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Mark 9:33-41

Who Is the Greatest?

     33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

     35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, they must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

     36 He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Whoever Is Not Against Us Is for Us

     38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

     39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.

Today’s gospel reading from Mark includes these two short passages. At first glance, they might seem unrelated – and the fact they appear with separate headings sort of reinforces that impression. But as we think about them, I think you’ll start to see them as addressing a common theme, which is the nature of leadership among the followers of Jesus. And what’s more, I think you could make the case that what Jesus has to say in this reading is just as relevant to those of us who are trying to follow him in the 21st century as it was to those who were there on the day he spoke them.

In the first passage, Jesus arrives at Capernaum, which the scholars think is where he lived most of his adult life. So it was sort of the “home base” of Jesus and his disciples. When they get to Capernaum, Jesus asks the disciples what they had been talking about on the way there. We’re told that the disciples “kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.”

Obviously, this makes the disciples look pretty bad. And the fact that they are embarrassed to admit to Jesus what they had been talking about makes it plain they know he won’t be pleased.

But it seems that Jesus already knew what they had been talking about. So he calls his inner circle of disciples around himself and talks to them about leadership among his followers. And Jesus gives them a new principle for leadership among his followers. It’s a principle the church has come to call “servant leadership.” The principle, as Jesus gives it to them, is that the greatest leaders among his followers will be those who are willing to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of serving others.

Then Jesus picks up a little boy and sets him in the middle of the group. It probably isn’t immediately obvious to the disciples what the child has to do with the subject of leadership in the church, but Jesus clearly wants to make a point. His point seems to be that the leaders of his movement were supposed to have the humility of a child.

That takes a little reflection for us to understand, because people in that time and place didn’t think of children the same way we do. In our culture, children aren’t always taught to be all that humble. In our culture, people sometimes reinforce behavior that would have been regarded as downright spoiled in the ancient Near East. Kids then weren’t encouraged to be cute and precocious. They weren’t encouraged to draw attention to themselves. They were encouraged to be quiet and humble. And Jesus seems to be making the point that the leaders of the church aren’t supposed to try to attract attention to themselves, either, but rather to try to imitate Jesus through humble service to others.

Now, in this passage Jesus is talking to his core disciples, who would become the leaders of the church as it moved out into the world. Jesus would no doubt want all of his followers – whether they’re in positions of leadership or not – to adopt that attitude of childlike humility and service to others. But human nature being what it is, squabbling over who “gets ahead” is probably especially prevalent among people who play leadership roles.

In the second part of today’s reading, the disciples report to Jesus that they had tried to stop a man who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. As far as the disciples were concerned, the man wasn’t ‘authorized’ to do exorcisms in Jesus’ name. He wasn’t an official part of the ‘Jesus organization,’ we might say.

But Jesus tells the disciples not to try to silence those who claimed to be working in his name. He says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” In other words, Jesus seems to be saying that being an official part of the organization is less important than the fact that the man is doing good in Jesus’ name.

It’s only been in the last few years that our Presbyterian denomination has sort of repented of making the mistake Jesus warned the disciples about in this passage – the mistake of trying to keep everyone in it under strict control. In too many cases, we’ve said we’re trying to make sure things are done “decently and in order,” when the truth is that we just instinctively want things to be done the way we’ve always done them.

Today, our Presbyterian Church is trying to retrain itself to look for ways to let people live out the callings they think they’re hearing from God, instead of looking for reasons to say ‘no’ to people, which is what happened all too often in the past.

It seems to me that the two lessons from these little passages are among the most important lessons for church leaders – and for all followers of Jesus, for that matter: that true leadership among Jesus’ followers is always meant to be humble servant-leadership, and that leaders in the church need to lay aside instinct to control things so the Holy Spirit can lead people into forms of service that God ordains. If the church really started to demonstrate that kind of humble, permission-giving leadership – both in local congregations and in the church as a worldwide movement – then its work in the world would be a lot more effective in promoting God’s kingdom.

Let’s pray. Lord, we pray that you would nurture within us a humble spirit of service to others, and that you would raise up leaders who demonstrate that spirit. And set us free from our craving to control one another, so that all believers can live out the calling you give them and do the work you call them to, and grow in faith as you lead them. Amen.

Every Blessing,

Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 5 and 29; Isaiah 57:14-21; and Galatians 6:11-18.)