With apologies for late posting!
Following Jesus (James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a Mark 9:30-37)
Who’s the best? Who’s the greatest?
The new Guinness Book of Records has just been published. I know this because various news bulletins have been full of amazing people – the tallest man in the world (8 foot 1), the woman with the most body piercings (4,225) and the person with the longest fingernails (over 28 feet long). I admit I find every edition of the book fascinating: who is the fastest, the first, the best.
The first title for the followers of Jesus – even before they were called ‘Christians’ was “followers of the way”.
What would it mean to be the best follower of the Way?
Jesus’ disciples, in the Gospel reading that we heard, give a great example of what it does NOT mean.
‘What were you talking about while you were on the way?’ asks Jesus.
The disciples say nothing – they are ashamed. If you listen carefully you can actually hear feet being scraped on the floor in that reading.
It’s one of those questions, like when a teacher says ‘what that in your hand?’ – as you are about to pass a note to your friend that says exactly what you think of that teacher – and yes, that’s the voice of bitter experience talking..
‘What were you talking about while you were on the way?’ says Jesus.
‘Help!’ They’ve been been found out - because the disciples had been arguing precisely over the question of which of them was the greatest. Perhaps they were wondering which of them was the most loyal follower of Jesus, or which of them was his favourite, or which of them was considered by other people to be the most important. They wanted to know who was the best.
Jesus has something to teach them about being a great follower of the Way. A follower of the Way must not think of being best, but of being least, the servant of all. Then he finds a child, and puts them in the centre of the group. ‘Whoever receives a child like this receives me’.
This is even more surprising than we might think – because children of Jesus’ day were not thought to have any human rights, as we would think children should have today: until they reached adulthood children had very little voice in society. Following Jesus, being a follower of the Way, is about accepting a humble position and being ready to give a place to someone who is even more humble or unimportant in the eyes of the world. The disciples are arguing about who is the greatest, but Jesus makes it clear they shouldn’t be looking for the greatest, but making sure they find a space for the least.
Of course the Followers of the Way are just human beings, they are not perfect and they make mistakes. The letter of James is obviously written to a Christian community that were experiencing problems! In last week’s reading James complained about the harm that the human tongue can do, and in this week’s reading he turns to this age-old issue of rivalry and competition. ‘What causes this strifel among you?’ he asks.
Perhaps this community was asking ‘who is the best?’. James attacks jealousy and bitterness and upholds values of modesty, wisdom, consideration, and kindness. The followers of the Way, says James, are to be peace-makers.
But how can people ‘make’ peace?
It might seem a trivial example – but the rival sport shoe firms of Adidas and Puma are showing the way. Adi and Rudolf Dassler started making sports shoes together in their mother's wash-room in the 1920s. They fell out during World War II, probably over political differences, and founded the two firms - Adidas and Puma on either side of a river in southern Germany in 1948. The town of Herzogenaurach was also split, with residents loyal to one or other of the only major employers. Tomorrow, for the first time ever, employees of both companies will shake hands and then play a football match. The two companies have arranged this to support the Peace One Day annual non-violence day, which is always held on Sept 21st.
We can choose to be peace-makers: we can reach out the hand of friendship, or we can shake a fist in rivalry.
James is clear that a Christian community, followers of the Way, should be seeking peace.
For those who want to be the best at following Jesus, we need to forget ourselves, stop striving for accolades, seek peace instead of competition. When we follow Jesus more closely, we find him in the lowest and the least (just as we find him in broken bread & wine poured out).
If we would be true followers we need to accept a role as servant of all, as Jesus did.
Then the glory will be God’s, not ours, and we will be truly the best because we will be truly blessed.