Big idea: True greatness is humbly serving like Jesus - it will be honoured
Humans chase greatness in a hundred different ways - a title: Prime minister, CEO, PhD; an achievement: 800m butterfly world record, Everest climber, first one to row across the Atlantic in a bathtub blindfold. a following: fashion icon, tech guru, instagram influencer. Why is it, do you think, that people so desperately want to be great? If we could go take a look inside their heads, what do you think we would find drives them? I mean normally it takes some serious effort to get there!
What about you and me? Are we ever like that?
I’m a leader here at hope city. I’ve worked hard for this, pursued this idea of planting a church for years. What am I really in this for? What are my motives? If I could uncover my own heart [act out], what would I find in there?
Perhaps there’s something you have done, something you’ve achieved, a role you have - or had - that others would say qualifies as greatness. Can you think of something like that in your life? If so, take a moment to ask yourself how you got there. Did you have a hand in it? Did you pursue it? And here’s the big question: why?
Perhaps you can’t think of anything in you that qualifies as greatness - but here’s the thing: I bet you’d like it. Maybe you don’t want to run the country but I bet you want to be something. Ultimately, I think that desire for greatness, some kind of greatness, is part of the “human condition” - it’s part of our default operating system, part of our hard-wiring.
It can produce amazing things - great acts of heroism, remarkable progress in science, an artistic work of extraordinary beauty. But more often it brings out the darkness hiding inside of us all: tearing others down so we feel better; pushing others out of the way so we can get in front; focusing so much on our goal that others are ignored and suffer.
And yet it seems this desire for greatness is hard-wired into our souls. Rather than trying to just forget about greatness, to pretend we don’t want it, is there perhaps a right way to pursue it instead?
Well we’ve been working our way through the life story of Jesus as told by Luke, a doctor, about 2000 years ago. We’re in the dramatic closing section of the story and this week, in the middle of this intense episode we find Jesus’ closest followers, the disciples, having an argument about which of them is the greatest - as if that was the most important thing to be talking about at this critical moment. Jesus uses this opportunity to teach us about the right way to use power - but more than that, he teaches us about true greatness.
Listen along with me as we hear this short section, right in the middle of that famous last supper. We’re in Luke chapter 22 and we’re starting at verse 24. Page _________ and then look for the big 22 - chapter 22 - and the small 24 - verse 24. And Sam’s going to come read for us. Page ______, big 22, small 24.
What a moment for an argument! Ever had an argument break out at exactly the wrong moment? On a romantic date? As you’re celebrating a big win? Just as you’re heading to bed? Well this tops any of that.
We’re in the upper room. These guys are a bunch of Jews and the highpoint of their religious calendar is here. Think Christmas morning. The disciples have been following this Jesus for three whole years and he’s just told them this is the last meal they will ever share with him in this world. He’s taken parts of the meal itself as symbols of something much bigger - how he will give up his life for them. And then he’s stunned them by announcing there is a traitor at the table - one of them will betray him.
How is that the moment for any kind of argument about greatness? I mean, seriously? And yet “a dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be the greatest.” It feels so out of place. Not now, disciples, not now. It feels ugly, doesn’t it? Like when you pick up that piece of fruit and find it’s covered in mould.
One of the things I love about the way Jesus’ story is told: this is no sanitised account, nicely airbrushed to hide all the blemishes, to protect the reputation of the guys involved. This is authentic. This is real. Why would anyone inventing this stuff have the key leaders get into an argument like this just now? Unfortunately - truth be told - it just feels far too real.
Feels like the sort of ugliness you see at your team meeting. The sort of ugliness that goes on in the playground at school. The sort of thing you’d find going on behind closed doors in a church. Who’s the greatest? Who’s the top dog? Who’s in charge? Yeah we might not come out and say it, but that’s what’s going on in our heads so often, that’s what’s driving our actions.
The disciples are hungry for greatness. But it’s not just them. Our world is filled with people hungry for greatness. Let me be honest for a moment: I am hungry for greatness. I want to be somebody. Worse than that, I want to be more than somebody else. Yep. I think that’s the truth.
And I bet a bunch of you do too. Perhaps you’re looking for that through business success, or through academic achievement. or through raising children. Maybe it’s through being the best cook, or writing the best song, or running the fastest race. Where are you hungry for greatness? ...
So there’s this argument, this struggle - one that we share - and then Jesus wades in. What he says here is profound. And it’s significant for all of us. He teaches us about true greatness, and the path to it.
