How do you measure greatness? This question crops up perennially in the sports sections of the newspapers and internet. A few weeks ago Wayne Rooney scored against Switzerland and became England’s all time leading goalscorer. Cue lots of media discussion if this meant that he was now the greatest England striker of all time. Was he really greater than Bobby Charlton, just because he’d scored more goals, or did Charlton’s World Cup exploits put him back ahead in the all time greatest list? The question pops up in other spheres of life as well – greatest ever song writer, novelist, actor. How do we measure greatness?
This question doesn’t just get asked to the all-time greatest level though. It’s asked in our normal lives, in our workplaces, homes and schools as well, though perhaps in a slightly different tone and with different language. It’s probably not asked out loud, but it’s there in the echoes. Keeping chickens is becoming more and more popular again in this country, and I understand from the those who keep chickens that pecking order is really important. Each chicken in a group knows there position in the pecking order, who is above them, and who is below them. Any chicken trying to get a worm from a chicken higher in the order soon gets a swift pecking.
Jesus’ followers were busy trying to work out the pecking order in their little band when Jesus calls them on it. The pecking order in Jesus’ way of thinking is completely upside down.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”
It is interesting to me that Jesus does not say that it is wrong to want to be great in the Kingdom of God. What he does is to make it clear that the criteria for greatness in his kingdom are completely different to the criteria in the world.
In the world people may be considered great if they have power and influence, if they have persuaded lots of people to do what they want, if they have reached the top of their sphere of life, if are at the top of the pecking order.
This is not the case in God’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom the greatest are those who serve the most whole heartedly. Who consider others better than themselves. Who put their own preferences to one side to allow others to flourish.
What does this look like in practice?
Let’s look at two examples from our readings today, welcome and wisdom.
As he’s teaching the twelve, Jesus brings a small child beside him and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Why did Jesus bring a child? Well, in those days children were pretty much at the bottom of the pecking order. I understand that Downton Abbey starts its last series tonight. Now, I’m not actually a huge Downton fan myself but I understand that it depicts the life of a great Edwardian country house, the intertwined lives of the posh lot upstairs and the hierarchies of servants downstairs. If Jesus had been sitting in the Downton Abbey drawing room for this bit of teaching he would have sent for the under butler’s scullery maid – a 9 yr old urchin who makes the fires in the servants quarters before anybody else gets up and is under no account to be seen above stairs – put his arm round her and told the Dowager Duchess that if she wanted to be great in the Kingdom of God, then she’d have to receive and welcome this little one.
Jesus was turning the world on its head and tells us to welcome the least and the last and to serve them.
So, let’s have a little think about welcome. What does it mean to welcome someone? It seems to me that the truest form of welcome is to make someone feel at home. Sometimes we say to people, “make yourself at home”, but I think we’d usually be surprised if they actually started acting like they were at home. When we welcome people we make space for them, we want them to be comfortable, we want them to feel like coming back.
Where are we to exercise this welcome – and what does it mean practically to make space for others?
What about in church. How do we welcome people into church life? By making sure they have somewhere comfortable to sit, and not worrying if they’re sitting where we normally sit. By keeping an eye out and saying hello to people we haven’t met before. By inviting others to get involved in the practical life of the community, and not getting upset if it means that our place is taken. By finding ways for other people to be part of the decision making processes of the church, especially those on the edge and those who don’t have a voice in other areas of their lives.
What about our lives and our homes? When I’ve visited rural parts of Africa over the last few years I have been reminded of the strength of community that comes from sharing lives and welcoming others to be part of our lives. Eating together, shopping together, working together all go to create a strong community. We have to work much harder at this in our culture. Many of us work and live in different places, with different people. We have busy lives, running round all over the place. But, it seems to me that it may be difficult but it is not impossible. If we are serious about being welcoming people we will find the opportunities to eat together, to do things together, to open our lives and families up to each other to build a stronger community in which we can support and love each other.
Given the news this week of the international refugee crisis, it seems to me that Jesus’ teaching has a direct and immediate application to us. If we want to be people that welcome God, then we have to welcome the least, the last, the child.
In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s the Kindertransport programme rescued thousands of Jewish children from Nazi Germany and gave them a hope and a future. This was an example of the kind of thing that Jesus was talking about.
Home for Good is a Christian charity working to encourage Christians to consider adoption and fostering, and helping churches to support those in their communities who foster and adopt. There are currently around 4,000 children in the UK waiting for adoption. There are also refugee children from war torn parts of the world being brought to the UK by the government who need families to care for them. All Christians are adopted children. We have been adopted by God into God’s family. Is God calling some of us to welcome one of these children into our family and community? If you think this might be for you, or you want to support Home for Good in other ways then visit their website and get involved.
To be able to welcome like this takes true wisdom. The reading we had from James’ writing focusses on two types of wisdom. He contrasts heavenly wisdom with earthly wisdom. He starts with earthly wisdom which he describes as coming from selfish ambition and bitter envy. This is the kind of wisdom that likes to be clever to score points off people. It is the kind of wisdom that delights in out manoeuvring someone to gain influence or power. It is the kind of wisdom that scrabbles its way to the top of the pecking order. There may be intelligence and cleverness there, but this wisdom is false wisdom and brings with it disorder and all kinds of wickedness. It has no place in our lives, our work, or our church.
The other type of wisdom is the wisdom that has pure, transparent motives. It wants the best for everyone involved. It makes peace rather than stirring up quarrels. It’s gentle, willing to yield. How difficult I find that. When I’ve got a good idea, when I want something done my way, when it’s obvious the other person hasn’t thought it through properly. Willing to yield. To give way graciously, to then support what is decided whole heartedly and never to say “I told you so” or to bear a grudge. The kind of wisdom that doesn’t play favourites but listens to everyone without prejudging what they’re going to say.
The fruit of this, true wisdom, is peace and righteousness. The kind of righteousness that delights to serve, to take the last place, to welcome the child, to be truly great.