A friend of mine, a subdeacon in a Greek Orthodox church in Milwaukee tells the story of when the Greek Orthodox Patriarch came to visit his parish a few years ago. Nico doesn’t speak any Greek, since he is Serbian by birth, and he learned to chant the Greek liturgy only with the help of an alliterated text. The Patriarch was coming to have dinner at the rectory where Nico ministered, so he was determined to learn a few conversational lines in Greek. The Greek priest, his pastor, began tutoring him on what he should and should not say. He made the mistake of teaching him two Greek phrases that sound very similar. Oritsi, which means essentially, “bon appetit” and orITsi, which essentially is wish for the listener to have a good urination. The priest reiterated several times that under no circumstances must Nico mess up the pronunciation.
And so it came to pass that His All Holiness, Bartholomeo I, Archbishop of Constantinople New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, world leader of most of the world’s Orthodox Christians, came to Milwaukee to celebrate Divine Liturgy and to share a meal with the clergy at the parish house. Nico, proud of the way he had sung the Greek chants during the service, was now eager to exchange a few pleasantries with the Patriarch. He had practiced the right words and had obsessed over the difference between Oritsi and orITsi, but when the moment actually arrived where the comment would have been most appropriate at the beginning of the meal, Nico….panicked and spoke the wrong pronunciation, and the entire assembly of reverend clergy burst into raucous laughter, much to Nico’s everlasting embarrassment.
Mistakes, mispronunciations and understandings are part of being human. This was as true in Jesus’ time as it is today. Even his own disciples often took mistaken views of Jesus, or completely misunderstood what he was trying to teach them. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” It seems clear enough to us, but our Gospel reading tells us that the boys just didn’t get it.
So here is a scary question: Since the disciples themselves, the ones who hung out with Jesus, witnessed his deeds and heard his words directly didn’t always understand Jesus, do you think it is possible that WE could be mistaken sometimes about Jesus? Considering all the people who claim to understand Jesus and preach in His name and hold contrary ideas about him, maybe there are more than a few of us who simply have it wrong. We adults tend to think of Christian education as something reserved for children only, that we no longer need catechesis because we’re all grown up now. We have Jesus all figured out now that we’re big people….except today’s Gospel comes around every 3 years with its reminder of just how dangerous that kind of thinking can be.
The disciples had been with Jesus for three years. They had heard Him teach the crowds; they had watched Him heal the sick. They had received private instruction from Him as He prepared them for the time when they would have to carry on without Him. The disciples thought they understood, but they were mistaken.
While they were traveling through Galilee, Jesus noticed that the disciples were having quite a lively discussion behind Him. So when they got to Capernaum, He asked them, “What were you arguing about?” This embarrassed them, for they were arguing about who among them should be second in command behind Jesus. Instead of focusing on what Jesus was teaching them, they were campaigning among themselves for the top position, not unlike the political candidates in the US right now.
The disciples were thinking along the lines of venal power modeled after the world’s standards, so can’t you just feel Jesus’ frustration with them? “What about all these years of following me around, listening to my teaching? Weren’t you listening to any of it??” The situation called for something drastic. Mere words wouldn’t do. So he took a little child who was texting a friend on his new iPhone 5, placed the youth in front of them and said, in effect, “Here is the one with power! Here is your President! Here is your Bishop!” Jesus wanted His disciples to identify with the child, instead of with power and prestige. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Let’s think about our own attitude toward serving this parish family. If I asked you to clean up the green room after every potluck, after everyone had gone, how would you react? Would that be something you would be willing to do, to clean up after your sisters and brothers without anyone noticing or appreciating you? Or would you prefer something where you were more visible? Would you like a leadership role? And if so, do you see your leadership as that of a servant who is willing to be part of a greater whole, or would you want to distinguish yourself by showing off your skills and knowledge a little bit? Would your primary concern be the ministering to this family, or would you be concerned about establishing your own niche of expertise??
What happened to the disciples is simple: they got wrapped up in their misunderstanding of what the Reign of God was about. They wanted to be power brokers in the new Kingdom, but Jesus brings the young child into the mix in order to teach them that the powerful ones have no place in the New Order…only the powerless and insignificant have a leadership role to play.
The quest for power has wreaked havoc on our world, on our world economy, and it is still a potent force for disruption in every church institution on the planet. Power will always be seductive to some, but Jesus is looking for a few good people to turn away from that paradigm and instead engage themselves in ministry in His Name precisely in and through their weakness and insignificance.
Despite what some local pastors have said to me privately, despite the fact that some of them make in excess of 80K dollars a year, following Jesus was never meant to be a career. Following Jesus wasn’t supposed to be a plan for personal success and riches. Its only guarantee is that there will always be people to serve. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The Gospel is not about who chairs the board or who is singing first soprano in the choir. It is about self-giving, action-based love. It is about the kind of love Christ demonstrated.
Some of us have misunderstood Christ’s message all along. We’ve resisted being invisible servants because there’s no “fulfillment” in it. There’s nothing objectively satisfying about doing service work if no one notices. Today Jesus reminds us that we have to resist our human tendency toward power. You and I carry the torch of post-Vatican II Catholicism on the fringes of a powerful worldwide institution very much involved in shoring up its own power and prestige. The Kingdom of Jesus, however, has nothing to do with power politics because it is not of this world. Jesus calls all of us who try to follow him to embrace the illogical and counter-intuitive mission of the Gospel. Humility and service will always triumph over power politics and religious hegemony. The church, especially the local church, must stand out in distinction from the corporate world where politicking and self-serving alliances are the name of the game. And on a personal level, perhaps it is high time that we released the last vestiges of our thirst for influence and power and simply get on with loving and serving the People of God.