Greatness in the world around, says Jesus, is being king. Lording it over people - ruling, exercising power, having people jump when you click your fingers. Greatness in the world around, says Jesus, is being admired, being honoured, being exalted. See here in v25 he talks about these rulers calling themselves Benefactors? Literally, that word just means do-gooder. Greatness in the world around is pointing to yourself and saying “look at me! look at me!”. Instagram was made for that sort of greatness. Yep I’m pretty smokin’ hot today. LinkedIn was made for that sort of greatness “advised chief executive on key strategic deal.” “delivered project under budget and ahead of schedule” “oh, and I do a lot of work for charity”.
How often do we practice that sort of greatness? … Or want to achieve that sort of greatness: if I could lose a few pounds here; if I could just get onto that project.
But that’s greatness in the world’s eyes. And do you know the problem with that sort of greatness? It’s nothing at all. In the end it is nothing at all. If you look good now, the day will come. Life takes its toll, Madonna. Or how many CVs have you heard read out at a funeral? Who cares about your grades once you’re gone? Even the greatest of people in these terms are soon relegated to a footnote in some history book somewhere. And yet we’ll kill ourselves for it - or others.
Jesus says his people are to be different. And I know, if you’re here today as someone still exploring faith, we might not look that different. Yeah we’re not doing a great job. Believe me, we know it. That’s why we’re gathered together this morning - to listen to his instructions, and to try and do better at following them - not because we’ve got it all sorted, but because we know we haven’t.
Jesus says his people are to be different. and then he gives two contrasts to these patterns from the world. The greatest, should they shout it, trumpet it, point to themselves and say “look at me, look at me”? Should they be barging their way to the front and to the top? No v26 the greatest are to be like the youngest.
What does he mean by that? In that culture, at that time, kids were not the centre of the world like they are today. People didn’t spend their lives running after their children, taking them to ballet, piano, football, tutor, yoga and then back to ballet. Back then children were the least - least important, least significant. If there’s an ugly job needing doing, get a child. If there’s a decision to be made, who gets ignored? the child. Sorry - just the truth. It was that way. [furtive glance] maybe it should be still??
Anyway, that’s how it was - so what’s Jesus saying? The greatest ones among his people, the big hitters, the serious players, the guys with the long titles, big hats and fancy robes - they are to humble themselves like a child, to consider themselves unimportant, insignificant. Not to have people run round after them and pamper them and take care of them. Greatness - among God’s people - is all about humility.
Sure we can point fingers at others but Jesus is talking to us:
Greatness doesn’t say “move aside, coming through”, it says “after you.”
Greatness doesn’t say “let me tell you” - it asks “will you tell me”.
How are we doing at true greatness? How much do we want to be important? How much more do we talk than listen? How much more do we want to be the star, rather than supporting cast? Maybe you’re not doing too well. Maybe I’m not doing too well.
But there’s more that Jesus wants to show his disciples - and us - here: Jesus speaks about what greatness is among his people - and then Jesus tells us how to lead among his people. You might be thinking “well that’s irrelevant - I’m not a leader” but let me give you three reasons to listen: first, we all have spheres we lead in. The home. Our friends. A serving team; second, it will help us all consider what sort of leaders we should follow - and who we should avoid; third, it will teach us more about true greatness.
So, how to lead among God’s people - and again, it’s a contrast to how the world exercises power: “the one who rules should be like the one who serves”. The one who rules should be like the one who serves. What does that mean? Well, there’s a powerful picture right here for us - in this scene of Jesus’ story. Last week, if you were with us, you would have seen Jesus serving his disciples bread and wine - literally, the word “serve” here means waiting on tables. And Jesus has just been waiting on his disciple’s table.
In John’s gospel, his telling of the story of Jesus, we see another element of this extraordinary evening: in John chapter 13, Jesus takes a bowl and a towel and washes his disciples’ feet. Smelly, stinky, feet. In that time, in that culture, that was the role of a servant, of a slave, of the lowest of the low. And who has the towel and the bowl? Jesus.
Jesus, in case you’ve not been with us through the story, has been shown to be the unique Son of God. Unequalled. Preeminent. And here he is waiting on tables, washing feet. That’s no role for an equal. That’s no role for a player. That’s no role for a king. That’s no role for the king of kings. Or so we assume. But it’s no accident. Jesus is making a point. Jesus is leading from the front, leading by example. He’s leading by example even if we just take these things at face value: serving food and washing feet.
But both of these things - waiting on tables, and washing feet - are just symbols of how Jesus would serve his followers in a radically greater way just a few hours in the future. He will do more than take on the role of a house servant: he would be tortured, and then he would die a terrible death - a death which served them because it was a death for them, a death in their place: a death which otherwise would have been theirs - and ours.
