[Jesus said to His disciples], "What were you arguing about on the road?" But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all."
He took a little child whom He placed among them. Taking the child in His arms, He said to them, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the One who sent Me."
One of the key themes of Jesus's teaching was the reversal of the established world order. Surely whoever wants to be first should put him or herself first? But no, Jesus teaches exactly the opposite. The second half of the passage above, emphasising the importance of children, needs to be understood against a cultural context in which children were regarded as having no importance, with parents allowed to abandon babies to die as a primitive form of birth control.
Many other texts can be cited to support the notion that Jesus's teaching subverted the established world order. In Mark 10:31 we read:
"But many who are first will be last, and the last first."
The Beatitudes are full of statements which reverse the normal world view, including:
"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kids of evil against you because of Me."
Notable also that Jesus's reaction to Peter's betrayal of Him before the crucifixion, far from cutting him out of fellowship, was to give him a huge leadership role. And that the first witnesses to his resurrection were women, at the time considered unreliable for this purpose. And, of course, Jesus Christ Himself represents the ultimate reversal, the Son of God present at the dawn of time who became man and suffered the agony and humiliation of being tortured to death in a manner reserved for the worst criminals from the lowest social strata.
Instances can be found elsewhere in the New Testament. In 2 Peter 3:8b we read:
With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.
Nor is this an exclusively New Testament theme. David as a young boy overcame a fiercesome warrior Goliath. Moses, Jeremiah and Jonah all baulked at the ministries they were assigned, feeling themselves not up to the job. Isaiah, Ezekiel and Hosea all underwent huge suffering and humiliations, recognised through the ages as important prophets of the Most High God.
So, here we are now, 2000 years after the foundation of the Christian faith. In many respects, in many - but by no means all - parts of the world, it is much easier to exercise a Christian faith now than then. We can go to church without persecution, we can be known as Christians without fear of losing our jobs. Indeed, not least here in the UK, we have the establishment behind us, at least to some extent. How many people go to their local Anglican church in the run up to their children transferring to secondary school in order that they can get into an oversubscribed school for academic rather than faith reasons? I remember also meeting a British volunteer working in a small village in Tanzania who said that she was tempted to feign a Christian faith in order to be access the associated social networks.
But in other respects, I would suggest, it is harder now than when Christianity was brand new 2000 years ago. That it was new, transformational and highly costly to become a Christian came hand in hand with ideas such as the last becoming the first. How reassuring the Beatitudes must have been in times of persecution and suffering!
What does it mean for us now, looking to live as Christians, to reverse the world order? It is by no means clear what this means. And, much as it pains me to say it, I see little evidence that as a Christian community we are looking to practise our faith in this respect. Far from living in the world but not of it, it often seems as if we live outside of the world (ie in a Christian bubble) but to the same ethical, moral and cultural standards. Oh reader, I would so love you to tell me that I'm wrong and give me evidence to the contrary!
I would like to suggest two simple applications of this principle for us today, and would be very pleased to hear of any further examples that you have experienced or have in mind. Here goes with mine:
Treat all people we meet the same
Some years ago now I played organ for the wedding of the daughter of the vicar of the church I was then attending. It was after the event that I reflected on the fact that I had put in far more practice for that wedding than others I was playing for at much the same time. Jesus Himself dealt with people from all sections of society, giving of His time freely to those who were considered of little important by the standards of the day. Was not my priorisation falling below the standards He has set us?
Of course, there are other factors here. It is my experience that couples getting married who are not regular church goers want music which is, from my point of view, standard and well within my repertoire. How much more fun - and how much more challenging - to play for weddings when the couple take an active interest in the music and ask for things which I don't already know.
But the point still holds, I suggest. I aim in my personal, professional and church spheres to treat everybody I meet the same, looking to resist the temptation to be more polite to people of high social status than others. In Tanzania I made a point of pausing to chat with security guards and street sellers. I don't promise to be perfect in this respect - do tell me if I'm not! - but that's what I aim to do. This would seem to me to be one way of interpreting the call to reverse the normal world perspective.
Prioritising children's ministry
Another anecdote which comes to mind, this time from when I was an undergraduate student, was when I was asked with two days' notice to head up the children's work for a church weekend away, not a church I have at any time been affiliated to. I don't now recall why things were being arranged at such a rush, the impression I remember is that this was an oversight rather than somebody pulling out suddenly.
Whilst the weekend was in progress the minister of the church thanked me for what I was doing, saying that for him the work with children was as important as the work with adults. I understand that he was looking to be kind and to affirm me in what I was doing, but this doesn't stand up to examination, does it? It would be unimaginable for the main speaker to have been arranged at two days' notice, yet for the children's work, apparently this is acceptable.
I can think of another setting when I was involved with children's work where the finishing time for the main service could finish at a time different by as much as 1/2 hour week by week and the children's ministry team needed to cope. If we prioritised children's work, would we not agree a finishing time? Or even finish the adult service dead when the children's work came to an end? I am not aware of any church minister visiting children's work whilst the main service is going on, would that not be a powerful affirmation of the importance of the work?
(Parenthetical thought: whilst I'm on this theme can I tell you something that bugs me? In some Christian settings the view is that only men can preach the sermon. Yet there is no problem, apparently, in such churches for women to be involved as Sunday School teachers. It is not my intention here to take a position on women's ministry, simply to point to the inconsistency. If women are not allowed to preach the sermon but are allowed to be Sunday School teachers, is this not taking the view that work with adults is more important than work with children? Again, I'd love you to tell me that I'm wrong! End of parenthetical thought.)
So, there are my two thoughts. What do you think? Do you agree with the points that I make? Can you think of other ways of living out the call to reverse the established world view? In any eventuality, I'd love to hear back from you. Meanwhile, have a great week and thanks for reading, Geoff