Meekness and Majesty
We are well used to patronising Jesus’ disciples. From our lofty near 2000 year advantage, we think we would have been different if it had been us instead of them. Once again, they are in the dog house. They had all returned to Capernaum. Peter had a house there. Maybe Jesus had one also. Jesus asked the disciples 'What were you arguing about on the road?'. The disciples were embarrassed and ashamed and kept quiet. Why? Because going back to Jesus taking Peter, James and John with him to Mount Hermon and leaving the rest behind, there was jealousy among them. They had been arguing about who was the best. It had been a kind of Disciples Got Talent. Remember Muhammad Ali, the boxer. 'Ah am the greatest. Ah am so great. I am so pretty. Float like a butterfly sting like a bee'. Remember him on Parkinson’s chat show? 'Ah like your show, Ah like your style, but the money’s so bad, Ah won’t be back for a while'. Ali was the greatest boxer of his time and the greatest sporting showman. But the disciples couldn’t pick a winner among themselves. They did not recognise or acknowledge anyone in particular as being a superior follower of Jesus. Some perhaps felt inferior and made that an issue.
One-up-man-ship is a strong human trait. It is also a prominent aspect of the animal kingdom. Some people like to dominate and some enjoy being domineering. Many people also like leadership and are impressed with personal characteristics of self confidence and self-assurance. We see many on TV and most of them have astonishing egos. Politicians have to say why they are better than their opponents. There’s little room for humility. Female opera and pop singers are called divas because of their narcissism and excessive demands. Pavarotti was that kind of person too. Hotel suites had to be changed to his liking. His favourite fresh fruit was flown in from abroad. We read that the political leader of the lowest caste Dalits in India - a woman called Mayawati - sent a plane hundreds of miles to get a pair of shoes that she wanted. Colonel Gadaffi and his family used Libya’s resources to live extravagant lifestyles with gold leaf furniture and a Jacuzzi in his personal jet.
Jesus was not like that. He carried together leadership and humility in a way that is very difficult for us mortals. And so he sat down, deliberately, assuming the teaching posture of a Rabbi, and taught them 'If anyone wants to be the first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all'. This is not easy for us to understand or accept. We know how the world works. Being nice does not get you far. Being humble allows others to overtake you or even trample on you. You cannot be a successful politician with this attitude. You may not be able to manage a company or lead an enterprise. You might not be able to be a Police Commander, a Sergeant Major or an Army Officer. You probably would not last five minutes as a football club manager. Jesus could be bossy at times too. He was not averse to giving the disciples and others the rough edge of his tongue. But he preserved a balance of example. And it is for each of us to find that balance in all that we do - especially in how we treat others - and especially those who may seem in some ways - to be less in status than we are. Jesus took ambition and placed it behind service. When he washed his disciples feet, he showed this in a dramatic way. But even his crucifixion was an example of the first being last and the last first. That was how the Son of God lived and that is what he asks of us.
None of wants to be anyone’s doormat. Jesus’ teaching applies to everyone and if it is applied by everyone - it works. The problem is if and when it is only applied partially, to some and by some. Yet the drama of the Christian Church still manages to show something of this teaching of humble service. You will normally find our Moderators approachable. Some indeed have no option, having little to commend themselves. Winston Churchill’s cruel barb about Clement Attlee might be appropriate - 'a modest man with much to be modest about'. Churchill, even when he was a political outcast in the mid nineteen thirties was able to say of himself 'I am a great man'. He was right too. Anglican bishops can be friendly and helpful. Catholic bishops will speak to you as equals. The liturgy of the Church is one of service. Our elders serve you Holy Communion. There are also huge egos in our Church. I was replying to an e-mail from a Scottish journalist and author the other day. He had mentioned Andrew McLellan, former Moderator. I wrote, 'I do not know of anyone in the Church of Scotland who so continually displays such love of self and such self interest as Andrew McLellan. He reminds me of Bill Shankly’s description of Graeme Souness - if he was chocolate - he would eat himself'.
Our society is very divided between rich and poor. The old conventions of class and title still prevail. But I was hearing at first hand from a fellow minister who had preached for the Queen at Crathie and had spent the week-end at Balmoral as a part of the invitation. The Queen and Prince Philip took the minister for a Bar-B-Q. If you saw the film The Queen, it was exactly like that. The Queen was an exemplary hostess, kind, interested and caring towards the minister in question. She bore no airs or graces and her conversation was full of humility. Prince Philip was a bit rougher. 'Minister - do you want a sausage or some stuffed pheasant?' Timidly the Minister replied, 'I’ve never tried pheasant so I’ll stick with the sausage, Sir'. 'Expletive, expletive here - have some pheasant and try it'. 'Minister It is very good, Sir'. 'Of course it’s expletive good that’s why we expletive eat it'. On his recent 90th birthday one man recalled Prince Philip’s arrogance, he had by chance been standing with his 8 year old son at the entrance to Horse Guards Parade when Prince Philip drove a horse carriage past. He happened to stop briefly just where the man and his son were standing. 'Good morning Sir' said the man 'I thought you might like to know that it my son’s 8th birthday today'. 'So what', said Prince Philip, and drove on.
