GOAT (greatest of all time): Jesus’ Definition

A sermon, based on Mark 10.35-45, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 21, 2018

Jesus said to his disciples, “We go to Jerusalem where the Son of Man will be handed over, condemned, mocked, spat upon, flogged, and killed, and after three days rise again.”(1) This statement, immediately preceding this morning’s gospel passage, was Jesus third prediction of his suffering and death.

First, at Caesarea Philippi. Peter declared Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus then taught that he was a Messiah who would suffer and die. Peter, in horrified disbelief, rebuked Jesus.(2)

The second time, near Capernaum, while the disciples, with mindless disregard for Jesus’ declaration of his coming death, argued among themselves who was the greatest.(3)

Now, James and John, having learned nothing, discount Jesus’ word of his coming trouble, discount Jesus and his undoubted distress. Unable to conceive of trial and tribulation, but only triumph, they seek what they perceive as the prime positions of power at Jesus’ right and left. Jesus, ever patient and exasperated, responds, saying, in effect, “You have no clue about what you ask.” Can they drink from his “cup;” a biblical metaphor for suffering? Can they be baptized, immersed, drowned in his suffering? James and John, still clueless, thinking only of standing in the bright light of glory and not in the shadow of a cross, answer, “Yes.” Jesus tells them they will suffer for his sake (though, surely, they still don’t understand) and that positions of honor are not his to give. The other disciples are angry at James and John, but only because they were late in making the same request of Jesus.

All of the disciples suffer from a deep spiritual malady of corporate incomprehension. They just don’t get (or want to get) Jesus, who teaches them, who has to teach them again that truest greatness is to be a servant. From the Greek, diakonos; the same word from which we derive “deacon,” that order of ministry given especially to the service of “all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”(4)

Even more, truest greatness is to be a slave, from the Greek, doulos, the least, the last, the lowest of the lowly. (This is a hard concept for me, as an African American, in the light, indeed, in the shadow of our history of institutional slavery and our ongoing national struggle with race, to accept; yet, as Jesus said it, I do!)

Still more, Jesus, no worldly ruler who lords his power over his subjects, asks that they, that we not only do what he does, but be who he is: Those who come “not to be served, but to serve.”

This is paradox; at first glance, making no sense, but, at its heart, embracing, embodying truth. The nonsense? Nothing about lowly service matches our innate human desire for prominence and prestige or meshes with our worldly hierarchical systems and structures, whether commercial, industrial, or ecclesial. However, God so made the world and us that in the service of losing our lives for the sake of others, we discover, we save our truest selves.

Jesus makes this same point in another way: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”(5) An amazing teaching on two counts.

First, Jesus instructs by injunction, “You must do this,” because of the obvious, for Jesus, observation that life is like this. Life, as created by God, is more giving than receiving. More justice for all than “just us” (whoever “us” happens to be in relation to “them”). More radical hospitality than calculated generosity. If we focus solely, even largely on our individual interests, life (which by divine design is not only meant to be, but is relational, communal, mutually beneficial) cannot exist.

Secondly, as I said in an earlier sermon,(6) Jesus, linking greatness with service, places prestige not merely within the reach of all, but in the hands of all. This also is how life is. Not everyone has material wealth or earthly authority or worldly power. But everyone everywhere everyday can serve at least one somebody in need, and, therefore, is great.

This is what you call gospel, good news!

(1) Mark 10.33-34, my paraphrase
(2) Mark 8.27-32
(3) Mark 9.30-34
(4) The Book of Common Prayer, The Ordination of a Deacon, page 543
(5) Mark 9.35
(6) Truest Greatness (Subtitle: What if?) – A Stewardship Sermon, September 23, 2018

4 thoughts on “GOAT (greatest of all time): Jesus’ Definition

  1. This sermon warmed my heart Paul!! We may not all be wealthy, but everyone can serve!! The company I spoke to in Hershey today was all about service!! The owner opened the meeting by thanking all of his caregivers for everything they do for their ailing clients, AND he followed that with a prayer. The prayer basically acknowledged that no caregivers would likely ever be rich because salaries are low, BUT they would always be rich because of their service to others in need.

