A disciple's greatness is found in being sent by Jesus, not in exalting themselves.
We all long for greatness, for significance. Often we pursue that through competition: pulling others down or pushing ourselves up. Jesus shows us true greatness through his obedience all the way to the cross. He gives each of his followers significance by sending us with that message.
Because it’s there
Because it’s there
“Because it’s there” - those famous words belong to one George Mallory. This was his reply when asked why anyone would attempt to climb Everest, why they would expose themselves to such great risks - why he would attempt something which, ultimately, would kill him.
Just because it’s there.
I don’t think that’s really the whole story. I think there’s more to this. I think what really drove Mallory is something at work all around us. At work in the important and famous people of our world. At work in ordinary, everyday people too.
I think all humans long for greatness. We desperately wish we could be something, we could do something. That we could make a name for ourselves. That we could make a mark on this world - even just a small one. Though I don’t think many of us would admit it. And perhaps sometimes we don’t even really know it.
But so often when we pull back the covers and question what’s really driving people, this hunger for greatness is often found. Heard of Elon Musk? Electric cars? Rockets? Here’s what close associates say about him:
“He basically wants to save humanity – it sounds very grandiose, but he perceives that he will contribute to saving humanity” says one. Another explores why: “he doesn't share credit with anyone. It's all Elon. He wants to do great deeds for humanity, but he wants to get the glory for it”
Ok - so maybe that’s true for some of the grandstanding bigwigs of our world, that they’re in hot pursuit of their own greatness - even though they’d deny it if you asked them straight up. But what about ordinary people?
Well, if you work in an office, who’s had their boss take credit for their work? Or a colleague “spin” their contribution to a project, making out it was bigger. If you’re at school, what about the playground between lessons: how many people do you see trying to outshine everyone else, kick better, run faster, be funnier? This is the desire for greatness driving ordinary people.
But let’s be honest: have you never felt it stir in your own heart, that desire to be someone, to be more than those around you? I think we all have if we’re honest. I know I have. Humans are hungry for greatness.
What does Jesus have to say about this? Does he have any solutions for this ugly desire and the damage it does?
Today we’re continuing our journey through the gospel of Luke, Luke’s telling of Jesus’ life story, and Jesus hits this straight on. Find Luke ch 9 and we’re going to pick up part way through v43. That’s page 1040 if you’re using one of these bibles. Luke chapter 9 - big 9 - verse 43 - small 43. Page 1040. Let’s read together.
And they were all amazed at the greatness of God. While everyone was marveling at all that Jesus did, he said to his disciples, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.” But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it. An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” “Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.
Who’s the greatest?
Who’s the greatest?
It’s no wonder the crowd is marvelling at Jesus as our reading begins. “everyone was marvelling” - everyone. Because he’s done such amazing things: welcoming the outsider; teaching the crowds; healing the sick; delivering the possessed; cleansing the lepers; even raising the dead. And the crowds haven’t even seen it all - the raging sea stilled, Jesus transfigured. Jesus has been amazing everyone - and the crowds are busy applauding him for it.
And it’s in the midst of this that the disciples end up arguing the ugly question of which disciple might be the greatest. Which one of them! Does it matter, boys? When Jesus is right there?
I guess given the crowds cheering about Jesus’ greatness, perhaps it’s only human of the disciples to be thinking about where they fit it, where they land in the pecking order. Who’s going to win “greatest disciple”?
Would it be Peter - because he’s correctly identified who Jesus is: God’s Messiah, that is, the chosen rescuer of God’s people, long-awaited by the Jews. Is he going to find himself ahead of the others as a result? his own assigned parking space?
Or would it have to be shared among the special three who Jesus just took up the mountain to see amazing things? A secretary and corner office each?
Hard to believe it could be the other 9 out of the 12, left behind at the bottom of the mountain and, as we heard last week, unable to even manage a simple exorcism while Jesus is away.
Which of the disciples would turn out to be the greatest?
But even as the crowds cheer the amazing signs, and the disciples bicker about which of them will take that coveted “greatest disciple” award, Jesus’ greatness, his true greatness, hasn’t even begun to be seen yet. No-one has grasped it. No-one understands where Jesus’ true greatness will be found, where it will finally be revealed.
No-one except Jesus. Jesus knows. He knows what is coming. He knows what it will take to demonstrate his true greatness: much more than healing diseases or calming seas. It will take his obedience all the way to death, even death on a cross.
In v44, right in the midst of all the cheering, it’s as if Jesus turns to his disciples and says to them “this isn’t it, you know”. He has something to say, something important, something that must stick with them no matter what: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.”
The Son of Man is one of Jesus’ favourite titles for himself - for those in the know, it connects to the Jewish hopes of a Messiah. Daniel 7 if you want to track it down. But this messiah, the son of man, will be betrayed into the hands of men, Jesus tells them. I say betrayed because that word “delivered” carries dark undertones. It’s the same word that will be used repeatedly of what Judas does in chapter 22.
