Who is Greatest?
Who is Greatest?
The disciples are arguing about who is greatest. It might seem odd, but it shouldn’t. We argue about who is greatest all the time. It is perhaps most noticeable in the sports world which has statistics and records for everything that can be done in a game.
In our passage from Mark Jesus provides a humbling response to the question, who is greatest?
Scripture: Mark 9: 30-37
Who is Greatest?
He holds an astounding 61 records in the NHL, many of which have no chance of ever being broken. These include 92 goals in one season, 12 consecutive 40-goal seasons and 2,857 career points. His name is Wayne Gretzky and he is known as the ‘Great One.’
He holds the most NBA scoring titles at 10, he has the highest career scoring average at 30.1 and while playing was the oldest player in the league, at 35, to lead the league in scoring. These are some of his accomplishments, his name is Michael Jordan and many would argue he is among the greatest basketball players to play the game.
She is a two-time Olympic bronze medalist, won championships with three different professional teams, 13-time winner of the Canada Soccer Player of the Year Award and all-time leading scorer in Canada and currently second best in international play. Her name is Christine Sinclair and many would argue she is among the greatest soccer players in Canada if not the world.
What does it mean to be great?
Great is defined as, of an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above the normal or average.
But I ask again, what does it mean to be great?
Are only sports stars great? The way society and popular culture venerate them, you might think so. Can other people also be great? What about politicians, secretaries, business people, movie stars, janitors, musicians. Can they be great too?
Should it be a pecking order? Do we really need to keep track about who is the greatest? In the sports world it seems like we do, they have stats for everything. You can’t listen to a baseball or football game without having 100 different stats thrown at you over the course of the game. Which is astounding when you consider how slow paced those games are. But I digress, I suppose I just don’t think they are the greatest sports that can be played. I much prefer a game of rugby and perhaps we can argue about what sport is the greatest after the service.
Unless Jesus shows up, in which case we’ll probably find ourselves in an embarrassed silence similar to the disciples. They were arguing about who was the greatest. We can surmise that they were trying to figure out who was the greatest disciples. Makes me wonder where Judas ranked. However, the text doesn’t specifically say they were ranking themselves from greatest all the way down. It could be that they were arguing about who was the greatest prophet or who could cook the best fish. We don’t know.
Either way Jesus asks the question, what were you arguing about and the disciples act like a couple of kids who’ve been caught doing something they know they shouldn’t. The text doesn’t tell whether they answered Jesus or not, but I suspect he already knew the answer. His response certainly indicates that he does. “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
This passage about who is the greatest is strange. It covers three verses and is sandwiched between Jesus teaching the disciples about how the Son of Man will die and that when we welcome a child, we welcome Jesus.
Think about it, this passage has three rather interesting components:
- Jesus will be delivered into the hands of men who will kill him.
- Who is the greatest?
- Welcome a child and you welcome Jesus.
They look like three separate passages, but it all fits. Jesus is the servant of all, he puts his own needs last and through this we see how he is great. Then he takes a small child, certainly not someone we would ascribe greatness to and says how you welcome a child is reflective of how you welcome me.
Through all this the disciples are puzzled. They had questions they were afraid to ask him. They hadn’t fully clued in to the fact that Jesus was talking about himself. They probably wondered why the Messiah must suffer and die.
We probably ask why Jesus had to suffer and die. Yes, we know the story. Jesus dies, taking on our sins, providing forgiveness and then shattering the bonds of death that we might live forever with God in heaven. This is the story, this is it in a nutshell.
But why this way? Why through suffering and death? There are a lot of theories or ideas. We call them theologies of atonement.
Some of these theologies or doctrines are:
Ransom Theory or Christus Victor
This is the oldest of the theology of atonement, it holds that Jesus died to overcome the powers of sin and evil. In this theology the devil has ownership over humanity because of our sin and Jesus dies in our place to free us. This theology has Jesus dying as a ransom sacrifice on behalf of humanity.
Satisfaction and Penal Substitution
This is the widest held theology of substitutionary atonement in Western Christianity, based on the writings of Anselm of Canterbury. These theologies hold that humanity cannot repay the debt to God which has been incurred through our disobedience or sin to God. Since God is the only one who can make the satisfaction necessary to repay it rather than merely forgiving humanity. God sends the God-man, Jesus Christ to fulfill both of these conditions. Jesus is a sacrifice on behalf of humanity, taking our sin upon himself and satisfying God’s wrath.
There are aspects of these theologies which are comforting and there are other aspects which we might find frightening. Why couldn’t God just forgive us? Why the need for sacrifice?
If you think or reflect on hymns we sing you will find aspects of these two models. Onward Christian Soldiers, Man of Sorrows, And can it be that I should gain, To God be the glory. The Agnus Dei, an ancient liturgy’s words are:
Lamb of God,
Who takes away the sins of the world,
Have mercy upon us.
These ancient theologies of atonement focus on human wickedness and sin. A more modern theology of atonement that speaks to me is from Douglas John Hall, a minister from the United Church in Canada. In his book The Cross in our Context he writes, “The theology of the cross … is nevertheless first of all a statement about God, and what it says about God is not that God thinks humankind so wretched that it deserves death and hell, but that God thinks humankind and the whole creation so good, so beautiful, so precious in its intention and its potentiality, that its actualization, its fulfillment, its redemption is worth dying for” (Hall, Douglass John, The Cross in our Context, p24).
Later in his book Hall summarizes, “… the cross of Jesus Christ represents the absolute claim upon the world of the God who created and sustains it, that the message of the cross is that this world is the beloved of God and must not be abandoned…” (Ibid, p220).
We can debate, we can argue the merits, we can proclaim which theology is greatest. What we can’t escape is that Jesus died on a cross and that somehow, in someway our salvation is wrapped up in that event.
Jesus does not tell the disciples why he must die. If he does, it isn’t recorded for our benefit.
Let’s be clear about what we do know about the death of Jesus. Jesus is condemned as an outlaw and blasphemer by religious authorities, who then hand him over to secular powers. I do not believe that Jesus dies for God to be gracious and forgive sins. God was already gracious and still is. Though I love some of the old hymns, I find those older theologies troubling.
Jesus dies because he declares the forgiveness of sins. Jesus dies because he associates with the impure and the worst of society. Jesus dies because the religious establishment cannot tolerate the radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims. For all of that, Jesus cannot live. He must die.
What does it mean to be great? Considering the death of Jesus, that question takes on a whole new context.
Karoline Lewis writes, “Greatness is determined by weakness and vulnerability. By service and sacrifice. By humility and honor. By truthfulness and faithfulness … we are called to embody this kind of greatness, so that the world can witness the true meaning of greatness born out of love.” (Working Preacher)
It may also see us shunned, marginalized or killed.
Friends, the path to greatness is the path of peace, the path of life, it is the Way of Christ. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.