    Between the owner and his wife showering the group with appreciation and dinner, and my presentation, many caregivers were in tears at the end…

    It was a special afternoon and evening and I left there fortified. The boss ended the session with a prayer too… he did use your acronym of GOAT but he did say that all we do we do because of our faith and love for Jesus! It worked for me!!

    Love you


  2. Yours is an inspiring testimonial, for me, of the power of gratitude. Indeed, serving the ailing is time-consuming and tedious labor. Yet, I believe, it can be grand when the heart of the caregiver is moved by love; a love that innately cares for those who cannot care for themselves…

    For me, the root of your gratitude, as I have come to know you and as I believe I do know you, is, in part, deep in the soil (the soul!) of your remembrance of your 13 years of illness. All those times when you couldn’t care for yourself, when Tim stood by your side unwaveringly and when others – medical professionals and practitioners – rendered the necessary and life-saving aid to you are so much a part, I believe, of your sense of yourself that has nurtured in you – along, certainly, with the tutelage of your mother and grandparents – this, what I shall term, your compulsion to care for others. You been doing this all of your life. And, now, in your fabulous roadshow of caring for caregivers, you’ve branched out, yes, yet, in my view, you are carrying on your life-long labor in another way…

    In all of this, you, who are ever-grateful, share and inspire gratitude in others…

    All of which, in my mind and heart, express the radical hospitality of the kingdom of God of which the Marcan Jesus not only speaks, but also embodies. Radical because to link greatness with service, to proclaim that the last shall be first, to call us to take up our cross (a symbol of self-denial and suffering) and follow him all fly in the face of the world’s constant claim of self, more self, and most self: self-aggrandizement, self-enhancement, self-approval, self-esteem… Not that any of these things are bad. They are not. However, when my self becomes and is the dominant drive of my life, I, speaking always and only for myself, need to hear AGAIN and heed AGAIN the call of Jesus that there is another way; indeed, that the kingdom of God is THE other way for me.

    OK, Lord, have mercy, I’m not sure where all this came from and why it arose, BUT I am sure that your examples of love and care and gratitude are proclamations of the Jesus’ gospel; his good news.

    Love abounding and undying,


    1. Paul,

      Dang!!! That was an entirely new sermon!! Thank you sooooo much!! And I truly appreciate it!! I think back often on my illness these days, especially since I only got to take care of Tim for 6 days….though I would never have wanted him to suffer, I wish I could have taken care of him longer. There was a woman there in Hershey who had just lost one of her “clients” that she’d cared for for four years. That woman had become her family and she was inconsolable!! BUT she said I helped her share some of the “joy” from their years together!! I’m glad I was able to help her in some way!!

      Love you back!!!


  3. Loretta, in this exchange concerning the act, aye, the art of caregiving, I’m reminded of one of the things I’ve said over the years to prospective couples to marriage: To love is to experience loss…

    I’ve said it sometimes because I sensed that young folk, in the prime of their youth, do not and cannot perceive what it is to age and, in aging, to endure the continual losses of strength, endurance, stability (physical, mental, etc.), dexterity, mobility, etc. Thus, I said it, for I wanted folk to think of the inevitable ramifications of making a choice with the intention of having that choice be “in sickness and health, to love and cherish until we are parted by death.”

    Another thought, in our exchange, has occurred to me. That is, mine own and Pontheolla’s aging. I’ve begun to contemplate our years ahead and, given the inevitabilities, when one of us falters in health, how we plan to care for the other. In many ways, I feel inadequate to the task. Though I know, I believe that I, proverbially, would step up to the plate with faithful diligence.

    These are sobering thoughts. I thank you for stirring them.



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