“True Greatness”

John 13:31-35

The Reverend Phillip Blackburn

October 1, 2017


Most of us like to imagine what we would do if we had all the power.  My friend Ben and I often talk about the changes we will make when one of us finally gets all the power and becomes king of the world.  Don’t worry, we would be mostly benevolent.  There was a movie which captured this that came out some time ago called Bruce Almighty.  Did any of you see that movie?  Basically what happened was God, played by Morgan Freeman, delegated all his power for a short time to a guy named Bruce, played by Jim Carrey.  There is one scene in particular that I remember well.  Everyone’s prayer requests came in at all the same time, and they arrived in the form of emails.  Carrey had to painstakingly go through each one and say, “yes” or “no.”  Overwhelmed by this experience he just hit select all, then hit “yes,” so that everyone’s prayers got answered.  Chaos ensued, and the bit I think about sometimes is that there were something like 11,000 people who won the lottery and split the money.

It makes me wonder how many prayers get related to winning things: winning the lottery, winning an election, winning a job, winning the heart of girl, winning customers.  I bet there are gazillions of prayers that relate to winning.  I know this is true, because I saw a sign that proves it.  I was driving to Tulsa last week and I passed my favorite church in the whole world, Guts Church, which is right on the highway.  I never imagined that there could be a church named Guts Church, but I also imagine 14th century Roman Catholics never imagined there would be a church named First Presbyterian, so there you go.  Anyway, Guts Church is right there on the highway and they have a giant banner hanging from one of their buildings, because, of course, they have a campus, and the banner simply reads, “helping people win.”  There it is, winning.

All of us like to win.  We all have things, no matter our age, which we care about winning, and since we care about it we often loop God into our competitions and ask for help with victory.  And winning is a big part of Christianity.  We sort of conceive of ourselves as the ultimate winners.  We have God on our side.  We have a relationship with Jesus.  We are headed for heaven when we die.  These things mark us as winners of a certain sort.  And we have always wanted to win.  Ever since Constantine had a vision of the cross in the sky that led to what else but a win, at the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, the Church has liked to win.  We have aligned ourselves with Kings and Rulers who would help us win.  We have waged wars to win.  And even today, we support politicians who we believe will help us win in the culture wars around us.  We like to win.

Therefore we no doubt appreciate James and John’s questions for Jesus here in Mark.  You can sort of imagine the conversations they have been having amongst themselves.  They are on their way up the road to Jerusalem and they of course believe that Jesus is going there to win.  They believe Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem will herald a new age and a subversion of the Imperial Roman powers which have kept them in oppression; which have taken their money and their crops and their men and have left them with a little wisp of freedom.  When Jesus gets to Jerusalem, the power of God will flow through him and he will establish his kingdom here on earth, and he will win!  Which means that James and John will also win.  I mean, they got in on the ground floor, got some of the original stock in the company, they are going to win, but here is the trouble.  They aren’t exactly sure what they will win.  Then it comes to them, any kingdom needs some bureaucrats, some people with real authority to implement the king’s programs.  And in the kingdom, the bureaucrats closest to Jesus will have the most power, so that is what they want!  Winning means sitting on Jesus’ right and left hands.  That is the win.

Of course, none of that is what Jesus had in mind. I don’t think it is any surprise that this passage comes immediately after Jesus’ third prediction of his crucifixion and death.  Listen to verse 34 of chapter 11, the one immediately prior to this passage, “they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him and kill him, and after three days he will rise again.”  Inspired by this, James and John then come to Jesus, in verse 35 and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  I mean, you can’t get much more tone deaf than that, but they were like us, they wanted to win.  And what did they learn from Jesus about winning?  They learned that victory in the kingdom of God almost inevitably looks like defeat.

When Jesus finally makes it as clear for them as he can, he says, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be a slave of all.”  Funnily enough, I do not believe Guts Church, or indeed any other, will be making a banner of that.  But that is the Gospel truth of the matter.  When we think about what it means to love God with our strength, we should not think of that in terms of our power.  We have no real power.  Our strength, at least insofar as we are followers of Jesus, actually comes from our weakness, from our powerlessness, from our selflessness.  Strength, it turns out, is derived from becoming a slave of all.  From losing, at least as the world conceives of it.

I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ outstanding documentary on the Vietnam War these past two weeks.  For all the horrors of that war, and they are not hidden in the documentary, I found myself consistently moved by the selflessness of so many, the sacrifice.  I have found myself returning in my head over and over again to an interview with the author Karl Marlantes. Marlantes is a Vietnam veteran.  He had joined the marine reserves prior to his freshman year at Yale and would have headed straight for Vietnam after graduation had he not received a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.  He got a deferment.  What strikes me is what happened next.  Three months into his tenure at Oxford he wrote a letter to his parents.  It is a painful and eloquent letter, which Marlantes reads in the documentary, and it outlines his belief that he must go to Vietnam.  He does not believe in the cause of the war, but neither does he believe he can simply sit it out as his friends go and fight.  “I can do something,” he writes, “I can do my very best to get 40 kids out of Vietnam alive, and if I have to turn into an evil machine to do it, then by God I will.

Did Jesus believe that we should go to war to serve him?  I do not believe so, but in these words from Marlantes, I find strong echoes of Jesus’ words to his followers, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”  Obviously none of us are going to sign up for the next war, but if we are going to take seriously the Gospel call in our lives, if we are going to love God with all the strength in our bodies, then sacrifice and service will always be necessary for us.

This is not the glamorous bit of Christianity.  This isn’t the part where we offer our prayers to God and simply get a “Yes” in return.  It’s not the part where we get to fly our flag as the victors, and taunt those whom we have defeated.  It isn’t the part of Christianity which it’s comfortably on a slogan or a billboard or whatever.  But this is what Jesus said to his followers when they sought greatness, and it is what it means to love God with all our strength.  Our strength comes from our selflessness, from our willingness to put ourselves on the line as best and imperfectly as we are able for the betterment of somebody else.  And it means remembering every day that our victory comes not in great power, or wealth, or prestige; our victory always comes with a cross, a cross to which we are inevitably beckoned if we but have ears to hear.  Amen.