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The Fortune 500 Disciples

I often receive a magazine called Inspire from my alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary. When it comes in the mail, what I usually do first is to look at Class Notes, to see what the people I graduated with are doing today. One time I read about a guy I grew up with, Ralph, who at that time was serving as the interim pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Wrangell, Alaska. That’s a place where most churches are accessible only by plane or boat! It sounded like a great place for Ralph, who I know to be a great lover of the outdoors. I wasn’t jealous at all.
But I will confess there are times when I read about my fellow classmates and what they are doing, and I do get jealous. Sometimes I even place people, albeit almost unconsciously, almost without thought, in my own Fortune 500 ranking of ministers.
And that brings us to our text for today. It is easy, sometimes, to dismiss the first disciples of Jesus as being so na├»ve, so uneducated, even so much more sinful than we are. I mean, what were they thinking when, as in our passage for today, they started arguing about which one of them was the greatest? Didn’t they realize that Jesus was going to find out? Why were they so gauche about it? And yet, as in the story I have just shared, I find myself doing the same sort of thing sometimes. And maybe you do too. Oh, to be sure, we never do it in a way that is as obvious as the disciples arguing while they walked along the road. We try to be subtle. We may never argue outright about who is the greatest. But if we are honest, we do sometimes make our own Fortune 500 rankings in our minds.
If you see yourself in what I have said so far, then this message may be just for you. And even if you don’t see yourself in this, I invite you to listen in, because you may struggle with this temptation in the future. Listen for God’s word to you from Mark 9:30-37….
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It had been a long day of travel under the hot sun through the region of Galilee. Jesus and his disciples must have been relieved when they finally came to rest at their destination—Capernaum—Peter’s home town. As they had traveled, the disciples must have mulled over the events of the past few weeks. At Caesarea Philippi Jesus had asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter had answered, “You are the Christ.” But then Jesus had begun to tell them of strange events to come—something about his being rejected and killed by the Jewish leaders and how he would rise after three days. Peter, the same old impetuous Peter who had just made a great confession of faith, rebuked Jesus to his face saying, “This must not be.”
The disciples were mystified by Jesus. If Jesus really was the Messiah, why did he not demonstrate his power to the world at large? Why was he talking about dying? The way Jesus was talking and acting would be somewhat like Tom Brady saying he was going to play in the Super Bowl next Sunday with his hands tied behind his back. No Jew in the first century believed that when God sent the Messiah that he was going to have to suffer and die.

The only bright spot in the disciples’ recent journey with their Teacher was a little expedition Jesus took with Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain. Jesus finally showed himself in power, along with Moses and Elijah. His clothes were transformed into glowing raiment. But this fantastic display was vouchsafed only to the Three, and they were soon sworn to secrecy. Still, Peter, James and John probably couldn’t help gloating over the experience when they came down from the mountain. And this probably led to the argument between the disciples as they traveled on the road to Capernaum, sweating under the hot middle eastern sun.

Once settled in the house at Capernaum, Jesus raises the question that silences the disciples: “What were you arguing about on the road?” I imagine the disciples felt like the boy whose mother caught him with his hand in the cookie jar.

There is a lesson in this for us. It probably wouldn’t hurt if we would occasionally ask ourselves: “What would Jesus think if he saw me doing this, or if he heard me saying this?”

If we think about that for even a moment we should realize that Jesus, in his present heavenly state, always sees us, always hears us, no matter what we are doing, no matter how secretive we think we are being.

Apparently, on this occasion, Jesus did not need to be told what the disciples were arguing about. He knew. And he could have raked them over the coals because of their wrong attitudes. But he doesn’t. Instead he says, “Alright, if you want to be first, if you want to be the greatest, here is what you need to do: you need to take last place and be the servant of everyone else.” Jesus answers the question the disciples were asking: “Who is the greatest?” Jesus’ answer is simply: “The one who serves is the greatest.”

Jesus turns the whole power structure of the world upside down. If you want to be first, then be last. If you want to be greatest, be a servant. Of course, the reason why, as Jesus’ disciples, we need to be servants, is because he himself was a servant. Later in this Gospel, Jesus will say: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

During an NCAA basketball Final Four playoff, one of the coaches was asked prior to a game, “Why has your team done so well? What is it about this team that has made it come as far as it has? Everybody wants to know the secret to your success.”

The coach answered, “We have a motto on our team, and the motto is this: ‘Good people do for themselves; great people do for others.’”

In terms of basketball, what that coach was saying was: we don’t have anyone who selfishly thinks he has to do everything; each player knows he doesn’t have to make the basket every time he comes down the court, as some people do. We have to make the basket together. We have a team that says, “Great people do for others.” That is, “Let’s get everybody involved; let’s do something for somebody else.”[1]

I think Jesus is saying the same thing: “Great people serve others!” We need to make that our motto.

Let’s think for a moment about the way we use the word service in the church. Another word for service is ministry. I have often heard myself or others say, “In my ministry I try to…”

My ministry? It is not my ministry or your ministry. It is God’s ministry. He is the one who should be calling the shots in the church. We are not our own. We are his servants. And if we forget that—we’re sunk.

As David Watson once said, “The Christian who is ambitious to be a star disqualifies himself as a leader.”

When we as disciples grasp for greatness it obscures other’s view of Jesus. But when we serve, it enables other people to see Jesus through us.

Then the question comes—whom should we serve? Where do we start? Jesus suggests that we should start by serving the least among us.

As the disciples were sitting in the house, Jesus invited a child to stand in their midst, then he folded that child in his arms and he said to the disciples, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Edith Schaeffer once wrote,

What a memory for that child through his or her lifetime! This was a flesh-and-blood child, being placed there as an example of the need for being without pride in education, accomplishments, or power, but with the humbleness of being at the beginning, looking forward to life, not looking back with pride.