Jesus knows what lies ahead of him in Jerusalem: betrayal - betrayal by one of his inner circle. Torture at the hands of the oppressor Romans. Death by the scheming of those who should have rejoiced to receive him, the religious leaders. Jesus knows what lies ahead of him in Jerusalem.
And yet he goes on anyway. Verse 51, “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem”. At this moment where the crowds think him the greatest, he shares with his disciples the reality of what’s ahead. He could have turned away, run into the desert and hid, or just become an anonymous carpenter somewhere else.
This is Jesus’ true greatness. Jesus’ greatness is found in him walking this path all the way to the cross, and there bearing our sins - all the wrong we do; all the right we ignore, every way in which we’ve failed to be what we should. Jesus takes all the punishment for all of this. Jesus’ greatness is found in his obedience to the Father’s plan of salvation, obedience all the way to death. Because when the punishment has been laid on Jesus, when it’s all spent, then the door is open for us to go free - even though we’ll never deserve it. The door is open for us to be reconciled with God no matter how far we’ve run away from him.
That’s true greatness. That’s worthy of applause. That’s what marks Jesus out as the one above everyone.
And the disciples are arguing about who’s the greatest next to this Jesus.
Demonstration for the disciples
Demonstration for the disciples
So Jesus does a little demonstration for the disciples - but I have to admit I spent quite a bit of this week puzzling over exactly what he was meaning to show them. v47 Jesus knows what’s going on with the disciples and he takes a little child - we can see from the parallels in Matthew and Mark’s gospels this child is old enough to come when called and yet young enough to be held in Jesus’ arms, so probably not more than 7 years old - he takes a little child and has them stand beside him. And then he says this Lk 9:48 “whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”
Ok, some things are immediately clear: unlike here and now, where children are often the centre of attention and adults spend their lives running around after them (believe me, I know!), back then a child was the least important person in the room. No-one would have paid them any attention. Their views and opinions wouldn’t have mattered at all. They’d be the very very last one you would list if you were putting people in order of greatness. And yet it’s a child that Jesus chooses as his example.
But there’s more to it than Jesus just turning things upside down and saying the non-great, in fact, the least - this child - is the greatest. Jesus is saying more than just that.
Look at v48 again: “whoever welcomes this little child welcomes me.” What’s welcoming got to do with this? This is not just saying “hello” to them, like we would think of welcoming at the front door. Literally this is “receiving” - that is, demonstrating openness towards them, often exercising hospitality towards them in this culture.
So ask yourself this: when is it that a seven-year-old need welcoming? When do they need receiving? Under what circumstances? They only need someone to receive them when they’ve been sent - sent on an errand, on a mission. And actually do you see that sending/receiving in what Jesus goes on to say?
“Whoever welcomes -or receives- a little child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”
Jesus pictures himself here as someone sent, sent as an emissary, an ambassador. And those who receive Jesus receive the one who sent him, God the Father. Jesus’ description of himself parallels his description of the child. Jesus is a sent one - receiving him is receiving his sender. The child is also a sent one - receiving them is receiving Jesus, who by implication is their sender.
This child isn’t just there in the middle of the disciples as an example of a low-status human, to teach a general lesson about greatness; this child is there as a disciple of Jesus, to teach the disciples a specific lesson about greatness among disciples, among sent ones.
Over in Matthew we see this same incident recorded - and what follows there reinforces this child’s identity as a disciple:
Mt 18:1-2, 6
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them.
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
Do you see it’s not just any child Jesus is using as a demonstration here, it’s a little one who believes in Jesus, a young disciple. And of course that would make sense; imagine the scene: they’re back in Capernaum at this stage, at Jesus’ base of operations where he’s pretty well established. He’s away from the crowd, but with his disciples, when Jesus addresses their argument. Where’s he going to get a young child? It’s one of the disciples’ children, a child who knows Jesus and his message, a child who is a disciple.
Still, in that culture, a child is the least - even a disciple-child. But back in Luke, at the end of v48, Jesus says “it is the one who is least among you all -that is, among the wider group of disciples of Jesus, not just the 12; a group including this young disciple- the one who is least among all you disciples who is the greatest.
How is this young disciple great? Jesus’ talk of sending and being received and who you represent is the key here. This young disciple is great, as great as any sent-one, because of who sent him. Every single disciple sent by Jesus to share his message is equally great because of who we represent, not because of who we are. We have to grasp our own insignificance, even these exalted 12 disciples, even these special three, even Peter at the fore - we must all grasp our own insignificance - and yet we find our significance in the one who sent us.
Greatness is here for all Jesus’ disciples, for all his sent ones. There’s no room for competition between us because there’s no greatness within us - only in our Lord.
