“Sibling Rivalry” (February 25, 2015; Ascension Episcopal School–Sugar Mill Pond Campus, Youngsville, Louisiana)

For the Spring 2015 semester, during daily chapels at the Sugar Mill Pond Campus of Ascension Episcopal School in Youngsville, Louisiana, there will be a special sermon series on the Gospel According to Saint Mark.  Below is the fourth of the several sermons I have been assigned to preach as part of the series.

“…If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”—Mark 9.35[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I was either six or seven, I remember traveling with my father, stepmother, and some of my half/stepsiblings on a family vacation to my father’s hometown of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. It was while driving through (I think) West Virginia in the family’s red Chevrolet Astro van in which my youngest stepsister, two years older than me, and I starting arguing about something. Although I do not remember what it was that we were arguing about, what I do remember is that I got so upset with my stepsister that I called her a not-so-pleasant term. Immediately upon hearing this, my father shouted out, “BRANDT! What did you just say?” I was silent, fearing that corporal punishment was about to come. “HUH?” my father said, with me still silent as a stone and remaining so for the remainder of that day’s journey.

When we later arrived at my Aunt Norma and Uncle Harold’s house in Beaver Falls, I remember my father and I, for a brief moment, looking at each other. During this moment, I remember thinking, “This is it. I’m about to get it,” bracing myself for what was about to come. But my father, while looking at me, probably picked up, from the mixed expression of guilt and terror on my face, that I realized my error and got the assurance that I would never call my stepsister (or anybody else, for that matter) the term that I did ever again. As the moment ended, my father left and went to another part of the house. It was a gift of grace that I was thankful to receive.

Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus asking the Apostles a question: “What were you discussing on the way?” Jesus asked this question because while He and the Apostles were making their way toward Capernaum, the Apostles were talking with each other about who amongst them was the greatest. Through their silence, the Apostles convey their embarrassment about the situation. Despite their silence, Jesus knows exactly what it was the Apostles were discussing and uses the situation as a teachable moment. He offers two specific lessons: “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” and “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

The major issue at the forefront is the question of precedence and rank and Jesus addresses it in two ways. First, He challenges the day’s perception of what it meant to be great by stating that the one who serves is the one who is first. What we hear Jesus say in verse 35 is a reaffirmation of something that He previously said in chapter 8: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”[2] To the Philippians, Saint Paul says, “…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”[3] Jesus, the human form of God, willingly took on the role of a servant and through His suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, served all. Because of His offering Himself in service to all, humanity’s redemption and reconciliation with God the Father was achieved. Therefore, because of what Christ has done, those who profess themselves to be Jesus’ followers are called to be servants of all in accordance with His example. This is how it is to be for the Apostles. Through His teaching, Jesus instructs the Apostles that if they each want to be the first and greatest, then they are to love and serve their neighbor, putting away their selfish ambition and need for recognition. Love of and service to neighbor is the mark of true greatness.

Jesus illustrates his first point by taking a small child and putting him in the midst of the Apostles. The child represents the call that Jesus makes to the Apostles and to all who follow Him to give of themselves to those that are the least among them, who have the low statuses of society. The followers of Jesus are not to be pretentious or self-involved. Whoever loves and serves others, Jesus says, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me. All who love and serve their neighbor in obedience to Christ’s will experience the richness of fellowship with both God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ.

In our own day, we have seen and continue to see the negative effects caused by others’ need for glory and laudable recognition. Everyday, either on the internet, local and inter/national news channels, or in local and inter/national newspapers, there seems to always be, at least, one story highlighting a circumstance brought about by the personal ego and need for high status, privilege, and power of someone or a group of people, determined to get ahead at whatever costs necessary. Although these actions temporarily benefit him/her/those doing them, they end up hurting significantly more people throughout the process. This is what we hear from today’s epistle from Saint James: For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”[4] This is what the constant fixation on precedence and rank leads to—a total disregard for the feelings, concerns, and needs of others. It leads to ill will, anger, and the potentiality of causing harm, either emotionally, physically, or both.

This is why Jesus is insistent about true greatness being achieved through sincere love and service to others. In his first epistle, Saint John the Apostles says, “…He who loves God should also love his brother also.”[5] Jesus Himself says in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”[6] As Christians, our actions carry a significant weight within the world. When we love and serve our neighbor, we love and serve God. “God is love, Saint John declares, “and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” [7]

Once again, what we have just heard through sacred Scripture reflects well the first line of our school’s mission statement: “Ascension Episcopal School is committed to academic excellence in a Christian environment.” All of us here, in this place, have the opportunity to do and live into those things that Christ commands and to be the people that He calls us to be. We have an opportunity to be examples of Christian love and service, doing our part to transform the world through the power of the Gospel. All of us have an opportunity and the chance to make a difference. Will you heed Jesus’ call? Will you love and serve others because of Jesus’ love for you? May the Lord, who gives us the opportunity and will to do these things, give us the grace and power to perform them. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition, Copyright © 1965, 1966 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Mark 8.34-35

[3] Philippians 2.4-8

[4] James 3.16

[5] I John 4.21

[6] Matthew 25.40

[7] I John 4.16

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