The living parable of the child presents us with two points:
  1. the child as an example of a servant and…
  2. the child as example of one to be served.

In Aramaic, the word for child and the word for servant are identical. The sense here would be, as Austin Farrer once put it, “To receive his [Jesus’] emissary, though it be but a child, is to receive him; to receive him is to receive the Eternal King himself.”

The disciples were all “het up” about which one of them was the greatest, the most important. Jesus put them in their place by showing them that even a little child could be his representative. In fact, young children may be the best representatives of Jesus precisely because they are not status-conscious.

Paul Welter, in his book Learning from Children, writes:

Jesus called for humility and pointed to the child as an example of this trait. Young children are humble in that they are not comparing and competing. They take their significance for granted and face their world in an open, relational way. Children are free of pride, which is based on comparison and competition.

If we want to become greater servants, then we need to welcome the example of the child as Jesus’ servant.

Secondly, Jesus takes the child into his arms as an example of one to be served.

William Barclay once wrote,

Now a child has no influence at all. A child cannot advance a man’s career, nor enhance a man’s prestige. A child cannot give us things; it’s the other way around. A child needs things. A child must have things done for him. And so Jesus is saying, “If a man welcomes the poor, ordinary people, the people who have no wealth, and no power, the people who need things done for them, then he’s welcoming me.”

Who do we seek to spend time with? Do we seek out needy people whom we can help? Or do we seek out people on the basis of what they can add to our lives?

Specifically, how can we welcome children into our lives for Jesus’ sake?

We can start in our own homes. Do we spend focused time with our children and grandchildren? Do we welcome their questions? Do we really listen to them and show an interest in them? Welcoming children starts at home.

But we can also welcome children in the church. Every time we baptize children in the church, as we have done today, we need to be making a commitment to assist the parents in the Christian nurture of their children. One way you can do that is by volunteering to help with our Kids Connection program, our children’s learning time that happens every Sunday morning during the worship service. Talk to Heather Stowe, or Caroline Williams, or Meredith Scott; any one of them would be happy to schedule you to help or to teach on any Sunday. And they will give you the tools you need to do the job well.

Another way you could be part of welcoming children to our church, is by volunteering to care for children during our 4:30 service. If we had some people coming to our 4:30 service on a regular basis who would be willing to do that, then we could attract more families to our church.

There are also children who need a welcome in our community. From the very first time I visited Stowe I have noticed how many children and youth there are in our community who are just waiting for someone to introduce them to Jesus.

Did you know that most people who commit their lives to follow Jesus Christ do so before age 18? Yet what are we doing for the children and youth of our community? Sadly, we are not doing a lot spiritually.

Our children and youth can receive great education in our community. They can get involved in almost any sport they want to play. But who is ministering to their spiritual needs?

It is almost flabbergasting to me that, so far as I know, there has never been a paid youth pastor in our community, not with any of our churches. And yet there are hundreds of children and youth who live here.

It is part of my desire for this church and community that someday, hopefully not in the too distant future, we would be the church to call a full-time youth pastor to minister to children and youth in our community.

What about children all around the world today who are starving physically, emotionally, and spiritually? How can we welcome them in Jesus’ name? As a congregation we support a child through Compassion International, a ministry seeking to meet the physical and spiritual needs of impoverished children around the world. We also support Pastor Ouma and the orphanage and school he runs in Kenya. As you give to this church, you are helping to support ministries like these.

Let me close with this story….

In the late 1940s, a man by the name of Bob Pierce was traveling in China holding evangelistic meetings and reaching thousands of young people for Christ through his preaching. During the course of some of his meetings in China an event took place that transformed the direction of Bob Pierce’s life. Pierce visited a mission school and orphanage run by a group of German sisters in a small village close to the Tibetan border. While there, Bob’s attention was drawn to a very thin little girl, with a lost look in her eyes, who was sitting on the steps outside the orphanage. Pierce was so moved that he asked one of the sisters about the little girl. The sister told him, “Oh, she comes and sits there every day. She wants to come to school. But we have no room.”

Pierce responded, “Surely one child won’t make that much difference. If she wants to come so badly, couldn’t you make room for just one more?”

The sister explained, “We have made room for ‘just one more’ time and time again. We already have four times the number of children we were originally prepared to care for. We have stretched our food as far as it will go. I myself am feeding three others out of my own rice bowl, as are all the other sisters. If we don’t draw the line somewhere, there will not be enough rice to keep the children we already have alive. We simply cannot take one more child!”

Pierce was horrified. “That’s crazy, ridiculous! A child can’t come asking for help and be turned away at the door. Why isn’t something being done?”

With one sweeping movement the sister picked the girl off the ground and thrust her into Bob Pierce’s arms as she said to him, “What are you going to do about it?”

Pierce responded by offering money out of his own pocket to help that little girl. But that was only the beginning. Long after he left that orphanage the sister’s question kept echoing in his mind.

That one encounter in China was the birth of a ministry that today spans the globe. It is called World Vision, and the ministry of World Vision continues feeding hungry children with food and the good news of Jesus Christ to this day.

Who is the greatest in the kingdom of God? The one who serves.

Whom should we serve? The least of these brothers and sisters of Christ, beginning with the children.

There are opportunities to serve and welcome children in our own homes, in our church, in our community, and throughout the world. But we need the help of Jesus, because we can do so much more with his power and love invigorating our lives. Let us pray and ask him for his help….

[1] Phil Lineberger, “Great People Do for Others,” Preaching Today, Tape 62.


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