“Ooops I did it again”
“Ooops I did it again”
And I think the disciples are starting to get this. John speaks up first, in response. You can see the connection in the original Greek: it says he’s “answering” even though Jesus hasn’t asked a question. And he’s having an “oops I did it again” moment.
He tells how they had encountered another follower of Jesus, at least someone working in his name, and wanted to stop them. Because they were outside of the special group. It’s as if John is saying “we’re the actual twelve chosen disciples” - as if John was defending his own greatness - defending it through pulling others down. “No, no, you need to stop right there. We’re the special ones. You’re not as great as us. This is our gig.”
But Jesus has just told him every sent-one, every disciple, finds their greatness in their sender, not in themselves. That’s why John shouldn’t stop him; no competition.
And then I think you see the same thing again with these Samaritans we read about in the next scene
Opposition + opportunity
Opposition + opportunity
As Jesus sets out for Jerusalem, he sends messengers ahead of him, disciples, to prepare the way. See this sent-ness is in view again? Jesus has only spoken about when disciples are received; what about when they are rejected? Like these Samaritans reject Jesus?
James and John want to call in an airstrike! v54 “Lord do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus rebukes them: NO! What’s wrong with calling in an airstrike on Jesus-rejecters? I think it’s tied into this same theme of greatness.
First we should make the connection to the bible story of Elijah, who calls down fire from heaven on God’s enemies. You can see why this might be top-of-mind for James and John, having just run into Elijah. So what are they doing when they want to call down fire? Casting themselves in the place of the hero, Elijah, the great prophet of signs and wonders.
They’re after greatness again - we’re the heroes. We’re the special ones. We stand out as someone great. And to exalt themselves they’re even willing to crush others.
But Jesus is the only great one - and Jesus’ plan is the right one, and his mission isn’t incinerating the opposition. In fact, his mission is to take the good news about what he will do to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and all the way to the ends of the earth. Samaritans like these will soon be the ones rejoicing in Jesus’ greatness.
How easy it is to dress up pursuing our own glory as serving God, right? Pulling others down. Pushing ourselves up.
At what cost?
At what cost?
Of course, calling down fire from heaven to burn people up is at the extreme end of this. I doubt many of you have tried that one in pursuit of your own greatness. But there are so many other more ordinary ways we do this:
We watched the Apprentice together as a family - an education in how to fail at business. I guess if you had an actual business brain and business idea you could go to a bank rather than a TV show, right?! So often it’s a horrible demonstration of what the pursuit of greatness looks like. Every time they made their way into that boardroom, and a candidate for Lord Sugar’s money, for greatness, found themselves in the cross-hairs, in danger of his trademark “you’re fired”, they’d try and put the blame on someone else, to “throw them under the bus”. “But it was Candice’s sub team who failed - she just can’t work with others; she should be fired.”
Have you thrown others under the bus in pursuit of your own greatness? Pretending you were the hero so you can scoop the glory when that’s just not true? Spinning the truth to present yourself more positively, to present others more negatively? A little “white lie” about what you actually did here and there?
This is what the human hunger for greatness does to us - this is how it turns us against each other, makes us feed on each other. Pulling others down. Pushing ourselves up.
And Christians have our own unique ways of doing this:
“I’m greater because I’m more orthodox than you.” Spent a long time hating and killing each other over that one in the past. Spending about as much time flaming one another over it on the internet today. How often is the real motive behind critiquing others’ orthodoxy just the pursuit of our greatness: the ones who have all the answers, who have it all right, all sewn up. Of course there is truth to fight for here - but please let’s do that with gentleness and humility not harshness and arrogance. Acknowledging what’s almost certain: that every single one of us will have some stuff wrong.
“I’m greater because I’m more radical than you.” At the other end of the spectrum we can use how radical we are, or how spiritual we are to beat others down, to exalt ourselves. To prove we’re the greatest, the best of the disciples. But a radical who’s driven by the desire to be great is a danger to everyone, not a servant of Jesus. Someone who sees spirituality as a way to be great isn’t truly spiritual at all - it’s a hollow spirituality that feeds on pulling others down.
What answer is there to this problem? What hope is there when this just seems to be a part of the human condition, a hunger for greatness that drives us to hurt others?
I mean, you could hope you’re just nicer than everyone else, and that you’d never crush others in pursuit of your own greatness - but our lives are riddled with examples of how universal this tendency is - the truth is its programmed into every human heart, lurking there just under the surface, our ugly default.
So what hope is there? There’s hope in Jesus. There’s an answer in Jesus.
Jesus teaches us to find our greatness in who cares for us, in who sends us. Christians are significant for who they serve; they find greatness in their great mission. That’s the hope we have.
I have to stop here - but I challenge you: find your greatness there this week - not in pushing yourself up or pulling others down.