The Greatest

Sunday 23rd September 2012
Year B, The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Wisdom 2:12; 2:17-20
James 3:13-18; 4:1-3
Mark 9:30-37

During Danny Boyle's widely acclaimed Olympic Games Opening ceremony there were, I thought, two jarring notes: first, the appearance of Muhammad Ali, once the self-proclaimed "greatest", now suffering from Parkinson's disease; the second, literally, was the appearance of Paul McCartney, a member of the greatest band ever known. And, in a slightly different context, I thought of the triumph of England cricket captain Andrew Strauss when his team first retained the Ashes in Australia and then whitewashed India to top the world test cricket rankings and, less than a year later, he resigned more in sorrow than in anger as the result of the tawdry Kevin Peterson affair and his own and the team's loss of form. And, another layer back, I thought of how many political careers begin in hope but how none of them ends in anything approaching satisfaction, let alone triumph. But there is no shortage of candidates for political, athletic and artistic greatness; and no matter how many failures there are, the supposed impact of success makes the risk worthwhile.

So here we are, at the pivotal point of Mark's Gospel, at the beginning of the momentous journey to Jerusalem and the Apostles are jockeying for position behind the man who is certainly the greatest person they have ever known and even the greatest person they have ever known of, including, for the sake of argument, Adam, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and Daniel. When you are in the inner circle - or, in the case of Peter, James and John, the inner, inner circle - a bit of elbowing is natural enough. The response of Jesus is in three parts: first, he advances the general principle that the last shall be first and the first last; secondly, he points to the practical application that greatness is constituted by service; and, finally, Jesus illustrates the point by taking a child in his arms. To be a child and to be a servant are not the same thing but both are of little account in First Century Palestine, and that's the  point. James reinforces the point by saying that what matters are deeds done in humility which constitute wisdom; and our passage from the Book of Wisdom stages a dramatic questioning of this principle by positing the idea, on the part of the wicked, echoed in the jibes against Jesus at the Crucifixion, that if God is all that keen on the humble he will protect them and, the inference goes on, nothing of the sort will happen. But this passage stops in the wrong place, so let me read the verses which follow directly after: "Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hoped for wages of holiness, nor discerned  the prize for blameless souls; for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the Devil's envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it".

There we have it: we were made for incorruption but have been corrupted and I want to suggest that the single greatest manifestation of our flawed state is our tendency to pride by which I do not mean our quite proper 'pride' in the common use of the term, at our modest achievements. We were given physical and mental attributes in order to achieve physical and mental feats; the problem arises when we stop thinking of these, and what they achieve, as gifts and begin to believe that we are what we are of ourselves.

And for me at  least, this is the hardest thing of all because, while, like you, I know in periods of reflection that everything I am and everything I have is a pure, love-driven gift from God, it is so easy to slip into boastfulness, one of the main themes in James's letter, and to  become aggressively competitive as the Apostles became. You might think that the greatness of the other serves to moderate our view of ourselves but almost always, the opposite happens; it is as if the greatness rubs off on the members of the entourage who are no longer there as servants of the great but become owners of the great.

We can see this gate-keeper tendency in the Gospels when the Apostles, usually the leading figures, try to keep people away from Jesus in spite of the fact that they know from all his behaviour that he does not want that; and there is a special lesson here for us. It is very easy for us to decry celebrity and its hangovers-on, to say, quite properly, that most people who declare themselves to be great don't deserve the accolade and even the ones that do will come to the end of their greatness and feel the twinges of declining power and increasing regret; and of course we can say to ourselves that death is the great leveller.

But the most dangerous source of pride, of self-worthiness, is being proud of our humility and dismissive of the apparent grossness of the great. And also, if we are not careful, we become the gate-keepers of Jesus instead of being channels for others into his presence; it is so easy for religion to become bound up with itself instead of being the means by which we worship.

And therefore, at the end of the day when we examine our conscience before sleep, we must always remember that all the good that we have done is pure gift and not of ourselves; and one particularly effective way, for me at least, of putting my supposed life of mission into perspective is to ask what I have done to bring people to the Lord Jesus and to ask whether my own religiosity has been a help or a hindrance.

And finally, I try to remind myself that, for all their weaknesses, for all the evidence that they were people like us, although blessed with the presence of the Incarnate Jesus and subjects of a quite extraordinarily powerful experience of the Holy Spirit, these humble men, according to tradition at least, all died for Jesus. And although I do not expect that we will be called upon to give our lives for Jesus, I wonder whether, if it came to it, we would wear his cross in public if it were made illegal to do so?