus. So these lessons aren’t sinking in very well. They just aren’t understanding his message.
I sympathize with the confused disciples. Jesus tells them that to be great, one must be last of all and servant of all. I imagine this was as at odds with the culture of the first century as it is today in our culture. Humility is not a very important virtue in America today. Just listen to some people claim: “I am the winner and all the rest of you are losers.” We value being first in America. When I’m cheering for the Seahawks, it isn’t for them to be in second or God forbid, last place! I want them to be first, I want them to win the Super Bowl!
But Jesus teaches us that the last shall be first. Indeed he teaches it over and over:
Matthew 19:30 But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.
Matthew 20:16 So the last shall be first and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
Mark 9:35 And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.
Mark 10:31 But many that are first shall be last; and the last first.
Luke 13:30 And behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last.
Sometimes, when reading the bible, something perplexing shows up, just once, and we wonder if it was correctly translated or if Jesus really said it. I don’t think we can question that he really means this.
‘The last shall be first’ … how do we live this out in our own lives? A start might be to value humility as a virtue. If you think that you are the best, implicit in that thought is that others are less than you. Who among us has the right to think that?
You can notice one beautiful way we live out this idea here at St. Mark’s: our priest and deacon take communion last, after they have served all of us. They are truly servants of all.
Jesus takes a little child into his arms and teaches; “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Did you know that in the first century, when Jesus did this, fully 50% of children did not live to adulthood? They were among the most vulnerable people in the society. Jesus takes this most vulnerable child, this most perilous life in his arms and orders that his followers embrace the vulnerable, the least among us for in so doing, we are embracing him and the one who sent him.
We work at St. Mark’s to embrace the vulnerable, the powerless. We work for the homeless and poor, we donate generously to the schools to help children. The school secretary at Beacon Elementary requested underwear, socks, sweats, and shoes for children. I used some of the money which had been donated for school supplies and got to have a wonderful time shopping for needy children in our community!
We allow the last to be first when we invite hairy dogs to sit next to us in the pews and sing along with us in church. We are literally servants to all when we serve pancakes to our community. I am so grateful that our church gives us so many opportunities to be servants.
I believe we are the smallest church in Montesano. Would some people look upon us as in ‘last place’ when it comes to people in the pews? Several people have told me that they feel St. Marks is a special place. They feel the presence of the Holy Spirit so strongly in our church and amongst our small congregation. So if we are in last place, and ‘the last shall be first’, then we are in a great place!