“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but Him who sent me.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the ninth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, who is the greatest? How do we or anyone else become great? In our world, the great ones are determined by competition; a playoff system, sales figures, performance reports, elections. So much of our lives are spent trying to achieve greatness ourselves or speculating on who will become great. We are always competing, or watching someone else compete, all with the ultimate goal of greatness. Political campaigns and playoff races are the most obvious examples, but we are seeking greatness over others in all areas of our lives, from our work, to our family, to our community, to our church.
The disciples were no different. They competed, they jockeyed for position as the elite followers of Jesus. They each wanted the top spots in Christ’s coming kingdom, and they knew only one way to gain it—through competition. It was like watching the baseball season wind down, with twelve teams competing for the top spot. Peter was clearly ahead, and he only increased his lead with his great confession. But then he rebuked Jesus, and was knocked down a few spots. Jesus then took only three up on the mountain of Transfiguration—big points for Peter, James, and John!—and to make things worse, the other nine performed miserably in their absence. The race was heating up, and it seemed too close to call. Our Lord asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” They remained silent, for there was nothing else to talk about than the playoffs: “On the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.”
Who is the greatest? The one who places himself first. Great ones seek their own interests above all else. That is how they became great in the first place. The great ones don’t worry about the needs of anyone else, for everyone around them falls into two camps: either they will help them achieve greatness, or they are a hindrance and distraction. Only a clear focus on their own needs is going to achieve the greatness they desire, and so the needs of others must take a back-seat. The great ones are self-promoters, always seeking an opportunity to proclaim themselves and diminish their competition, to put themselves first, because only by declaring your greatness before others can you become great.
The great ones are concerned with being great. Any star athlete, hard-driving business man, or politician will tell you that without the desire to be great, it is very likely that you will never achieve greatness. Greatness does find those who didn’t expect it, occasionally, but it much more often finds those who have sought it out. Those who are great are then concerned with remaining great. They will do whatever it takes to stay on top, because there are plenty of others who want the greatness they have. The desire to become and remain great must be the most important thing in their lives; nothing, and nobody, should disrupt the need for greatness with their own needs.
Therefore, the great ones expect service from others. Everyone around them has the potential of service, to play a role in making them great. Whether it is a frenzied fan-base, a crowd of hangers-on and supporters, or literal servants, the mark of greatness is that others serve you. These servants are ready to provide for the needs of great ones, whether they pay them or not, simply because they are pursuing greatness. This is expected, it isn’t shameful in the eyes of our world. The great ones in business, politics, sports, families, and the church all have people serving them. The great ones are the ones who give the orders, who tell others what to do, and they have a right to expect obedience. It is a general rule that everyone accepts: the greater you are, the more people you have serving you. That is simply the reward of pursuing or achieving greatness.
Everyone can have a role in helping someone become great, and that is how the great ones see their neighbors in this world. The homeless man who is fed and sheltered may think he is being served by the great one, but actually he has simply become a tool or instrument to make the great one look better in the eyes of others, to earn favor before God or man. The great ones are always looking for servants, and even ‘good deeds’ shown to others are simply another way to enlist a person in the cause of making them great. The great do not ask, ‘How can I serve you?’ but ‘How can you serve me?’
Who is the greatest in this world? The one who places himself first and makes others his servants. That is the kind of greatness that the disciples argued about as they walked the roads of Galilee. That is the kind of greatness that you and I seek after. But this is not the greatness that Jesus calls for. Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Great ones put themselves last. They see others in need and they place those needs ahead of their own. They serve those closest to them, their family, and friends, but then all others. The great ones make no distinction among those around them; all are their neighbors, all are those in need, and they seek to serve those needs. They sacrifice, giving up their time, their energy, and their finances to provide for others, because the Lord hasn’t given these resources for their own use, but to serve those around them.
Great ones put themselves last, as Jesus Himself declares. ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And when He is killed, after three days He will rise.” The Great One, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, made Himself last. He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death, even death upon a cross. The Son of Man, having might and authority over all things, delivered Himself into the hands of men, mere men, weak men, that in themselves were powerless before Him. He made Himself last, and God in the flesh was killed as a common criminal. He placed all people before Himself, their needs above His own, and was ready to sacrifice all, even His own life, for His neighbors in need. You and I were in desperate need; we needed salvation from sin and death, and Jesus made Himself last to provide for our needs. He became great, the greatest, by making Himself last in service to you and me.
Great ones serve all, even those who are weak and lowly. “[Jesus] took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but Him who sent me.’” The great ones have no servants, for they serve all. There is no one so small, so humble, so miserable that the great one doesn’t stoop down to serve them. They receive, they welcome the child, the infirm, the aged. They serve those who can give nothing in return. The great ones comfort the dying, treat the sick, and step into the filth of people’s lives in order to find some way of helping. They don’t serve to benefit themselves, but they serve solely to help the neighbor. They have no need of recognition or fame, God has no need of their good works; the great ones simply serve because their neighbor has a need and they have the ability to meet it.
The great ones serve all, even those who are so weak, so lowly that they seem beneath notice. Those are the kinds of people that the Great One, Jesus, served; He served you and me. He served you and me who so often chase after the world’s ideas of greatness, who fail to put ourselves last and become servants of all. Jesus served you and me, who sin and rebel against Him in a thousand other different ways. We are poor and lowly, miserable and pathetic, but Jesus served us. He served us by laying down His life as a ransom for all people, this entire sinful, corrupted world. He served us by dying while we were still sinners. He served us by seeing our need and knowing that only He could fulfill it, and only by His death. He was firm, He was resolute, He took on that service willingly, out of love for you and me, declaring openly to the disciples, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And when He is killed, after three days He will rise.” He served you by giving up His life into death to atone for your sin; He served you by rising in victory on the third day.
And today, Jesus continues to serve. He places you and me ahead of Himself, declaring Himself as servant of all as He pours out His forgiveness upon you in water, word, bread and wine. He serves you, declaring that your sins are forgiven for the sake of His shed blood. He serves you by giving you His resurrection victory. Because He rose, you too will rise. In His resurrection, the last became first, as the one crucified as a criminal was exalted to the right hand of the throne of God, He was declared ‘great.’
Who is the greatest? How do we become great? In our world, the great ones are determined by competition: whoever is willing to put themselves first and make others his servants. But heavenly greatness isn’t given by the world’s standards. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Heavenly greatness comes through humility. This humility places the needs of others before our own; this humility makes us last in the eyes of the world. This humility confesses our failures before God, our failures to serve, our chasing after the greatness of this world, and then receives with empty hands the forgiveness that Christ has won. He is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven because He serves all, even you and me. He is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven because He didn’t place Himself first, but last of all, even to the point of death. And that greatness is given to you; not by competition, not even by your service to others, but solely by grace. You are all the greatest in the kingdom of heaven because you are forgiven, because you are the baptized, because heaven is your treasure; Christ’s greatness, His exaltation, will be given to you. Who is the greatest? You, me, and all who cling to Christ’s merit and rich mercy. In the Name of Jesus, the Great One, who served all by putting Himself last, Amen.