Can you get your head around just how extraordinary Jesus’ demonstration of leadership, of true greatness, is? The bible describes what Jesus did like this: Jesus is the one..
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
As Jesus teaches how it is that his followers should lead - “the one who rules should be like the one who serves”, he is also modelling that: v27 “I am among you as one who serves”. And that is so different from the way leading and ruling works in the world around us. Jesus is inviting us into a kingdom where leading, where ruling, is defined by serving those you are over. Where it is defined by his own example, of giving up your own comfort, privilege, freedom - even your life for the good of those you are leading.
That’s what defines true greatness. And if that’s what defines true greatness, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that we have within us this hunger for greatness. If each of us were to pursue that kind of greatness - one that is humble, one that serves others - can you imagine what that would do to our world?
But there’s one more thing here to help us transform how we lead, how we pursue greatness. That passage in the bible we read which talks about what Jesus did - it goes on to say this:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus’ story doesn’t end with him as a servant, or end with his death, it ends with him exalted over everything and everyone. And in our passage today, even as Jesus speaks to his disappointingly fractious disciples, he himself tells them they have a place in that greater and more glorious future: v29 “I confer on you a kingdom”: these first disciples he is calling to lead by serving, and to be humble in their greatness - they will share in Jesus’ future kingdom. How’s that for greatness? They will feast at his table - sitting with the king of kings. If you were describing greatness, how’s an invite royal tea party or an OBE? Ok, now what about eating at the table of the risen Lord Jesus himself, now exalted in glory? Jesus is the pattern not only in humble service, but also in future glory.
The disciples aren’t going be the king - only one king: Jesus - but they will be received by the King. Welcomed and honoured by him. And that’s greatness worth running after, worth pursuing with your whole life. Greatness which is achieved through humility and service.
Just two minutes to get practical. What does this mean for you and me this week?
Well there’s no question this passage applies first to leaders in the church. To me. To our elders. To our directors. To the many others who lead in our church - because participation is one of our key values, we have lots of people leading at different levels. And it says to us “want to be great? humble yourselves.” It says to us “want to lead? lead by serving.” But this applies to anywhere and everywhere we lead too - and I think pretty much all of us lead in some sphere or other - so think about how you lead.
What would humbling ourselves look like?
Well, I’ve been away at a conference and it just so happens this same theme came up in one of the key sessions - so I’ve been double-challenged this week. And here’s the truth: I want to be great. I want to be someone. I want to make a difference. I want to make a dent.
There is a dark, ugly, and ultimately destructive way I can go about that: puffing out my chest, bragging about what’s going on, airbrushing our progress so it looks better than it is. Wanting a platform for myself, a movement where people listen to me and my big ideas, thinking we have something others should want, that we have cracked the code. And I feel that draw. We are trying to do something new here. We do think we have some good ideas. We are seeing some encouraging progress. So there’s a kernel of truth in each of these things.
But the right way to go about pursing greatness is not through boasting, it’s through humility. That looks like celebrating others’ successes more than talking about ours, cheering them on. Listening and seeking to learn rather than always wanting to teach. Peace in being just a small part of something so much bigger rather than arrogantly presuming significance. Joy in being part of a wave, a movement, rather than the presumption of leading one. I was in a room with 5,000 church planters from around the world this week - there is a larger movement going on.
Through humility we find true greatness; if we are humble, we really could be someone used by God, we really might find He uses us to make a difference - because God does not share his glory. If we will not humble ourselves, we cannot be great in his kingdom. Do you want to be great? You should want to be great - be great through humbling yourself.
And what about leading by serving? What does that look like in practice? Here’s an important point: serving, Jesus-style, isn’t just doing what people want you to do. Serving, Jesus-style, isn’t doing what people want you to do. Peter didn’t want his feet washed. The disciples didn’t want Jesus to die. But it was what they needed, it was what was best for them, and it was what Jesus did. That’s serving Jesus-style.
Easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’re serving people when you’re just tickling their belly by doing and saying the things they want. But often that’s not what truly serves them. What will help them flourish? How could you bring their particular gifts and strengths into play? Where do you need to challenge them to grow? Jesus is not afraid of challenging his disciples..
But serving, ultimately, means laying your life down for them. That’s the example Jesus set for us. How do you lay your life down? Putting their needs ahead of yours. Give the time, the resources, the opportunities which you wanted for yourself away to them. See the potential in them and help them become all they can be. And yes, that is hard. But it’s great. And it’ll be worth it.
True greatness is humbly serving like Jesus. And true greatness will be honoured - just like Jesus is honoured as he humbly serves.