Servant of All
“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed he will rise again.” Jesus is teaching his disciples the good news of the gospel. This is two Sundays in a row when the gospel reading consists of Jesus foretelling his death and resurrection, and proclaiming to the disciples what the greatness of God’s love looks like. The greatness of God’s love is that Christ is servant of all and lord of all. Once again the disciples do not understand what this great sacrificial love means for the world, and as Kathy mentioned last week the disciples had other ideas about what the Messiah’s gospel greatness should look like. What Jesus was saying was not it.
Reformed Theologian John Calvin when reflecting on the disciples not being able to comprehend Jesus’ clear proclamation of gospel greatness in his commentary laments “So great is the influence of preconceived opinion, that it brings darkness over the mind in the midst of the clearest light.”
We do not know why the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest, but to be honest that is a debate humankind has always had with one another. The need to be great and powerful has been one of the major preconceived opinions that has hindered our faithfulness towards God. Maybe it was the fact that Jesus had shared once again he would be killed so they were arguing who would be best suited to take charge and lead after his death.
What we do know is they did not want to share what they were arguing about to Jesus when he asked. But Jesus knew, so he used their silence as another teaching moment about what “gospel greatness” looks like, and how it is different than human greatness that cultures and societies seek.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put the child among them… “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.””
These are radical words and actions that stand in contrast to our human cultures of greatness. When someone was the servant of all in Jesus’ day they were the servant who served meals and was only allowed to eat only what was left after everyone else, including the other servants, had enough to eat. So this person had the lowest rank of all the servants. Jesus is proclaiming that “gospel greatness” flips things around. The greatest are not those who have power, wealth, and status, the greatest are the ones who serve others first. To drive home this reminder Jesus puts a child among them and tells them that to welcome a child, is to welcomes me, and welcome the one who sent me.
In Jesus’ day children had no social status, they were insignificant, and had the lowest rank in society. So the disciples calling of a lifestyle of gospel greatness is not only to serve others first, but more importantly it is to serve and welcome the vulnerable and to let them know they are the greatest. Gospel greatness proclaims that God’s love through Christ reigns over all things and God’s love claims every person as important and worthy of love.
God’s reign of love of gospel greatness through Christ faithfully confronts the way we as humans set up our own dominant values and cultures of human greatness. Just like in the world today, in Jesus’ day greatness was about status, power, prestige, popularity, and control. In human cultures of greatness the vulnerable are swept aside, ignored, or oppressed further because if you are not first you are last.
Like the disciples in Jesus day, humans for generations have argued and fought about who is the greatest and the most powerful. Even the church over the years has allowed the preconceived opinions of human greatness to blind them from the bright light of the gospel greatness that God’s love through Christ claims all as important and worthy.
Many of you know that I love history, so it was so amazing to explore the history of Scotland in person, especially the history of the Reformed Church in Scotland. So often we as Presbyterians love to talk about the positives of the Reformation in Scotland, things like the creating of a church where church business is decent and in order, or the creation of the first public schools in churches so children and adults could learn to read the Bible on their own. But we sometimes forget from the very beginning of the Reformation movement, Christ’s church—whether Catholic or Protestant, struggled with living a life that is centered in gospel greatness and found it self letting other types of greatness define their actions.
There was a great struggle for power as christians disagreed, so instead of serving and welcoming each other they did the exact opposite. They accused each other of heresy, their disagreements led to arguments, and their arguments led to violence. It was not just a protestant and catholic struggle. Once the Reformed church was firmly established in Scotland extremist clergy within the Church of Scotland sought cultural greatness and began to accuse the marginalized member’s of their own church of heresy, their disagreements led to arguments, and their arguments led to violence.
Edinburgh, Scotland was the epicenter for this struggle. As our family walked down the streets of Edinburgh you would see markings on the road or a plaque on a building that described the struggle for greatness. To paraphrase they usually read something like, ‘this Christian was killed by these Christians here because they did not like what they said and what they did or they were seeking revenge for the death of another Christian.’ A sad reminder how tragic and painful were the early years of the Reformation.
