There’s a great part of the Gospel of Luke that captures the human predicament oh so concisely. Some pretty cool things had just happened: the Transfiguration, healing a boy with a demon, but then Jesus starts talking about how he is going to be betrayed. Immediately after this, the disciples start arguing amongst themselves “as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest’” (Luke 9:46-48).
We’ve now come to Chapter 4 of Life Together and will finish with Chapter 5 next week. But here, Bonhoeffer launches into a great bit of teaching with this verse as his starting point. He says,
“… no Christian community ever comes together without this thought immediately emerging as a seed of discord. Thus at the very beginning of Christian fellowship there is engendered an invisible, often unconscious, life-and-death contest. ‘There arose a reasoning among them’: this is enough to destroy a fellowship.” (90)
“There arose a reasoning among them” refers to the first part of v. 46 which is often translated “An argument arose among them” or something to that matter. Bonhoeffer says this is almost predictable in every expression of Christian community in history. It all goes back to this argument among the disciples about which of them were the greatest. Kind of sums us all up doesn’t it? Think about it, our society is often built around competition. Even our families can be structured this way, so why shouldn’t the church be any different? In fact, we often make it this way. We still compete, but we do it under the guise of humility, service, and other things. We may be convicted to be humble, so we start trying to be “more humble” than the next guy or gal.
We do this because we desire self-justification. A lot of us feel as though we can’t track our progress in something unless we’re comparing ourselves to others. Inevitably, this can lead to judging others and puffing ourselves up. What we don’t realize is this is completely opposite of the mindset that Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God and the way it works in the world. Jesus turns the spirit of competition on its head. Jesus turns the notion of value on its head. In order to be great, we have to be least. In order to be mature, we have to become a child. In order to be first, we have to be last. Competition doesn’t work in the kingdom of God because there is no trophy to be won, no title to be chased. God works uniquely and specifically through the community and through the individuals that make it so. As Bonhoeffer acknowledges: “I can never know beforehand how God’s image should appear in others. That image always manifests a completely new and unique form that comes solely from God’s free and sovereign creation.” (93)
In order to learn, we have to be willing to listen. And in order to listen, we have to be willing to see the world differently and set our hearts on different things. We have to be “others” focused and take the spotlight off of ourselves. I love this little quote:
“Only where hands are not too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness can the mouth joyfully and convincingly proclaim the message of God’s love and mercy.” (100)
Listen, we’ve all made mistakes and we all screw up. This is where we should be coming together as followers of Jesus. Not on the basis of trying to be “better” followers of Jesus than the next guy or gal, but because we truly want what is best for those around us whom we encounter on a daily basis. This is a part of the crosses we bear and carry, but in doing so together, and welcoming one another as children of God, the kingdom begins to show up a lot more than when we’re simply trying to “win” the Jesus race.
The Church needs your commitment, not your ego. That you can leave at the cross. “The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren… The question of trust, which is so closely related to that of authority, is determined by the faithfulness with which a man serves Jesus Christ, never by the extraordinary talents which he possesses.” (109)
Thirteen chapters later in Luke, the disciples still don’t get it and the same topic is brought up in conversation, in the same way. Ironically, it is brought up at the initiation of the “Lord’s Supper” which we celebrate as “communion” every week at church. They are still grabbing for power, but Jesus uses the opportunity of eating together at the table to establish what true “greatness” really is: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).
There is still too much work to be done in the world to be “disputing” over who the greatest is.