Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.Mark 10:43
Today’s gospel reading, Mark 10:35-45, asks and answers the question: how does one become great? There have been any number of celebrities over the years who have been considered great. I remember when I was younger, the great hockey player, Wayne Gretzky, was actually nicknamed, “The Great One.” Others have been called that, too. The baseball player, Roberto Clemente. The comedian, Jackie Gleason. Nowadays, it is rather trendy to call great athletes (like Simone Biles or Tom Brady) the “GOAT”, an acronym for “Greatest of All Time.” But what does it mean to be great in God’s eyes? That’s the real question for us, isn’t it?
James and John and Their Quest for Greatness
Today’s gospel reading begins with two of Jesus’ disciples grasping for greatness, as they understand it. James and John want to sit at Jesus’ right hand and his left when he comes into his glory. They want to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven. But they clearly don’t know what that means. Jesus offers them a path to greatness, but it is a very different path than the one they had in mind. He calls his disciples together and says to them,
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:43-45
Serving others, Jesus tells us, is the path to true greatness. And Jesus offers his own life as a model of becoming great by serving.
Jesus is not usually called “The Great One,” or the “GOAT.” But there can be no doubt that no single person has altered the course of world history more than Jesus. Even non-Christians would agree to that. Jesus was great by almost any standard. But in this gospel reading, he does something quite radical: He redefines greatness for us all. He tells us that the path to true greatness lies in service. And he not only teaches us this new path to greatness; he lives it: The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
When you think about Jesus’ life, it is marked over and over again, not by worldly greatness, but by humility. God’s Son could have been born anywhere. But he was born in the small town of Bethlehem. His first bed was a feeding trough for animals, because there was no room for him and his family in the inn. Jesus grew up in the small, unimportant town of Nazareth. Even one of his future disciples would ask, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus was not trained to be a religious leader. He was the son of a carpenter, and was being trained to do that. He spent the first thirty years of his life unnoticed by anyone. Even when he began his public ministry, he went about the countryside of Israel, not seeking greatness; but serving, and teaching; and preaching. After three years, he went to Jerusalem, not to be received as a great king, but to be handed over to death. He washed his disciples’ feet. He allowed himself to be arrested, tortured, and humiliated on the cross. He died a shameful death.
Why did he do all of this? Because the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life for us. Jesus’ life was always great in the eyes of his heavenly Father. But not so to the world.
The world has always had a different idea of what it means to be great. And so did Jesus’ own disciples. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. And he invites us, his followers, to do the same. To serve others. To spend our lives looking for opportunities to give to others what Jesus has given to us.
This is so counter-cultural, isn’t it? When you look around our world today, clearly the more popular choice is to be served. Most vacation destinations don’t try to lure us by inviting us to come and cook our own meals, or clean our own rooms. Most restaurants don’t try to attract customers by telling them that they can wash their own dishes. In the eyes of the world, the path to greatness clearly lies in being served in more and more ways. We can be assured that we have made it when we spend our lives being served by others. But even for people who achieve that goal, they are often left with an emptiness in their lives. Being served by others may make us comfortable, but it doesn’t appear to make us happy.
Albert Schweitzer is a famous Lutheran missionary who knew this well. He was the oldest son of a Lutheran pastor in Germany. But he didn’t start out as a missionary. He studied theology, and was also a very gifted organist. He was ordained, and became a world-renowned theologian. He wrote a famous book, “The Quest of the Historical Jesus.” He was a great theologian. A great organist. An incredibly gifted person. But when he was 30 years old, he abruptly decided to change the course of his life, and to become a mission doctor. He abandoned his promising career, went to medical school and became a doctor. And then he headed to Africa in order to be a medical missionary. He eventually built a hospital and a leper colony. And in 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
But what strikes me about Albert Schweitzer, more than his many accomplishments, is that he discovered the wonderful secret of the Christian life – that we are called not to be served, but to serve. And that when we live with this desire to serve others, we find happiness, meaning and fulfillment that we cannot get by being served. Albert Schweitzer summed this up in a famous quote of his:
Every person I know who has been truly happy has learned how to serve others.
Those who are truly happy are not spending their lives lying on a beach somewhere, having people cater to their every whim. Those who are truly happy, and who have found a meaningful life, have learned how to serve others.
When you think about it, many of our ministry opportunities at this church, or at any church, give us a chance to learn how to do this. Serving others makes God happy. It is what Jesus teaches. And it is essential to being a faithful disciple. But serving others also makes us happy. Because we discover that life is not all about us and our happiness and our comfort. Everyone who has been truly happy, has learned to serve others.
Another well-known Christian who recognized this truth in a powerful way was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She served the poorest of the poor in India, truly living as a servant of all. Many people wanted to live as she lived, so she began teaching a simple path. Here is Mother Teresa’s “Simple Path,” which I used to keep on a business card in my wallet:
The fruit of silence is prayer; the fruit of prayer is faith; the fruit of faith is love; the fruit of love is service; the fruit of service is peace.
In fact, she wrote a book about this entitled “A Simple Path.”
All to express this powerful truth: that a faith-filled silence leads to prayer, which leads to faith, which leads to love, which leads to service, which leads to peace. Peace, which our world hungers for, and maybe we do too, is the fruit of service.
Everyone who has found happiness and true peace, to put it another way, has learned to serve others. The peace that we all want, and that our world hungers for, cannot be measured by the number of servants we have, but instead by the number of ways in which we have found to serve others.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Let me mention one more person who taught this truth so well. And that is Martin Luther King Jr. He once preached a very famous sermon on this very gospel reading, and he helped his listeners see a path to greatness that they assumed was unavailable to them. Oppressed, poor, often uneducated, with challenges that we have trouble even imagining. They couldn’t imagine that they could ever become great. But Martin Luther King Jr. used this gospel reading to show them a different path to greatness that is available to all. Here is what he said:
Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness.
If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.
You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.
And you can be that servant.
Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And some of the greatest people this world has ever seen had little more than that. With a heart full of grace, and a soul generated by love, they found a way to serve others. And devoted their lives to serving others.
And we can, too. Following the example of Jesus, we can become great by serving others. By looking for opportunities to give to others what Jesus first gave to us. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. And he invites us to do the same. To the glory of God. Amen.
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