Well we haven’t been in Luke’s Gospel for some time – let me remind you of the immediate context of these verses that we are going to think about this morning.
Jesus was well into the three year period of his ministry that would culminate with his death, resurrection and ascension. After being with his disciples for some time Jesus asked his followers an important question:
"Who do you say I am?" Lk.9:20
Peter gave a wonderful reply:
"The Christ of God." Lk.9:20
Immediately Jesus spoke to them about what lay ahead for him.
The prevailing Jewish view concerning the coming of the Messiah (the Christ) was that he would be a tremendously successful military leader who would lead his people into political freedom – the Roman yoke would be thrown off when Messiah came.
Jesus’ understanding of his ministry as the Christ was very different however. Instead of being warmly welcomed by his own people he would be rejected by their leaders, a rejection which would lead to his death. Jesus went further to speak about resurrection but his followers couldn’t get their heads round all this new and shocking information. But Jesus’ ministry was moving on into its final phase.
As this new phase was beginning Jesus continued to do a great deal of good. He was confronted with a boy possessed by an unclean spirit who was destroying his life. The boy’s father had brought him to some of Jesus’ disciples for healing but they had failed to help and in his desperation the man begged Jesus to do something. In a instant the boy was freed and the crowd that saw what happened was amazed; they recognised the majesty of God.
While everyone was still marvelling at what Jesus was able to do he took the opportunity once more of speaking to his disciples about his coming rejection, sufferings and death gradually giving them more and more detail but they wouldn’t really grasp what he meant until the events he spoke about actually came to pass.
So as we arrive at our text this morning Luke has carefully brought two main ideas to the fore and it is these two ideas that give us our context:
the incomparable greatness of Jesus and
the surprising future of suffering this great one must endure
An Argument... the fact of it
About this time a heated discussion takes place amongst Jesus’ disciples.
I’d like to think that had the disciples really understood what their great Lord Jesus had been teaching them they would have acted differently. Had they grasped how the truly Great One in their midst would soon be treated then surely they would have altered their behaviour. But I’m not so sure. Christians, genuine Christians, are capable of behaving in very silly ways, in very foolish ways – they always have been and still are today. There are lessons for us to learn.
The first thing for us to note is just how easily Christians can fall out with each other.
Now that might seem such an obvious thing to say but it is important for us to note it and draw appropriate conclusions from our knowledge.
These were, with the exception of Judas, genuine followers of Jesus Christ – they were not what we might call nominal, lapsed or non-practising Christians – these were folk who had left all in order to follow Jesus. And yet they managed to argue amongst themselves.
The reason they did so here was that they had shifted their focus away from Jesus and were now busily thinking about their own importance and relative merits. They weren’t involved in any abstract question as to what were the criteria for greatness in Christ’s Kingdom would be – each of them was far more interested in laying out their own claims. The inappropriateness of this is all the more apparent when we remember the immediate context.
So we must learn from this.
Are you a Christian disciple?
Then you need to not get side-tracked; you need to beware of losing your focus on Jesus – his person, his example and his teaching.
Remember that the world looks on and loves to see Christians bickering needlessly. It gives them a pretext for avoiding the claims of Jesus Christ when they can say that being a Christian hasn’t done anything for those who claim to be his followers because they don’t behave any differently from others who make no claim to follow him.
Yes, there are times when Christians will need to stand up for the truth. There will be times and occasions when error creeps in and must be dealt or else believers might backslide or wander away from Christ. But just because there are some situations when argument might be necessary does not mean we should feel free to argue over every matter.
Questions of relative superiority and of status are not ours to resolve. Each of us who profess faith are to use our gifts for the common good – if Paul sowed and Apollos watered the essential work remained in God’s hands for it is he alone who can give the increase.
Are you not yet a Christian?
Then let me say to you, you must not make the mistake of thinking that because Christians can be found involved in foolish arguments with each other the Christian faith is therefore irrelevant and can therefore be dismissed without further thought. You need to judge with right judgment.
The Christian faith is a faith for sinners – while Christians are in the process of being transformed by Jesus none of them are yet the finished item. How foolish you would be if you rejected Jesus Christ because his followers weren’t yet perfect.
You see the fundamental difference between a Christian disciple and a person who isn’t is not some sort of moral superiority (claimed or imagined). The fundamental difference is that the Christian disciple is a sinner who has gone to Jesus for salvation and help while the non-Christian is a sinner who hasn’t.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is addressed to sinners and to sinners only. And how wonderful is that!
Of course Jesus doesn’t want his followers to go on living exactly as they had done before trusting in him – after all his salvation is radical being a salvation from sin, it is not some sort of get-out-of-jail-free card that allows his follows to sin with impunity. Jesus expects and works to produce change in the lives of his followers – if you become one of his followers you must expect the same too.
More lessons for the Christian to draw from this
Christians aren’t perfect and should never pretend otherwise. And yet all Christians should be moving in the right direction. Are you? Are you at all concerned about whether you are or not? If you are not bothered what makes you so sure that your claim to be a Christian is in fact valid? Maybe your lack of concern is because you’re in a backslidden state and you really do need to be woken up. There is of course a danger that you may indeed be fooling yourself and that you actually need to become a Christian for the very first time!
The Argument... the substance of it
It is Jesus who brings the whole matter out into the open. He it was who knew what his followers were talking about, he knew what they were thinking deep down inside – he could read them like an open book. He knew they were arguing about which of them was the greatest.
I wonder what you make of the fact that Jesus knew. Do you see it just as one more detail of a story of long ago? Or do you draw any more pertinent conclusions?
Centuries earlier the psalmist, King David, described the LORD God he served in this way:
Ps.139:2-4 "You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether."
