By Jacob Smith
I have had a deep conviction that everyone is imperfect and stands in need of the grace of God found in Jesus Christ in every facet of their life. That conviction has stood strong and carried me through my ministry until some time ago. I never thought it would be possible, but I believe the world saw perfection achieved when one man, Isaac Caldiero, was the first-ever winner of American Ninja Warrior, in its six seasons on NBC.
The 33-year-old rock climber/busboy —because it is never about the money — astounded the world as he performed climbing feats that no mere mortal would ever have thought possible. But what I found most interesting is that he began the event by coming out dressed like Jesus, and might I add he looked pretty official.
Now of course I am being sarcastic, but I bring this up because this is how most people think Christianity works. Jesus is an amazing example for us to follow, he is at the top of the American Ninja Warrior platform — spiritually speaking — looking down upon us, calling us to rise up to our more perfect selves, and ultimately failure is not an option, nor is it in the equation.
This is my first point: We want to be powerful, we are wired this way, especially if you live in this city. We want religion to help us be successful, help clean ourselves up, help us be more conscious and mindful. Hence we want a Jesus who will help us get to the winner’s podium.
Yet as St. Mark tells us, Jesus keeps teaching his disciples, “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.” This sounds like losing, big time. And I love how Mark describes the disciples’ response, “for they did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask him.” That is such an honest response.
Surely that can’t be the plan, Jesus, to not even make it on a podium, or get a participation medal, but rather die.
This is my second point: True religion is different than our natural ways of thinking about life. Jesus, the Gospel, is an entirely different plan, which focuses not on power but on weakness, not on glory but the cross. Not on the greatness of winning but the greatness of losing.
Mark tells us when they finally reached Capernaum, Jesus asked them, “So what were you guys talking about?” The disciples know that Jesus knows what they were talking about: who was going to be the greatest. However, I am not convinced, it was greatest in terms of who was going to be the president of Jesus’ fan club. John was not fighting with Peter over who was going to be the first pope.
I think it was more along the lines of everyday winning, everyday trying to save our lives, comparing stuff, where we find our identity (a.k.a self-justification). Where do you live… Atlanta, that is wonderful. Where do I live? … I thought you’d never ask, a little place called New York City. We do it with our spouses: Honey, I did do the dishes every night and read to the kids, I know you had a long day at work, but I think I am entitled to a little me time.
This happened to me when I first moved to New York City. We had this young hot shot attend the parish, he is now a very well-known commentator on religion in America, and me being a great pastor —there it is — took him out for coffee.
We were talking theology and of course I corrected him on a serious point — there it is — to which he said, “I am sorry where did you do your undergrad at?” To which I answered, “The University of Arizona.” And he said, “Oh my God, a state school.”
Boom. At that moment in the conversation, he was the greatest. From that moment on the rest of the conversation was about me trying to justify the University of Arizona. This was running through my head: “Oh yeah? When was the last time Harvard made it to the NCAA Final Four?”
At this moment Jesus illustrates what greatness is actually all about in his kingdom. He places himself in the position of a child. Now the impact of this illustration gets lost on us a bit. We live in an age where children are special, our culture revolves around childhood and childhood is prolonged. However, in Jesus’ day they were a bit more honest, they saw children as they are — dependent, helpless, time- and energy-consuming … not your kids, of course! In Jesus’ day you basically had children for two reasons: marry them off or put them to work. Children were the least in a society.
My friend Dave this week shared with me a powerful essay, “The Climate of Mercy,” written by the great 20th-century Trappist monk Thomas Merton. In this essay I believe Merton beautifully describes the meaning of Jesus’ illustration. Writing about our various pursuits for strength and power, even piety and self-denial, Merton says on their own, “they all are self-defeating except the Gospel mercy, in which the self-seeking self is liberated from its search and its concern, therefore to some extent from anguish, by finding not self but truth in Christ. This finding is the discovery, in grace through faith, one is mercifully understood and that in the spirit of this mercy and this understanding one is enabled to understand others in mercy and pity.”
Jesus takes this child, and says to receive — to recognize — dependence, helplessness, neediness is to recognize, is to receive God. This is powerful when you think about it, because all of us will end our lives the same way it began, like children, dependent on others, needy, not contributing much. Even the first among us, the American Ninja Warrior champions, will become last.
For in our death, we become least of all, which brings us precisely to where Jesus was heading, to death and the grave, but attached with the promise of resurrection and eternal life. To be a child of God is to be given the freedom to confess that, like the little child, I am utterly helpless, and utterly dependent on God’s grace.
This is my third point: faith doesn’t ask who is the greatest. Faith simply looks to Jesus on the cross, the One who truly became the least of all, and says, that is greatness. That is what it means to be great. And through the cross of Jesus, faith looks out into the world and sees Jesus precisely where the world would not look: in the least, the lost, the little, the child.
The Reverend Jacob Smith is the rector of Calvary-St. George’s in Manhattan and is the cohost of Same Old Song, a lectionary preaching podcast.