The disciples were disputing amongst themselves over which one of them would be counted the greatest, the most pious, the most loyal of the Lord. Once Jesus makes known His knowledge of this dispute, He immediately rebukes them, stating that, “if anyone amongst you desires to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” See, He is teaching us that this desire to be the first, to be the most zealous for the things of God, is not a desire rooted in holiness, but rather in pride, in selfish ambition and self-righteousness. See, while the striving for holiness is a command of the Lord, the striving for being the “holiest” is nothing more than maintaining the outward appearance of holiness. To be “holier” than someone else means that you are looking at their walk and comparing it to your own, rather than focusing on God and trying to be like Him. It places you in the position of acting as judge on God’s behalf. You being to note every flaw, every shortcoming and weakness of the one to whom you are comparing yourself. Suddenly, your target becomes the person to whom you are comparing yourself rather than Jesus. Even moreso, at the moment you begin to compare yourself to another, you lose the main characteristic of holiness, humility.
See, humility is the most important characteristic of holiness, because it is one which is impossible to feign. See, you can maintain outward signs and in doing so feign things like being honest, like being ethical, even loving through care for the poor. But, humility is the one trait that the moment you begin to boast about it, you reveal yourself. In fact, the moment you open your mouth concerning any topic, you reveal your humility or lack thereof. Pride poisons your heart, and “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth will speak.”
I find it interesting, though unsurprising, and a very strong indictment of our culture, that the Scripture moves immediately from this dispute over who will be the greatest to the telling of a man whom the disciples had commanded to stop casting out demons in Jesus’ name, because he wasn’t with them. I think of the many various factions in our Church, each claiming that they are the “rightest” and that all others are wrong. I think of the numerous servants of God that others, due to personal preference, consider to be “unworthy” and “unqualified” to teach the word of God. I think of an evangelical pastor in North Carolina who has been directly declared “unqualified” by a very prestigious California pastor. I think of the “Bible Answer Man” who was declared anathema when he became Eastern Orthodox. And then I consider a shepherd who was neither the child of a prophet, nor was he himself educated nor desiring to prophesy, but who did so obediently when the Lord commanded (Amos). I think of the band of fishermen, tentmakers, and tax collectors, various assorted “unlearned men,” who were each chosen to teach the word of God to the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious holy men of the time.
The Lord Himself established one holy catholic and apostolic Church, and declared that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. And yet, we are doing everything in our power to prove Him wrong. We are constantly causing turmoil and grief, tearing each other down, telling one another not to listen to anyone else, that there are only certain teachers who are qualified to teach the Gospel. Much like the Church in Corinth, to whom St Paul wrote, “for when there are envy, strife and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one?” (1 Corinthians 3:4-5). Jesus told us that the world would know that we are His children by the love that we have for one another; given the turmoil amongst so many of us, it is little wonder that the world doesn’t believe in what we believe, we seem not to either.
Make no mistake, we must call heresy heresy, but we must be ever careful about what we find to be heresy and what is merely different from our beliefs. Arius taught heresy, he spoke against the divinity of Christ. Eunomius taught heresy, he taught that if we were unable to understand something then we must not believe in it. Someone teaching that the world was created in seven 24 hour periods is not a heretic, neither is someone teaching that it was seven undetermined periods of time. Polycarp wasn’t martyred for his belief in a global flood versus a localized flood, he was martyred for refusal to renounce Jesus. In His holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, there is no room for disputes over who is the greatest; there is no place for these trivial divisions. If we allow the Holy Spirit to conform us to the image of Christ, if we display the love and mercy and compassion of Christ to the world, then thousands around us might be saved. The moment we start murdering our brothers and sisters, whether in our thoughts, our actions, or our words; then we are displaying to the world that we are just like them. We are proclaiming to the world that there is no power of the Holy Spirit to save us, to change us, to transfigure us into the image and likeness of Christ.
That pastor in North Carolina is unworthy to teach the Gospel, equally so is the man who accuses him of being unworthy, equally so the fishermen, the tax collectors, the tentmakers, the priests and prophets. It is not any earthly qualification that could ever make us worthy of doing so, but rather the anointing of the Holy Spirit. And with that anointing, each of them is made equally worthy. Let us not divide over trivial matters, but instead stand united as one Church, one royal priesthood, one holy nation; let our lives be characterized with love and our faith with unity, and pray for those who wrong us, not that they be shown the “right way,” but that they would experience the love and mercy, the forgiveness, peace, and grace of God. Let us not quibble over who is the least and who is the greatest, but recognize that all of us are the icon of Christ in the world, and that however we treat one another, however we treat even those who are not of the faith, is how we treat Him.
Let us use the words of Holy Scripture to guide us in the paths of holiness, rather than using them as a guideline of judgment towards others. Let us all help one another, pray for one another, build up one another, and then we leave it for God alone to judge.
May the grace of the Lord be with you all, my beloved family.