David knew that the LORD understood his innermost thoughts. Now here in Luke’s gospel we are confronted with the same Lord now incarnated in Jesus Christ and he has the same facility of reading his followers thoughts and motives.
Later on in the NT the writer to the Hebrews tells us that this Jesus is:
Heb.13:8 "the same yesterday and today and forever."
Do you realise the implications of this? He who could read hearts and minds in the past can still do so today. What will he make of your thoughts?
Jesus’ used his knowledge of his disciple’s thoughts to do them good. He was aware that his followers were still thinking in very much the same way as the rest of the world thinks about things and he set out to rectify this.
It was clear that his disciples had wrong views about the new kingdom Jesus was setting up. Worldly kingdoms have their own structures of power, prestige and influence and the disciples thought that Jesus’ kingdom would be the same. They wanted to make sure they were appropriately placed in the pecking order. But none wanted to cede his place to another and so they argued about which of them was the greatest.
In Jesus’ kingdom the world’s values would be turned upside-down or perhaps we should turned the right way up!
How did Jesus set about correcting his disciples’ wrong attitudes and wrong understanding?
Well, he took a young child and used him as something of a visual aid – it is interesting to note when reading through the gospels that children never really seemed to be very far from Jesus and he readily welcomed them even when his disciples were less than enthusiastic about their presence.
What did Jesus expect his disciples to learn from this child?
In Jesus’ day a child did not occupy an influential place in society. He was generally considered small, insignificant and unimportant and as such readily ignored by those who wanted to get on and to make a name for themselves. Why should anyone bother with a child who couldn’t help you further your own interests?
But Jesus attitude was and is very different.
The wording that Jesus used can be understood in more than one way.
On the one hand Jesus could have meant that he was happy to applaud humble service offered to the weak and insignificant as though it were service offered directly to himself.
On the other hand he could have meant that any service that was carried out in his name was pleasing to him.
Those of us who are Christian do not find such teaching strange or unusual but it is utterly radical. We can so easily be tempted to adjust our service, our loyalty to Christ, in ways which we find personally gratifying and rewarding. As James, writing years later knew all too well the church can be tempted to judge by a wrong set of values being warm and welcoming to those who are rich (and hence powerful allies or at least powerful potential allies) while being less than warm towards those who materially have very little to offer.
Jesus himself was the greatest person they had ever known or would know and how did he live his life? He came not to be served but to serve – those who would be his followers have a clear example to imitate.
The disciples were slow to learn
Before we come to a close we need to notice that this one lesson, however clear it might have been, was not sufficient to transform the disciples and put them thereafter on the straight and narrow.
This should make us ready perhaps to demonstrate patience towards others, the same kind of patience that Jesus was prepared to should his followers.
On several other occasions the question of importance was to crop up again but Jesus, in his love simply kept on rejecting worldly values and taught his followers that pursuing positions of power, prestige and privilege was quite simply the wrong priority to have.
It really is quite something to realise that in very similar circumstances the same issues came to the fore. Immediately after Jesus had spoken with increased clarity concerning what awaited him in Jerusalem two of his of his closest disciples working in collusion with their mother (cf. Mt.20:21) asked for the places of honour in Jesus’ kingdom Mk.10:35-45. But we mustn’t think that the others were any better because as soon as they learned of James and John’s request the other 10 were indignant – they thought James and John were trying to pull a fast one and to secure the positions everyone wanted to have (Mt.20:24)!
But still Jesus’ followers struggled to come to terms with what Jesus was trying to teach them. The next example again is found in a remarkable context which only serves to highlight just how tempting this whole matter of power and greatness was to the disciples. It begins to look something like a besetting sin. It should warn us not to imagine that resisting sin and temptation will be an easy business – it may require repeated instruction which hammers the same truth over and over again.
This time the setting is the institution of the Lord’s Supper. How inappropriate aspirations to greatness are in such a context. Immediately prior to setting up the Supper Jesus had taken a bowl of water and humbly washed his disciples feet because none of them was prepared to stoop so low and perform the menial task that they all thought to be below them. The truly great One in their midst however didn’t delay and when Peter finally reacted insisted that he continue to serve Peter in washing his feet too. In the Supper that followed Jesus linked the bread and the cup to his coming sufferings and death. Hardly does it appear that the Supper was over but that these close followers of Jesus were once again arguing which of them was the greatest! Or, as the Message puts it:
Lk.22:24 "Within minutes they were bickering over who of them would end up the greatest."
Once more Jesus tried to rectify the faulty thinking the disciples had.
Even after his death and resurrection his followers were still influenced by the ideas of influence and importance rather than humility and service:
Acts 1:6 "So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?"
So what have we seen?
Jesus’ disciples – even those closest to him – were still prone to quarrelling and arguing in a manner that was totally inappropriate to their position and calling. Let this be a warning to us – an example to avoid but a reminder that even the best of Christians are still sinners.
Jesus didn’t give up on them. He didn’t write them off nor did he stop ministering to them but kept on teaching them with a view to promoting good in them. So we have encouragement even if we feel at times we are so slow to learn and we make the same mistakes over and over again. But at the same time Jesus’ perseverance shows us that he does not want to leave his followers in the mire of their mistakes and he expects his teaching to produce fruit in the lives of all those who trust and follow him.
Let’s stop then worrying about comparing ourselves with each other and trying to use a value system that may well belong to a fallen world but which has no place in Christ’s new kingdom. Let’s take our eyes off ourselves and humbly serve others with the gifts and the opportunities that Christ has given and continues to give us.
Let’s keep our eyes fixed on our Saviour and to him alone be the power and the glory, amen.