Then about 200 years later, made literate by the legacy of their own church, Presbyterian laity, not pastors, led an Enlightenment movement in Scotland and in the Reformed Church of Scotland that led to a shift in what defines greatness. One of the main leaders was a Presbyterian preachers kid, named Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson was a University professor of philosophy who taught many other famous Presbyterians, people like Adam Smith (who later wrote Wealth of Nations, a document significant to our nations founding).
Hutcheson’s moral philosophy was based on his belief that everyone had the right to be happy, and true happiness is the result from seeking and laboring towards the happiness of others. Hutcheson, who is considered a founding father of Scottish Enlightenment, believed it was time “to change the face of theology in Scotland”. The church had preconceived opinion that gospel greatness was achieved by preaching fear and shame, and sought a greatness that brought people pain and suffering. Hutcheson and his students led a movement within the church that instead sought greatness by uplifting one another, tending to the well being of others and, seeking the common good for all.
Not only did the preaching change from the pulpit, but they did things out in the community. They addressed the city sanitary practices, and turned the location of a prison and place of public executions to become a place of one of Briton’s first public parks to encourage people to seek healthy living through exercise. Yet in all this movement towards the clearest light, Hutcheson’s influence to be a church that tends to the well being of all could not convince some of the church’s brightest minds to abolish the preconceived opinion of slavery. Not until after his death would his teachings and writings lead a movement for Scotland to abolish slavery in 1778.
First Presbyterian church of Auburn has a similar history of struggling with which greatness defines us, cultural greatness or gospel greatness. Our church would be founded 72 years after Scotland abolished slavery, but the preconceived opinion of slavery was blinding the church. They were being led by the idea that greatness could be achieved by making others your property and treating them however you’d like. The first church building (the present University chapel) would be built by slaves from a local plantation.
Almost a hundred years after slavery was abolished in the United States there was still the preconceived opinion overshadowing the south that not all were created equal. This congregation allowed gospel greatness of welcoming the marginalized to overcome the preconceived opinion of segregation, and would become the first white congregation to integrate worship in Auburn and in our Presbytery. While this action was met by disdain by the white auburn community and other white churches in the Presbytery, and while some would say this did not happen soon enough, and others would be so upset they would leave the church and form a new church where they could keep their preconceived opinion; this action of welcoming would lead to a new mindset of this congregation. The church would begin a new journey to seek ways to serve and welcome those on the margins outside the church walls.
Sixty years later our church strives to continue to serve those vulnerable and on the margins. One of the highlights of my week is to walk through Baird Hall during the day and see the smiling faces of the Bravehearts Students. For those who might not know Bravehearts Center for Place and Purpose is a joint outreach program of our church and the Auburn University Social Work Program.
The program provides young adults with special needs a space to know the importance of belonging and creates a purpose for those who would otherwise be excluded from full participation in the adult community. This much needed ministry is one of many ways our church seeks gospel greatness to serve and welcome those vulnerable in our community.
I am a big believer that you can learn and grow from the history of the past. Our church’s history can be a lens to guide us in our own faithful discipleship. Our history teaches us that even if we think we are serving and welcoming the vulnerable our preconceived opinions can still blind us from seeing those who remain on the margins. In 2021 lots of preconceived opinions of cultural greatness about our world, nation, community, and church surrounds us and consumes us.
For this reason, as a confessing church, our community of faith is called to help each other name and confess the ways our “preconceived opinions are bringing darkness to the mind in the clearest light”. Our church history tells us that preconceived opinions may blind us from seeing the vulnerable and least of these, so we are called to help each other recognize and name the vulnerable and marginalized we might not even notice in our midst.
The good news is God’s love that reigns through Christ will always be present to guide us towards gospel greatness. Christ has shown us the sacrificial love it takes to humbly serve others. When our lifestyle and leadership in church or out in our community is one based on humbly serving and welcoming the vulnerable then gospel greatness will be the bright light that overcomes our preconceived opinions. May Christ’s calling to a lifestyle of serving and welcoming all help guide us to gospel greatness. Alleluia Amen!