Can you be great and humble? It seems not to be easy. A difficult combination to get right. But great Christians are indeed humble. I remember Professor William Barclay who taught me. He was world famous. But if he met you in the College - he would put an arm round you and ask you how you how were getting on. Professor James S Stewart just a few years earlier was the most famous Christian preacher in the world. His students would embarrass him with questions like Professor Stewart - w
'Who is the second best preacher in the world?' And he would blush furiously, tongue tied an unable to answer.
We know that Jesus was never tongue-tied. Generally, he was cleverer than his opponents in discussion and argument. He led his disciples and he even gave them new names. He expected loyalty and commitment. And yet, he did this in a way that was not hard for them to bear and he was completely different from the Jewish religious leaders of His day. He took a child in his arms and told his disciples that they must be to one another as they would be to a child. Of course, in His day, children didn’t have rights to sue parents and schools as they do today. It was the dependence of the child that he was illustrating as a model for Christian inter-dependence.
John was perhaps the most spiritually aware, most spiritually switched on of the disciples and yet it is he who tried to stop someone outwith the disciples themselves healing by exorcism. Jesus on this occasion no doubt understanding the good intentions of this person, advised John not to stop anyone using His Name for good purposes. It was a very inclusive piece of teaching. Paul in his time, saw lots of different preachers doing all sorts of different things in different ways. It concerned him much but he did not try to stop them. He recognised even in the early Church that there will always be variables and different standards of preachers, healers, teachers, disciples and apostles. Ours is a humble congregation but we are only a few miles from St Michael’s Linlithgow - which is a large congregation in a very large Church with a very large financial budget. Our worship is none the less in Jesus’ sight. Jimmy Liddell is well liked by people who don’t go to Church. I am not sure he is a Christian minister but - no-one can stop him doing what he does. Some Christian denominations think they are better than others. Jesus does not. Some would like to abolish other churches. Jesus will not. He said 'In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places'.
Jesus was a surgeon of the human soul. He did not offer aspirin and words of comfort. What prompted him to say such severe words about the treatment of children we do not know. But - he spoke critically against the corruption of believing children. The millstone in question was hauled by a donkey. If anyone was tied to it and thrown into the Sea of Galilee that person would sink to the bottom and quickly drown. That was a common punishment for crime in those days. Today in our society and schools we have strategic atheistic education of children who might otherwise believe in Jesus. We have ill treatment of children and we have organised paedophilia. We have the early sexualisation of children through media and peer pressure. The Government had to pass a bill to limit this exploitation. We have bad parenting and we have drug addicted parenting. All of this is against the teaching of Jesus. And can you imagine what the Lord Jesus thinks of Roman Catholic priests who have serially abused children for years with impunity? The great issue here is that the Church of Jesus should be a safe place for children. For some, it has not been.
Jesus wants to cut out of human nature anything and all that is bad. There is plenty. People no longer value coming to Church. But, parents who do not come to Church are leaving as void in the lives of children and allowing them to be prey to other values and standards of life. Pro-active Christian parenting is the best defence against children being led astray both in childhood and in later life. Jesus warns us our human proclivities can be a danger to ourselves and others. There’s no room for complacency. He is our Saviour, our Redeemer and our Lord and in his name we are indeed saved.
In Jesus’ time salt was the great sustainer of life as a preservative. Salt was held to be pure because it was made by the sea and the sun. Every sacrifice was salted. For us refrigerators preserve food but many here will remember life without them. Jesus speaks about being salted with fire, that is testing. If salt becomes stale it contributes nothing. That is a good description of the Christian who no longer tries. Who goes through the motions. Who no longer cares and has lost all enthusiasm. Some churches call such people ‘dead wood’. During Ann Ballantine’s ministry in East Calder, they put about 300 such people off the roll of the congregation. People in all walks of life become tired, teachers, ministers. Doctors become jaded. Congregations lose their edge and their drive and their purpose. They fall in on themselves and slowly wither. Jesus teaches that we must never let it happen. We must be awake and ready and newly possessed of spiritual vision and power. And as he began this sequence of teaching with an argument among his disciples, he ends it by saying that if they get themselves right first, they will be able to live in peace with one another. And so we can be a blessing to those we love and to everyone we encounter on our life’s journey.