Matthew 20:20-28 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him
. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”
22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”
23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers.
25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.
26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,
27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Service these days – despite the efforts of Downton Abbey to semi-glamorise it – has certain negative connotations.
It implies subservience, a sense of surrendering personal rights, an abrogation of identity.
If you go to the “People’s Story” museum in the High Street in Edinburgh, you’ll see a display of how it really used to be – a tableau of a young lassie, at the crack of dawn, lighting a fire, working as a very minor servant at Carberry House – in bleak conditions.
Or perhaps some of you had a grandmother or great grandmother who, as a young woman, was in service – and although many were treated well, many others had a miserable existence.
That was the past ….. but……
When I was working in Trinidad, I was distressed by the conditions in which our church “servants” lived – our janitor and his wife. Their home was really just a basic shack with a corrugated iron roof – situated next to the church building.
I brought the situation of the Cordiners (that was their name) before the Kirk Session, only to be told that they were better housed than most in their position.
And I was further surprised when the Cordiners themselves said that they were perfectly happy, indeed “blessed”, to be living in this lean-to shed, and were honoured to be called to serve.
These are the very words that Henry and Cordelia Cordiner said to me, “We are honoured to serve”
Christ shows us that service is the new greatness.
Our Scripture passage for this afternoon shows the disciples having an argument about greatness
Their minds were entangled in contemporary ideas of greatness. When Jesus was born, the Caesar at Rome had the title “Augustus” – or “Majestic”. The ruler at Jerusalem was Herod THE GREAT. A common title in Syria and Egypt was “Benefactor”
The Pharisees of Jerusalem and the Galilean towns were clothed in prestige, as were the Temple Saducees
And the disciples, and especially James and John, wanted some of this status. These two wanted to sit on Christ’s right and left side in his glory – that’s the ambition of power!
These men needed a new idea of greatness and Jesus gave it to them.
And he did so by washing the feet of his disciples. A menial task. And Peter quibbled at this; but Christ replied, “If I do not wash you, you have no part of me”
And he says to US – May the leader be the one who serves.
Greatness is to be found in service!
Since he said that, this new concept of greatness has inspired such servants as Peter and Andrew, Francis of Assisi, Florence Nightingale, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, pope Francis ….and so many unheralded others.
And to us today
A personal remininiscence: in my first charge in 1974, I visited this particular parishioner, an elderly lady who was housebound.
On one particular visit, it was desperately cold and her home-help hadn’t managed to come along that day; as a result, the fire wasn’t lit.
The obvious thing was for me to go to the coal bunker outside, bring in the coal, and light the fire.
She would have none of this! Scandalised: “you CAN’T do that!” Explaining that a “man in your position” should not stoop …. etc
Of course, the word “Minister” comes from the same root as “minor” – lesser, and so one who serves.
In our ministry, as the people of God and as disciples of Christ, let’s never lose track that we have been called to serve – the highest calling, the greatest honour any of us could possibly have.
And that is to bring light to the World and news of salvation to all.
Was there ever a day when such need for such service was so great and pressing?
(a post note: after almost half an hour and virtually a whole box of matches and umpteen firelighters, I still couldn’t get the elderly lady’s fire to light – maybe she was right when she asked me not to bother!)