I’m told that in Harrogate crèche is what’s happened when you’ve driven into another car, and sex is what the coal is delivered in. Harrogate acquired its fame because of the spa water, and people came to take the waters for all manner of troubles. This was no quick fix: sometimes it was a case of staying for months. Inevitably that meant that this was only an option for the rich and famous, and that led to a secondary reason for the town’s popularity. Some people came to Harrogate, not to take the waters, but to be able to say that they were there when this or that famous person was also in residence. It was an example of fame by association, rather as some today seek fame by taking selfies with well-known people.
Jesus said to his disciples: Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.
The context of this saying is simple. Jesus had noticed that, as they walked along the road, the disciples had got into quite a heated argument, and so he asked them what it was that caused the disagreement. It seems that they were reluctant to answer him because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. They knew that wouldn’t go down well with Jesus, not least because he had recently been predicting his suffering and death. So he dragged the answer out of them and then he came out with this saying which really put them in their place.
But is it really true that Christians should always seek to be at the back of the queue? Rather than taking our selfies with celebrities, should we deliberately take them with the poorest and the weakest? And when the jobs are being handed out in church, should our aim be to make sure that others get them and if possible we should be left out? Leadership from the back is rarely effective, and leadership is needed if Christ’s mission is to be effective.
It seems to me that we might understand Jesus’ words better if we draw a distinction between status and function. You see, those people who went to Harrogate in order to be able to say that they had mixed with the rich and famous were concerned about status. They wanted it to be known that they were important people, more important than the rest of us, and I suspect that this was the sort of discussion that the disciples had been having in the Gospel story. I have done more for Jesus than you have…… Jesus likes me more than you. You can almost hear the words because this is the way people sometimes talk to one another… even in church.
I remember visiting a tiny chapel in a small village. In the pulpit you were immediately confronted with a notice that urged you to speak clearly into the microphone so that Mr Jenkins could hear. Mr Jenkins was a local farmer whose family had run the chapel for generations. Now, I think it was a good thing that Mr Jenkins heard what preachers had to say, but it was no more important than that anyone else hard-of-hearing should be considered.
Status does matter to us, but the Gospel message is that we all have the highest status, made in the image of God. God loves us all so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. You cannot have a higher status than that. Before God we’re all equal. That’s why Jesus wasn’t happy with this argument among his disciples.
If we now think about function, the situation is a bit different. Think first of that band of disciples. From what we know of them it’s easy to imagine circumstances in which Peter’s function would be the most important, other situations where John’s would matter most, and yet others where Matthew could make the most valuable contribution. It’s like that in almost any group of people, and certainly so in the community of the church.
There is absolutely no virtue in a person who is knowledgeable about finance holding back to last when a new Treasurer is required, simply because they feel it’s better to allow other people to come first. It would be ridiculous if a person with pastoral skills held back from exercising them in order to allow a person who has difficulty with relationships to come first. If there’s a project that requires a leader, and there’s someone who has the gifts for that task, they should come first when we are talking about function.
Yet there is more to what Jesus was saying. It’s something about humility, and about doing what needs to be done rather than what will be noticed. You can see the first echo of it in that passage from Jeremiah. Here’s the prophet realising the evil and injustice around him, and accepting the responsibility of making a challenge, knowing full well the risk he was taking. But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. That was a situation in which being last on the scene would have been an attractive proposition. This wasn’t the only occasion on which Jeremiah put himself first in the firing line.
If that was the first echo, then the complete example of humility and sacrifice is found in our Gospel reading. The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him…. Jesus was ready to be the servant of all. What he said to his disciples he put into practice himself. Yet this was not humility and sacrifice for its own sake. The goal was salvation for others. And for Jesus? He will rise again.
So, I think we Christians need, first, to be aware of the very real temptation to want to be seen as that bit more important than others. It’s a real temptation and it can find expression in all aspects of our lives. Jesus has pointed out that we are not more important: we are as important.
Second, we need to be aware that for Christian mission, for any group activity, for a well-balanced family life, there’s a sense in which we may need to welcome a hierarchy, but it is a hierarchy based on the needs of the task in hand, and those who are first in one situation should be happy to be last in another.
Third, we Christians have a role model in Jesus who will stop us getting involved in the sort of dispute that the disciples were having in the Gospel story. It’s a model of humility and a willingness to suffer if that is what it will take to overcome the pain or evil or injustice of human life.
Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.