Arguing over who is greatest
One evening each weekend, time permitting, we have taken to having dinner together watching the Great British Bake Off. It’s good fun competition, looking to see who will get a handshake from Paul Hollywood, who will make an embarrassing mistake, and who will be star baker!
Baking competitions are such a British Institution. When my grandfather was a vicar, he organised a parish baking competition, sponsored by whatever a brand of butter. They needed to have a certain number of entries, and they were one short. So my grandfather, who was skilled at a great number of things, none of which were baking, entered the contest. Unfortunately his sponge was rather sunk in the middle, so he put his real skills of problem solving and design into the fore, placing an egg cup in the middle of the cake plate and placing the cake on top of it. The result looked very satisfying, until the judge cut into the cake anyhow. Sadly with competitions, where there is one who is greatest, there will be those who are better and there will always be one who is worst.
When I was first starting out as an Engineer one of the questions I would be asked was where I wanted to go in my career? The idea was supposed to be that we put our finger on a diagram of the organisation and said, ‘I want to be X’. Then working back you could figure out what skills and experience you needed. Being asked the question I always wanted to say, ‘What sort of roles should I be thinking about doing?’ Having been asked the question enough times, I started giving more cocky answers – I guess I was ambitious, I wanted to get on as far as I could before somebody decided I couldn’t go any further. It was the kind of selfish ambition James writes of. Not because I was willing to hurt somebody to get on, but it was boastful and self-interested. Then one day, when I was working with one of the senior engineers on site, we started talking about ambition. He said, for him, he had always taken each job as it came and always looked to take something that was more challenging than what he’d done before. His was a different type of ambition, yes it was personal, but not selfish – it was trying to put his best foot forward. He was willing to make himself vulnerable to develop. What he said worked away at my conscious and a desire to shift my ambition was absolutely part of the process of putting down my slide-rule and calculator and picking up a black shirt and a white collar.
Jesus’ disciples are always fantastically normal humans. Here they engage in that all too familiar human tendency to want to compete over who is the best. And competition can have it’s place. But when it comes to being Christian – there is no ‘best’. Because we are all equally bad at it – we all fall short, it is through God’s adoption of us that we are seen by him as Saints – not because of anything we do. A well known theologian from the United States was visiting the UK a few years ago and he was being introduced when he was about to give a lecture. The introduction was typically gushing, and in it the speaker was described as ‘The Best Christian Theologian of our Time.’ The first thing he said, was that ‘Best’ is not a Christian term. Of course true wisdom does not come from certainty it doesn’t come from an already infallible mind. True wisdom comes from an inquisitive mind, a mind ready to be challenged or changed. True wisdom, much like the Christian faith, comes from a willingness to be vulnerable. It is in vulnerability that we can be transformed, like the example set by Christ, who made himself vulnerable on the cross. Christ shows us it is not about being the best.
Jesus tells the disciples that the first must be last and must be servant of all. Welcoming a child into their midst. Hospitality was once described to me as being when the person with the most power or control of a situation, lays it down to give the person who is most vulnerable all the control. Think of it, we teach our children that when they have a guest they, who know what is available, know where everything is, should make it the guest’s choice to decide what to do. We feed the guest first. Give them first choice of chair. Jesus places a child in their midst and basically says you need to offer hospitality to all of creation, and when you do, you will be welcoming me into your home.
In John’s Gospel, when Jesus talks about being the servant it is in the context of washing the disciples feet. We are reminded to go out and be servants. But at the same time, it isn’t just about serving. For Peter the problem is not having to wash feet, it was having his own feet washed by Jesus. He wanted to hold onto the control. This reaction is a familiar one for anybody who has attended a Maundy Thursday service, that last Thursday before Easter when we remember Jesus’ last supper by re-enacting the washing of the feet. Deciding whether or not to come forward and take off your shoes and socks can be incredibly difficult, because by doing so you give up your power in that situation, and put your feet in the hands of the one who is washing feet. So sometimes we need to be willing to make ourselves vulnerable by letting go and being served as well. By giving over so much of the control it is the child who becomes the host. So we need to be willing to be served, even by those who we don’t really trust. Or who we feel we are in competition with. Because by making ourselves vulnerable, we can allow God to work in that context, in that relationship, to transform the situation.
We are called not to be the best, we are called not to be perfect, but we are called to be vulnerable, to welcome, to put aside our own ego and to look instead to God to transform us into his image.
The Reverend Robin Sims-Williams
8.00am Said Eucharist in the lady chapel
10.00am Parish Eucharist with choir and Sunday School
Said Eucharist on Wednesdays at 11.00am
Monday through Thursday at 5.30pm
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