At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Matt 18:1
Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven? What sort of question is that for any followers of Jesus to ask? Of course I am sure that the disciples understood that our Lord Jesus Christ is the Lord of he Kingdom of Heaven, but they meant to ask ‘which of us is most important?’ The had their eyes on each other. Who seemed closest to Jesus?
Who did he talk to? Was there any way of working out in which order of importance Jesus thought of them? It would be easy to criticise the disciples and assume that such attitudes were only found among them, and that we were free from the need to compare ourselves with others, but unfortunately that is not quite the case. Indeed, it seems that our modern world demands that we compare ourselves with others at every turn.
We are taught by the television, and magazines and the constant advertising that surrounds us that to be successful, to be great, we must wear the right clothes, we must have the right phone, we must drive a new car, we must have all manner of household appliances, we must have a large flat screen TV, we must look like this, we must avoid looking like that. We see it especially in young people who can become obsessed with finding their place in the league table of greatness at school, but it is an obsession, a delusion, which can and does affect all of us. Even intelligent adults can fall prey to the need to compare themselves with others, to envy the achievements of others, to wish that we had better qualifications, more chance of promotion, were noticed by the senior management.
For the Christian, this way of thinking is dangerous and damaging, because it leads us to imagine that our value is found in how others think of us, rather than in the person we actually are, and how God himself thinks of us. We could easily spend our whole lives seeking to be noticed by others, and to impress others, but to be valued in such a way is a most fragile kind of worth. We can see politicians who have spent their whole lives trying to achieve such importance, and yet very quickly their term of office is over, and they are all too soon forgotten. Who was the Minister of Transport in 2007? I have no idea. I wonder if very many people would have any idea? Yet perhaps that was the ultimate position in terms of worldly greatness which that politician achieved.
Once we start seeking to be validated by the impression we make on other people then we find ourselves constantly chasing a shadow. One minute people are impressed by this, and the next minute they are impressed by something completely different. We place ourselves in danger of becoming X-Factor contestants, constantly trying to please the crowd. Nor does the Church escape this danger. It is possible for a priest to seek to become popular, and use all manner of worldly marketing gimmicks to do so. It is possible for those who work with young Christians to avoid saying or doing anything that might make them seem less cool in front of those they should be shepherding. It is possible for ordinary Church members to put on a show in Church so that everyone thinks they are wonderful, while inside their hearts they are struggling with many problems, or even have no faith at all.
We all desire to be great, to be important, to be noticed. And the disciples did not escape this temptation. But our Lord teaches them that it is by humility that we enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and become of any consequence before God. Humility is the antidote to pride, and many of the Fathers of the Church have insisted that before all else we should seek to be humble.
The word humble comes originally from the Latin word for earth, and has a sense of being lowly, or not being exalted. Our Lord Jesus humbled himself and became man, while remaining God. Indeed the scripture says,
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: Php 2:8-9
He humbled himself and became obedient. Obedient even to the cross. This is our model of humility, and of life lived in the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not a matter of seeking our own importance, but of seeking to be obedient, obedient to the will of God. It is through obedience to the will of God as man, that the name of Jesus has been highly exalted. And so it is for each of us. The value of our life is not found in the external things which will soon pass away, but in obedience to the will of God, which allows the Kingdom of God, the rule and the reign of God, to fill our hearts.
We can consider the first deacons in the Church, which are described for us in the book of Acts. These were among the chief men of the Church, dependable and reliable, yet they took as their ministry waiting at tables during the fellowship meal which shared after the Liturgy. They brought food and drink to people, and cleared the tables, and they were among the most important members of the Church.
And among those Christians I know around the world it is those who quietly get on with humble, obedient service who are most inspiring, because they are living the Christian life most fully. Our value is not found in what others think of us, but in what God thinks of us. As it says elsewhere in the Scriptures..
Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows. Luke 12:6
Why then do we worry what others think of us? Why do we worry about a place in the world, when a place in the Kingdom is ready for us, if we enter the Kingdom with humility? What does God think of us? That is what matters. He loves us dearly, ‘For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son into the world’. He loves us more than we can imagine, as it is written,
Eph 3:17 That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.
Nor is the Kingdom of God far from us, or difficult to find, Our Lord himself says, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’. This is a lasting Kingdom that will not fail. If we rely on our possessions to make us feel valued, these will wear away. If we rely on our beauty, this will fail and we will grow old. If we rely on our intelligence, this also will not last for ever. If we rely on the approval of others, that also is fickle and unreliable.
But the Kingdom of God is eternal. To find a place in that Kingdom, surrounded by the love of God, provides us with the worth and value that sustains us in this life, and into eternity. We need nothing more, and nothing else can satisfy. Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things that you need will be added to you. It is through humble obedience to the will of God that we enter this Kingdom.
May we each of us enter more fully, bowing the knee before our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, to whom is the glory, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.