By Bryan Spinks
Our Gospel reading today consists of two parts. The first centers on Jesus’ prediction of his destiny and end: the Son of Man will be killed. The second comes in response to an argument about who is the greatest. And Jesus took a child and put the child among them. What lessons are there here for us?
In the first section Jesus is teaching his disciples, and announces that the Son of Man will be betrayed into human hands, who will kill him, but he will rise again. The disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask. We too have difficulty understanding. If God loves the world, and God is good, and wishes to save us, why did it involve the death of his Son? The Greek word for betrayed, paradidotai, carries the meaning of necessity and martyrdom, that somehow and for some reason, God could only offer salvation by this means. “Like a gentle Lamb led to the slaughter.” Why, God alone knows. We are not required to understand the why, but accept its results. Central to our faith is the sign of the cross. It cannot be bypassed, removed, or ignored. It is a perpetual reminder of God’s costly gift to us, the laying down of the divine life so that we might have eternal life.
The disciples did not understand, but they were able to argue among themselves. We continue to be like them. The wider Church and most congregations manage to find some minor thing to argue about, squabble and fall out about. Our reading from James asks, where do those conflicts and disputes come from? Here in the Gospel it is about who is the greatest. All groups have to have some leadership if they are going to achieve their goals. But with leadership comes a certain authority, and with that, power, with all the possibility of annoyance and disagreement, and even resentment that go with these.
But Jesus does something odd. He didn’t tell a parable, but enacted one. He took a child and announced, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
It was the Victorians who invented the cult of the child, and we continue to expand it. Children are potential consumers, and a great deal of advertising is aimed at them — or at least, for them to persuade their parents about what they need. Some see this as the erosion of the innocence of the child. Because of our cult of the child, it is easy for us to see in this Gospel incident an appeal to the innocence of a child in contrast to the disciples squabbling over who is the greatest. In fact, as any parent knows, children are far from innocent They are frequently very calculating and deceptive. And there was no cult of the child in the first century. Rather, in the first century children were the bottom of the social heap, having no rights whatsoever. So when Jesus places a child at the center, he is not proclaiming innocence; instead, he is reversing the cultural and social order. He is enacting that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
In the Church, hierarchy and leadership properly understood is always one of service and humility. And although children are far from innocent, they are trusting. So we are called to be like children. Not childish, but trusting in God as children trust.
But Jesus says: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
God asks little of us that he himself has not already done. On the cross, the Son of Man became last of all and servant of all. As Jesus said elsewhere in the Gospel, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” It was exemplified on the cross.
In our second reading St. James says: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”
In fact, in Jesus Christ, God has already drawn near to us. When we serve one another so we can serve the world, we draw near to God, for we share his life of being servant of all.
The Rev. Dr. Bryan Spinks is Bishop F. Percy Goddard Professor of Liturgical Studies and Pastoral Theology at Berkeley Seminary at Yale. He preached this sermon at St. James, Higganum, Conn, where he was serving as priest in charge.