The Greatest

Preached FCCW, September 23, 2018

Mark 9:30-37 and James


Many people have been recognized by the world for their greatness.

Occasionally, someone comes along and claims to be The Greatest at whatever it is that they do.

Muhammad Ali proclaimed himself to be The Greatest boxer.

Kanye West declared himself to be the Greatest rockstar on the planet.

John Lennon once commented that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

Ironically, one person who never self-proclaimed himself to be The Greatest was the one person who actually qualified for the title.


Never one to seek the limelight, Jesus often preferred to travel incognito. In this passage I just read, it says that as he passed through Galilee he didn’t want anyone to know he was in the neighborhood, lest his popularity, and the attention of the crowds, distract him from teaching his disciples.

His disciples though, there was a crew who – to a man — were firmly convinced that there should be a place for them on any roster of Greatness. As they followed Jesus through Galilee on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, they argued amongst themselves about which of them was The Greatest.

During a stopover in Capernaum, Jesus asks them what it was they were arguing about on the road.  Don’t believe for a minute though that he didn’t already know the answer. He didn’t ask the question because he needed to be told what the disciples were up to. He asked it because they needed to face up to the inappropriateness of their conversation.

They all stood around nervously shuffling their feet, staring silently at the ground, awkwardly avoiding making eye contact with Jesus, too ashamed to admit what it was they were arguing about behind his back. How embarrassing would it be for them to own up to debating their own ambitions for personal greatness, when Jesus had just told them that when they arrived in Jerusalem, he himself would be betrayed, run through a kangaroo court of a trial and sentenced to be executed, like any common criminal.

When none of them can give an answer to his question, Jesus sits down and has them gather around him. While seated among them, Jesus delivers a lesson on true greatness.

“Whoever wants to be first (or greatest) must be last of all and a servant of all,” he tells them.

The Greek word for servant that Jesus used pertained to a particular kind of servant. The servant who served food to those at the table and was only permitted to eat after everyone else was finished with their meals.

It’s the same word from which we get the term “deacon.”

So, the office of Deacon, which in present day churches is a highly esteemed position, was actually modeled after a job that was relegated to someone considered to be a servant of all, and the last of all in the household to get fed.

As an example, Jesus then took a child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes even one child like this in my name welcomes me.”

To appreciate the significance of this act, here’s something you need to know about the place of children in that time and in that culture. Children were on the bottom of the family totem pole.

The parents’ daily calendar did not revolve around the kids’ soccer schedules or dance recitals.

Children were available to the needs of parents, not the other way around.

So, when Jesus said whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me, what he in fact was saying was, whoever –because they are a follower of mine — welcomes and embraces a person who is disregarded by society as having no intrinsic value, is displaying the kind of greatness that matters most to God.

The greatest, according to Jesus, is not the one who gets waited on hand and foot because of their high position in society. It is the one who willingly shows kindness to someone whom the world looks down upon.

True greatness is not attained by fighting one’s way to the top of the ladder of success. It is reached by descending the ladder in order to extend a helping hand to someone at the bottom who can’t pull themselves up.

We live in a world where greatness is associated with things like achievement and power, influence and success, prosperity and fame. In our Epistle passage, from James, it warns that, “Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” And that, “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” All you need to do is watch the news or open a newspaper to see for yourself the ways such ego driven greatness creates conflict and division in our world.

We follow a Lord who declares that greatness has to do with compassion and kindness and service and generosity. Not power and domination and exploitation.

A greatness that is fuelled by a love of God and neighbor.

A greatness that heals division and fosters peace.

A greatness that Jesus taught not with words alone, but ultimately, with his very existence.

In the Epistle to the Philippians there is a passage that presents Jesus as the undisputed model of  greatness for us to follow, in these words:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.


And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.”

This kind of wisdom, according to James, is “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield” – which means it is  not gained by pushing others aside to get ahead.

It is full of mercy and good fruits.

And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

“Reaping God’s Harvest” has been the theme of this year’s Season of Generous Giving.

A week from now it will be Consecration Sunday and we will be invited to present our pledges for the upcoming year.

In preparation for that act of commitment, I encourage us all to reflect on the Lord’s message to disciples then and now; that generosity is a product of that wisdom which recognizes true greatness not in what one acquires and possesses, but in what one is willing to share with others, in the name and in the example of The Greatest of all– Jesus.


Copyright 2018    Raymond Medeiros