Sermon given at the Oklahoma City University chapel service on October 14, 2021
Humility has long been lifted up as a virtue in Christian thought even though it may not have been practiced in reality as well as it should be. Early Christian teaching suggests that Jesus emptied himself in order to be fully receptive to God’s will. We see this expressed clearly in Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:5-8 where Paul writes these words:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humans 8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
The synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke all tell us that before Jesus began his public ministry that he spent forty days of praying and fasting and that he rejected the temptation of Satan to accept power and greatness over the way of sacrificial love and justice.
It would do us all well to remember that in the Bible, it is Satan, not Jesus, who tempts people with the promise of making them great.
Let us also not forget that one of Jesus’ strongest rebukes of any of his disciples came when Peter suggests that Jesus can avoid the way of sacrificial love and the cross, and in response Jesus says those words that no disciple would want to hear from their teacher – “Get behind me Satan.” – a reminder that Jesus continues to reject the temptation of Satan to accept greatness over union with God’s will.
And in our gospel reading for today we see what happens when two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are longing to become great and are desiring to be at Jesus’ side in glory. To their surprise, Jesus turns their expectations of greatness upside down and tells them that the only path to greatness is to serve others, and not only serve some others, but to be a servant of all.
We also have numerous admonitions in the Hebrew Bible against seeking greatness over the way of God. One could make a good argument that that little incident in the garden with Adam and Eve, you remember that act that brings sin and death into existence, was all about a desire to experience a kind of greatness that was against the will of God for humanity. And then we see the prophets in the Hebrew Bible constantly reminding their communities when they got a little too full of themselves to the point of ignoring God’s way of love and justice in the world. The prophets of God have little patience for those who prioritize being great over being good, compassionate, and just.
Given so many Biblical warnings against seeking the way of greatness over the way of love and justice, it begs the question – how do so many of us who are Christian get this so wrong? I guess we could just chalk up our continuing insatiable appetite for greatness to human sin, but don’t we believe that the grace of God can loose us from the bondage to sin and free us to be in love with others and with all of God’s creation? Isn’t this the good news that we proclaim as followers of the way of Jesus in this world – that through God’s grace we can overcome the sin of seeking self-centered personal greatness over other persons and even over God’s creation so that we might live in beloved community with one another?
This is what Mark’s Jesus said about becoming great: “But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the servant of all, for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” -Mark 10:43-45, Common English Bible
If we who are Christians want to become this kind of great, it will not happen through the way so many of us are currently headed. Our greatness as followers of Jesus will not come from the way of turning our backs on the immigrant and the refugee, the way of separating parents from their children, the way of not hearing those who have been harmed physically and emotionally, the way of increasing inequality between the rich and the poor, the way of increasing injustices against people of color, the way of decreasing access to the healing made possible by affordable healthcare, the way of discriminating against those who orient themselves to religion differently than we do, the way of discriminating against our LGBTQIA+ siblings, or the way of increasing our exploitation and harm of the earth. This is not the way to God’s greatness for us; this is the way of hubris and hate, the way of injustice and oppression, the way that Jesus would often simply refer to as sin.
If we are to become good, compassionate, and just as followers of Jesus, our greatness will come from the way of love of all our neighbors and all our enemies; it will come from the way of humility as members of a common humanity and community of all creation; it will come from the way of working for justice with the poor and oppressed, the way of bringing affordable healing and care for all people, the way of welcoming the stranger and the refugee, the way of reuniting families instead of tearing them apart, the way of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, the way of providing homes for the homeless, the way of peacemaking and not hate-making and fear-making, the way of opening our hearts and our homes to people of different religions and no religion, the way of listening to and respecting women, the way in which the lives of people of color matter just as much as the lives of white people, the way of restorative justice rather than retribution, the way in which all persons are treated equally as persons of sacred worth regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and the way of repairing and regenerating the earth as we care for all creation.
When Christianity has sought to be great, it has often been at its worst. When Christianity sought the greatness that comes with partnership with empire, it sacrificed goodness for the stability and protection offered by the state. When Christianity sought greatness through theological purity, it sacrificed goodness in the flames in which it burnt those it labeled as heretics. When the church sought greatness by spreading Christianity through the European conquest of distant lands, it sacrificed goodness for war and the genocide of indigenous persons. When Christianity sought greatness through preserving economic and political power, it sacrificed goodness for wealth and control even to the point of enslaving others and enabling the destruction of God’s good creation. When Christianity sought greatness through religious nationalism, it sacrificed goodness by participating in the persecution of others that more than once has led to religious genocide.
If we as followers of Jesus are to become great, we must turn over the tables of injustice in our land, we must become lovers of all humanity and all creation, we must become willing to take up our cross and actually follow the one whom we claim to follow and work sacrificially to create the Beloved Community of All Creation. If we do these things, then we have an opportunity to contribute to the goodness of our communities and the flourishing of all persons and the whole planet, and that my dear Christian siblings would really be great. Amen.