Greatness and the Cross
A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, September 23, 2018
St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo, FL
The Reverend J. Michael Strachan
What does it mean to be great? What does it mean to be successful? These are essential questions that we all ask ourselves whether explicitly or implicitly. We all have heroes, models of success, that we strive to be like and emulate. The world around us has several answers to these questions, and while there may not be one monolithic answer, one answer that fits everyone, the various answers that the world gives most frequently center themselves around things like profits, power, privilege, and prestige. The four P’s. The world around us, particularly television and social media, tells us to strive for these things, to dedicate our lives to these things, and to define whether we have been successful in this life by those four Ps.
And these same instincts (and I call them instincts because I don’t think we have to be taught to seek profits, power, privilege, or prestige because they are natural to us) make their way into the church as well. They aren’t just external forces that we only deal with when we step outside these walls, but they are a danger lurking inside our walls as well. How easy is it to define the best churches by the amount of money they have, or by the influence they have over a community, or by the number of people who attend there on a Sunday morning?
And I’m speaking from experience here. When I was in college, I went to a church that served 10,000 people on a Sunday morning, and I bought into the logic that the pastor was obviously doing something right because there were so many people there every Sunday. In the diocese, we confront this too. People want profits, power, privilege, and prestige, and even in the church, you’ll find that people are willing to stab brothers and sisters in Christ in the back to get them. So, this is not an us vs. them problem. The desire for profits, power, privilege, and prestige is not a thing out there that we are safe from in here. It very much so affects the church as well as the world around us.
And it affected Jesus’ disciples too, right? Jesus asked them what they were arguing about on the road, and they clam up because they had been arguing with each other about who was the greatest. The way Mark has put this together is almost incredible. What’s happened between last week’s reading and this weeks’ reading is the Transfiguration, and now Jesus is again, just as he did in our last reading, trying to tell his disciples plainly that he’s going to go to Jerusalem and die, and they don’t get it. Not only do they not get it, but they’re afraid to ask him what he means. And instead of asking Jesus, “Hey, what do you mean you’re going to die and rise again?” they decide to have a conversation amongst themselves about which of them is the greatest.
You’ll notice that Jesus seems not to respond immediately, because it says that he sat down and called the Twelve to him. Nowhere does the text say that the disciples ever told Jesus what they had been discussing. Jesus seems to know, and surely that would be more than a little troubling.
So, Jesus knowing the thoughts of his disciples decides to sit them down and talk to them about greatness. Here’s what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “The greatest of you is the one who makes the most money so he can give the most to my kingdom.” He doesn’t say, “The greatest of you is the one who brings the most people to be my disciples,” although surely that’s a great thing. He doesn’t say, “The greatest of you is the one who will build the largest number of churches in my name.” He doesn’t use the language of profits, power, prestige, or privilege to define what it means to be great or what it means to be first. Instead, he flips that entire paradigm on its head, saying “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
You see, Jesus defines greatness and not the other way. You don’t start with a definition of greatness and then ask if Jesus meets that definition. Instead, you start with the fact that Jesus is the great one and then you let him and his life and his teaching define what greatness means. And this isn’t easy because it can be messy and it can be hard, but it’s the way of the cross, and the way of the cross is the way of the Lord because we worshiped a crucified Lord, and that means that we don’t get to define greatness apart from the cross. And that means that the way up is always the way down as unnatural and as contrary to our basic instincts as that might feel.
Now let’s be very real. There are ways to baptize the four Ps. If we had more money, we could do more for the kingdom. So, let’s pursue profits. If we had more power, we could use it for the good of the church. So, let’s pursue power. If we had more privilege and prestige, we could use those things to influence the community around us and bring people to Christ. So, let’s pursue privilege and prestige. And all of those sentences are true, except that the moment you define your goals as a church or as the people of God in those terms, you have lost the way of the cross.
So, what does it mean to be great? What does it mean to be great as an individual and what does it mean to be great as a church? It means being a servant to everyone. It means not defining who we are and what we do by the four Ps of profit, power, prestige, and privilege but instead by the four points of the cross on which the savior of the world died. The sign of the cross defines us, and not what the world calls greatness. If we don’t get that, if we don’t always struggle to understand that and apply it to our lives, then we will be in danger of being like the disciples who heard Jesus say that he was going to die, and didn’t understand what he meant. Jesus wasn’t just telling them and us about his death. This prediction wasn’t just interesting information, as if he was opening up his day planner and showing them what he had on his agenda for the next month. No. Jesus is making clear to them the path that he is walking, the Way of the Lord, and he’s inviting them to walk it too as long as they know what it costs. He’s calling them, and us, to a way of life defined by servanthood and defined by the cross – because the way up is always the way down, and the way of the Lord is always the way of the cross.