Greatness Into Goodness
St. Philip Lutheran Church
17 October 2021 + Lectionary 29b (Pent. 21)
Rev. Josh Evans
Have they even been paying attention? Jesus has been trying to teach them all along, with example upon example.
When they argue among themselves about who is the greatest, Jesus says: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” … and then shows them what it means to be welcoming by welcoming a child, one of society’s apparent nobodies.
To the rich man’s question about what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus responds: “Sell what you own, and give your money to the poor” … followed by a remarkably similar saying from the previous story: “The first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Then, today, all within the span of less than two chapters, James and John approach Jesus with their bold request - a request of glory and prestige - and met with a reminder, like before: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” And: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”
Over and over again, those who seek to follow Jesus are driven by their own ambitions: concern about who is the greatest … an unwillingness to part with material possessions … an egregiously pompous request to sit at Jesus’s right hand and left in his glory.
Over and over again, Jesus’s responses seek to pull his hearers outside of themselves and into the wider community: welcoming the child and the outcast … sharing out of our abundance so that all may be filled … serving others as Jesus serves us.
Over and over again, we are confronted with stories of greatness and what it means to be great.
Our prayer of the day puts it this way: “Sovereign God, you turn your greatness into goodness…” For me, there’s something to that distinction: greatness into goodness.
James and John wish to be great, to be powerful, to be in places of honor and prestige and glory. (And who can blame them? We’ve all been there.) Jesus calls them to goodness.
Greatness implies “it’s all about me.” Goodness suggests something different. Goodness means “it’s about us.”
Recently, I finished binging the new Netflix miniseries Midnight Mass. If you’re not a big fan of jump scares or the occasional scene of excessive gore (I’m not either), this might not be the show for you. But if you can get past that, what you’ll find is a show as beautifully and intelligently written as it is haunting - not as much in the traditional horror genre ways, but in ways much more real and dark.
At its broadest level, Midnight Mass hones in on the tension between living as a part of genuine community and the ways we are often called away from community - whether to our own individualism or into the crowd.
Midnight Mass portrays characters pulled in both directions - and, predictably, it doesn’t end well for them. Conversely, redemption and salvation are found in sacrifice for the greater good, as one friend of mine so succinctly puts it.
The show is filled with honest and eloquent monologues and conversations, much of them probing deep theological questions about God or what it means to be human. In one such moment, one of the protagonists ponders the meaning of life and the experience of death:
“Speaking for myself? Myself. My self. That’s the problem. That’s the whole problem with the whole thing. That word: self. That’s not the word, that’s not right…” she begins … and continues with an almost poetic description of dying that is both scientific and theological at the same time. Dying is as much returning to creation, to the cosmos, as living is being a part of it all.
That kind of connectedness to others, indeed to all of creation, reminds her, in a moment of redemption, that she doesn’t live just for herself, but for others. It’s a thesis that plays out dramatically as the show comes to its suspenseful and poignant conclusion … which you’ll just have to watch for yourself…
Sovereign God, you turn your greatness into goodness… That is the call of the gospel. Jesus invites us outside of ourselves and calls us into true, genuine community - from isolation to relationship - beyond our own self-centered ambitions and into the things that promote the well-being and wholeness of the community.
One of the most striking things about James and John’s request is the way it resurfaces later in Mark’s gospel. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they say. “You do not know what you are asking,” Jesus responds.
Only later do we know: “With him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.”
Following the way of Jesus - the way of goodness, the way of true greatness - is found in that kind of self-sacrificial service and giving for the sake of others. It might not lead to the prettiest or most prestigious places. For Jesus, it led to the cross.
But even there is good news. For Jesus shows us over and over again where God is present: with the poor, the suffering, the lonely, the despairing, the outcast.
God meets us in our ambitious and ultimately self-destructive drive for glory with a profound promise: You are already good enough. I am with you. I love you.
God, who puts aside God’s own glory to show us the depth and breadth of divine love for us, meets us where we are - and does not leave us there, but invites us to experience the abundance found in community, in the very kingdom of God.
Because on the other side of the cross, there is resurrection. There is new life. There is abundance and grace and wholeness. Enough for all.
Thanks be to God.