“Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men.” 45 But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, that they should not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask him about this saying. 46 And an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. 47 But when Jesus perceived the thought of their hearts, he took a child and put him by his side, 48 and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me; for he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” 49 John answered, “Master, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.” 50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him; for he that is not against you is for you.” (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Matt 18:1-5, Mark 9:33-40
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Tenth Sunday after the Holy Cross), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Greatness: The World vs. the Kingdom of God
The Disciples, those closest to Jesus, were arguing among themselves who was the greatest. Jesus being the master at addressing such issues uses a nearby child as an object lesson. What qualities of a child does Jesus want us to consider? A child is trusting, vulnerable, and dependent. When a child suffers, they admit they are helpless, and without question they immediately seek their parents. A child is humble, not prideful, and it is pride that keeps us from recognizing our need for a Savior.
Another virtue we associate with a child is an openness to love and to be loved. In Orthodox theology, we affirm our creation in the image of God. We do not teach that we are born as sinful beings; rather we are born, perhaps as close in communion with God as we will ever be in this life, similar to the connection an infant has with his or her mother. Why? Because as we get older and move beyond the innocence of childhood we adopt insecurities, define ourselves with false identities, and build walls between each other, between God and us. We insist on comprehending the great mystery that is God and his love for us, rather than just enjoying the wonder of who he is.
Returning to the argument between the disciples: on an earthly level, in first-century Palestine, and even today in our own society, the idea of success was measured by courage, eagerness to get ahead, wealth, power, accomplishment, rank, and popularity. Ambition is the virtue of greatness. But Jesus teaches a different way, and note that he himself did not meet the requirements of earthly success: Was Jesus popular? That is, was he regarded with favor, approval, and representative of the people? Did he carry political power? Did he have a happy marriage and family? Was he surrounded by a lot of friends? In fact, where were his friends at the hour of his death? Did he own a mansion on the shore of Galilee? Did he have money, possessions, and a well-diversified retirement plan? None of the above. According to the earthly paradigm of success and happiness, Jesus was a failure.
Instead, what were some of Jesus’ criteria for greatness?
- Big numbers? “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)
- Gaining possessions? “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)
- Donating large sums of money? He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury; and he saw a poor widow put in two copper coins. And he said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had.” (Luke 21:1-4)
Or contemplate the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10): the cornerstone of what it means to be a Christian, the blueprint for faith in action, the way to happiness, success, and greatness in the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is counterintuitive, and entrance into his Kingdom requires a paradigm with Christ at the center rather than us. In many ways this is opposite to our way of thinking. We tend to live in a drama which we are writing, directing, and starring in. But self-elevation is not the way of the Kingdom. To be “the least” is to be humble, to not think highly of oneself. That kind of confidence may be admired in an earthly paradigm, but in God’s Kingdom we are all equally dependent and in desperate need of a Savior. A Savior who promises we will share his divine blessings of healing and salvation, to love like he loves, to unite with him becoming a part of him.
How often do our hearts reflect that of the disciples? If we are honest with ourselves, more often than we would like to admit. Perhaps that is why we distract ourselves with earthly things, things that keep us from regularly taking a hard look at ourselves. What can we as individuals and as a community specifically change in order to pursue the greatness of God’s Kingdom?
Greatness among the Parish Community
In the time of the Disciples, a child did not hold any respectable status, and perhaps it’s the same in our culture today. And that was exactly the point. The Kingdom of God is not built upon the earthly status of its citizens. In other words, the Disciples were not more special than anyone else just because they were Jesus’ Disciples, even in if directly chosen by him.
Likewise, a bishop, priest, parish council member, or anyone who serves the Church full-time, part-time, or on a volunteer basis, as noble as that service may be, does not have special favor with the Lord because of it. Citizenship in God’s Kingdom begins with baptism which unites all of us and makes us equal members of the Body of Christ, the Church. Then, as his Church, we are called to live as his “children.”
The 4th century Church Father, St. Gregory of Nyssa says to us today:
Let vanity be unknown among you. Let simplicity and harmony and a guileless attitude weld the community together. Let each remind himself that he is not only subordinate to the brother at his side, but to all. If he knows this, he will truly be a disciple of Christ.
A parish community that lives like “children” of God gains humility by moving beyond mere social gathering. A childlike community carries the suffering of its other members, serving one another in the love and forgiveness of Christ. It’s a family where each person puts the other person first, considering the other person as greater than one’s self. As. St. Paul wrote to the Church at Philippi:
Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)
And as our 10th century Church Father Anania Narekatsi, founder of Narek Monastery and uncle of St. Gregory of Narek wrote,
Humility is not to look on your companion as your servant, but to serve him yourself.
All ministries, organizations, and events within a parish community should reflect these childlike qualities. Everything we do as a parish community from Badarak to a bake sale should reflect the qualities of the Kingdom of God. Does every program, event, and organization build up the Body of Christ? If not, what are some ways in which we can repurpose them to do so?
Greatness among the Universal Church
In verses 49-50, John is concerned with those outside of his particular group doing the work of Christ. Jesus explains that the Kingdom of God is present among people we may not know. The Armenian Church is called to the same mission as rest of the universal Church. Unfortunately, the Armenian Church does not have special favor because it was the first nation to adopt Christianity. As proud of that as we should be, it’s not going to save our community. What Jesus is looking for is a childlike community marked by humility, desperate and dependent on him every moment of our lives. When our priorities align with the will of God and his mission for the Church, a community of true, serious believers can accomplish great works of God. Jesus said to his disciples,
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.
Here, “greater” does not mean quantitatively. Nor is it a contrast between the works of Jesus and the works of the Disciples, rather the work that Jesus does in the flesh and the works he will perform through the Church after his death, resurrection, and ascension to the Father. That is, because Jesus goes to the Father, our works are greater because a new order is coming and has already come – the Kingdom of God. And so children and citizens of God’s Kingdom, united in the person of Jesus Christ will love just as Jesus loves. We, the Church, the Body of Christ, are empowered and equipped for greatness.