This sermon was preached three days after the sixth Shape of Reality talk, which was on the Growth of Love.
Cambridge is a very competitive environment. It’s been a busy week on the river, and it’s been a busy week in libraries and laboratories, as students strive to succeed with their muscles and with their brains. Struggling hard to out-do each other. As a result, I meet a lot of people here who have little idea how to relax. Who are deeply competitive even in their hobbies and their social lives. In this great centre of excellence, it’s hard to find groups of people who are happy to do something fairly badly, just for the sheer fun of it. There’s a longing to be one of the best which soaks into all areas of life.
Cambridge makes that competitiveness worse. But competition for success and status is a common part of human life. Even after university there are still plenty of similar battles to fight. Career ladders to climb. The struggle to afford the right sort of house in the right sort of area, and the right sort of car. Competing for status, and obvious signs of success, is a frequent part of human life. And it can sometimes bring out the best in us, and sometimes the worst in us.
TS Eliot wrote that “Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people wanting to be important.” And all kinds of conflicts, from petty office politics up to world wars, are caused by people trying to assert their own status and importance over others. And lots of very bad day-time television is caused by people who make themselves ridiculous trying to get their five minutes of fame on Big Brother or some other vacuous nonsense.
Some people’s pompous attempts to look important are really quite funny. But there’s also a very dark and tragic side to all this status-seeking. Somebody ends up at the bottom, and a lot of people end up very near it. For every person who can successfully appear important, there have to be many, many others who appear very unimportant indeed.
However, one of the ways in which Jesus bewildered people, and still bewilders people today, was his total refusal to join in with the status-seeking game in any normal way.
Jesus lived in a culture which, like ours, had very clear expectations of what an important person would be like. Grand titles, palaces, multitudes of grovelling servants, fine clothes, chariots and soldiers. But he was someone who was happy to ignore all that. He humbled himself and took the form of a servant, as we heard last week in our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. He washed his disciples’ feet. And he made friends with all the wrong kinds of people. He was poor, homeless, single and humble, lacking in worldly ambition. And yet, at the same time, passionate and determined, and focussed on his mission.
Our New Testament reading from Mark’s Gospel showed us the disciples struggling to make sense of their remarkable leader. Three times, Jesus talks about his coming betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. And three times, they show that they’ve failed to understand him. Jesus talks about humbly offering his life for them. And he tells them that whoever wants to be great must be a servant, and whoever wants to be first among them must be the slave of all. He turns the world’s values upside-down. But today’s reading shows two of the disciples putting in an urgent bid to reserve the most prestigious seats in the Kingdom of God. They’ve missed the point again.
It’s easy to see why they might have gone bit selectively deaf when listening to Jesus, hearing only the bits of his teaching that they wanted to hear. Becoming a disciple of the long-awaited Messiah must have seemed like a pretty good career move on the whole. A fast-track to status and success. Bound to lead to an impressive job in the new administration. Big palace, slaves, secretary, shiny new chariot. So, they wouldn’t really want to hear all this stuff about becoming like a little child and being the servant of all.
And similarly, Christians ever since have been very good at being selectively deaf at this point. In fact, over the centuries, the Church has done a remarkable job of amassing grand titles, palaces, wealth, status, political power and all the outward trappings of importance and splendour. None of this does very much for our credibility.
For the last 2000 years, Christians have often failed to realise that we’re called to serve each other, not to compete with each other. Because this doesn’t come naturally to us at all. Jesus’ message still challenges so many things about the ways we understand ourselves, the ways we face life and other people.
But at the heart of it is the truth about who we really are. The truth that the Gospels tell us is that we’re made to be children of God, created by him with infinite love, and cherished by him. We’re meant to be here. We belong. We have a future. And yes, we are important. Not because of our attempts to gain status for ourselves. But because God has invested so much of himself in each of us, and we’re important to him.
So the truth is that we don’t need to compare ourselves with others and jostle for position. We’re all different, and we’re all meant to be different. God made us all as we are for a reason. And there’s something unique about each one of us, something which we alone can contribute to this dramatic, dazzling wonder which is God’s creation. So there is no point at all in trying to be important. For the truth is that each of us, in our own unique way, already is.
So all the posturing we do, all time we spend worrying about how we compare with others, all the competing for status, may well be just missing the point. What we need is simply the courage to be the people God created us to be. And to use the talents God has given us in serving him, for the good of all.
We can’t find our true identity, our true sense of belonging, of being loved, of being secure, by trying to look more important than others. But we can find it in God. We can find it in offering our lives to him, in giving ourselves back to him in love, worship and humble service. Not in trying to look grand and elbow others out of the way, but in marvelling at the greatness of the God who made us as we are and loves us as we are.
And that discovery leads us into some of the most puzzling and wonderful paradoxes of Jesus’ teaching. In losing ourselves, we find ourselves. In being content to be small, we become great. In becoming a servant, we become a leader. In being like a child, we grow into the Kingdom of God. In dying, we are raised to new life. In being last, we become first.
For the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame this is good news. For those who have failed in the game of trying to look important and successful, this is good news. For those who are ignored, despised, humiliated, rejected, despairing, alone and afraid, the doors of the Kingdom of God stand wide open, to those who respond to Jesus’ invitation.
But what of those who appear to be winning now? The kind of people the disciples wanted to be; the kind who are admired and respected, who appear to have everything? The successful Cambridge undergraduate who excels in academic work, sport and socialising? The news may appear less good for them, at first. Half a chapter before today’s reading, Jesus baffled the disciples by advising a rich man to give up his possessions. For it may be that holding tightly onto the fruits of our successes, the things we make us appear important, is settling in a way for second-best. Mortality, failure and decay come to us all in the end, and all our achievements and fame will one day crumble to dust. We need to get in touch with something more enduring than the things we usually chase after. But all things are possible for God. And the Kingdom of God is open even to the rich and successful, if they will simply put their trust in Jesus instead of their riches.
The disciples themselves had their dreams of immediate worldly glory shattered when Jesus led them to Jerusalem and to his crucifixion. But the resurrection and Pentecost lead them into a way of life in the Spirit and of service to God they had never thought possible.
So God may surprise us too. As Mary noticed us, he often exalts the humble and meek. He often surprises the poor, the downtrodden and the failures by showing them their true value. And he often surprises the rich and powerful by gently, or not so gently, weaning their fragile egos away from the props they depend on.
A rather wonderful prayer by St Augustine contains these words: “You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Jesus invites us to trust him, and to offer our lives to God in humble devotion and service. For it is in losing ourselves in him that we discover who we really are. And that is when we find our true importance.