The disciples have been bickering about who is the greatest. In other words, they were arguing about the pecking order among Jesus’ followers. They lived in a world organized into higher and lower social rank, so it was second nature to them to seek a superior status.
Jesus overheard this exchange between his followers, and it was not lost on him that he had just finished predicting his Passion and Resurrection. For the second time!
Hearing his followers quarrel affirmed for him what he already knew. Grasping the meaning of his death and resurrection takes time and lots of instruction. The cross and the empty tomb define the Jesus-following community.
Our belief in his atoning death and his new life completely transforms who we are and how we relate to each other.
You might expect me to say here that following Jesus means forsaking all status-seeking. On the contrary, following Jesus transforms, intensifies, and satisfies our desire for status. Jesus makes an entirely new way of being community available to us
Let’s explore together what Jesus is getting at by reflecting on three questions:
Why do we seek status?
Where do followers of Jesus derive our status?
What kind of community arises from the status we have?
We’ll start with the first question. Why do we seek status? In a word, God created us that way.
We seek status because it meets some of our most fundamental desires. In order to thrive, we need a sense of significance and a sense of belonging.
It is a conceit of the contemporary world to say that we can grant our sense of worth and value to ourselves. But the truth is that we derive our vitality from beyond ourselves. We want to be acknowledged, accepted, valued, and loved. Recognition by someone else is crucial.
Seeking recognition is not a sign of weakness. The philosopher G. W. F. Hegel argued that recognition forms the essential core of spiritual life. Only spirit can recognize someone like us in another and experience being recognized by another who is like us.
Being human means being in relationship. And our very existence is validated, justified by the relationships we maintain.
Just think of how you introduce yourself to a new acquaintance. You don’t give your height and weight, your age or your blood pressure. Instead, you might talk about your family or your line of work, your church affiliation or your hometown.
In each case, you explain who you are with reference to some larger group, organization, economic activity, or political structure. You are who you are by reference to other people.
While this is in essence good, it is also where our yearning for recognition begins to go wrong.
In the world, we begin to rank each other as higher and lower within our organizations. Instead of thinking of these rankings as matters of merely social convention, we begin to misconstrue our place within the social fabric as the key to our true worth.
So, we devote ourselves to career success, academic achievement, accumulation of wealth, or celebrity because we think that our achievements will win the recognition we need to feel significant and accepted.
We also begin to see others through the same lens. Someone else’s social rank evokes different responses from us. Think of the deference we show to a senator or a judge or a bishop. Now contrast that to how we respond to a grocery clerk, a sanitation worker, or a mail carrier.
We want to be higher rather than lower. That’s just what the disciples were arguing about. They fell into conflict because they had mistaken social status for the enduring significance they craved.
We want to matter in a way that will never go away. Our worldly accomplishments can grant us a passing sense of importance, but our abilities will inevitably fade, and our relative social standing will decline accordingly.
God created us in his image. That means that we yearn for things infinite and eternal. We long for everlasting significance and belonging, and the fleeting things of this world cannot satisfy this desire.
Jesus came to restore us to the image of God. And that means that he came to transform how we relate to each other through the cross and the empty tomb.
When he heard his followers arguing about their relative social standing, he saw a teachable moment. He took a child into his arms and taught them about the kind of status his followers will have. And that brings us to our second question.
Children and Status
Where do followers of Jesus derive their status? Jesus himself bestows it upon us. But he doesn’t rate our moral excellence or our spiritual accomplishments. Jesus grants us status in a way that turns the world on its head.
The world grants status based on what we have to offer: good looks, brilliant intellect, physical strength, political cunning, artistic creativity, or financial acumen.
We land jobs, get promotions, and gain entrance into elite colleges by building resumes that list our accomplishments and our awards, our trophies and our triumphs.
Sometimes status comes with dumb luck and accidents of birth. We are born into wealth or make powerful friends or just happen to be in the right place at the right time.
The world puts us in our place as a function of what we have to offer.
Jesus turns this dynamic upside down. When we finally realize that we have nothing at all to offer, and we find the humility to offer our nothing to Jesus, then he bestows a status upon us that only he can give.
We are the recipients of mercy.
This was the lesson he taught his quarreling disciples. Remember that they were wrangling over their relative social position. Then, to illustrate for them the real meaning of life under the shadow of the cross, Jesus took a little child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Mark 9:37)
Jesus is pointing to a certain kind of community that only his followers will enjoy. A community in which everyone is welcome as someone recognized by Jesus. We will say more about that community in a moment.
But right now, let’s look at how we get the status as a cherished member of that community. Let’s look at how Jesus’ recognition works and the kind of status it grants us.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)
It’s difficult for us to understand what Jesus means. For a variety of reasons, we may hear Jesus saying that his followers should be innocent or trusting. In our cultural context, we believe that children deserve our care and nurture precisely because they are children. Their age, vulnerability, and weakness entitles them to our protection and support.
In Jesus’ time, children had no social status at all. They were entitled to nothing precisely because they had nothing to offer. They lived and thrived only at the mercy of a generous benefactor. There was no broad consensus that they deserved anything.
And that is just the analogy that Jesus is drawing for his followers. Like children, we derive our status from Jesus, and he grants us that status only when we know that we have nothing to offer. Even our very best efforts fall short of God’s infinitely high standards. And if we’re really honest with ourselves, we are not even at our very best all the time.
The way of mercy turns the world’s spiritual economy upside down. God does not grant us a special status when he recognizes the quality of our moral conduct and our spiritual devotion. Instead, Jesus dies for us when we deserve nothing of the sort. He recognizes our need for mercy and grants us the status of forgiven and free.
Jesus does not want us to count on our moral achievements and our spiritual devotions to save us. He wants us to count on him alone to make us lovable. As long as we seek to justify ourselves with our conduct or our piety, we are trusting in something other than Jesus to save us.
When we acknowledge that we have nothing to offer Jesus and place that nothing at the foot of the cross, then we have finally relied upon Jesus alone to make us somebody, to justify our existence.
Jesus-followers are not morally superior to or spiritually deeper than anyone else. We simply have a status that only Jesus can give us. We are the ones whose lives are animated by God’s infinite, inexhaustible, prodigal mercy.
Putting Us In Our Place
And this brings us to our final question. What kind of community arises from the status we have?
Once we know ourselves as recipients of mercy, we find ourselves in the most thoroughly egalitarian community you could ever imagine. We all have nothing to offer, and we all receive infinite riches in return for offering our nothing to Jesus.
Rich and poor, old and young, graceful and clumsy alike enjoy identical status. Jailbirds and judges, cowards and heroes, swindlers and martyrs have the same degree of nothing to offer and the same infinite reward to gain for offering it.
Mercy makes us who we are and places us all on equal footing. Jesus puts us in our place. None is higher. None is lower. All of us are alike in our infinite need and in the infinite love we receive.
Our status as members of the mercy-inspired community authorizes us to do one thing above all else: to welcome into our midst everyone else who needs the mercy that Jesus himself freely offers. To welcome everyone in the name of Jesus.
This sermon was preached at Calvary Episcopal Church in Bunkie, Louisiana.