Sunday, September 23, Trinity XVII, Sung Eucharist at 11 am. We welcome Bishop Michael Marshall and Fr Soon-Han Choi who are replacing Fr Peter while he is on holiday. September 23, Trinity XVII
Wednesday, September 26, Eucharist at 10.30 am.
Friday, September 28, Apéritif on the Beach at 6 pm, Nice – Plage du Centenaire, Handiplage. Bring drinks, snacks, and something to sit on.
Saturday, September 29, St Michael’s Beaulieu Patronal Festival: To celebrate this feast day St Michael’s Church, 11 Chemin des Myrtes Beaulieu sur Mer, will be open to visitors from 10h00 to 17h00.
Jesus up-ends precedence
Sunday’s Gospel reading is very dramatic. The disciples and Jesus are making a journey through Galilee of about thirty miles, which took a couple of days. Jesus is trying to teach those closest to him (again) about how he will be arrested and die and rise on the third day.
But some of the disciples are squabbling among themselves, vying for position: who is the greatest of them all? We don’t know how the rated greatness. Was it to do with who was first to follow him, who had been able to heal a sick person when Jesus sent them out on mission? Or was it to do with being among the select group who had witnessed the transfiguration.
Whenever I read this story of the disciples wanting to be top dog, to have precedence, I remember a bizarre example of this when I was newly ordained. An elderly priest, who had become the warden of some almshouses in Malvern, died suddenly and the clergy of the area attended his requiem and burial.
As we left the Chapel of the almshouses, the older priests among us started debating vociferously who had been ordained longest and an order of precedence based on the number of years that each had been ordained was established. It struck me, then a young man, as grotesque that men could be competing to get closest to the dead man.
It must have seemed bizarre to Jesus that his disciples were squabbling over precedence when he was contemplating his death and suffering and trying to teach them about it.
He deals with it – when he overhears their squabble – by asking them what they’ve been talking about. They confess that it was about who is the most important among them. And Jesus replies, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last, and servant of all…’
Jesus’ illustrates his point about order of precedence, the first shall be last, by taking a child and placing the child in the midst of the disciples. He tells them that unless they were able to welcome such a child in his name, they would have no status with him.
We may not immediately grasp the significance of what he’s done. We are so habituated to caring for children and putting them first that Jesus’s gesture causes us no surprise. In antiquity, however, children and childhood were viewed entirely differently from today, essentially because infant mortality and childhood mortality were so high. Sometimes infant mortality was as high as 30% of live births; and about 60% of children had died by the age of 16.
This low view of the value of children persisted into the middle ages. For instance, Thomas Aquinas taught that in a raging fire a husband was obliged to save his father first, then his mother, next his wife, and last of all his young child. And, in times of famine, children would be fed last, after the adults. Similar priorities persist today in many non-Western cultures.
So, in the ancient world, the child was virtually without status. Until the child became an adult, its status was equal to a slave. Only once it became an adult could a child become a free person with rights to inherit the family property.
This means that Jesus was telling the disciples that the only way to behave was to embrace the person with the lowest status. This would have come across as arresting and probably insulting in a society that was very stratified.
In fact, though, Jesus was pointing them towards his personal future and the future of the church that gathers in his name. He invites the disciples to be humble and embrace the child without status. He himself is soon to embrace the utter humility and loss of status through dying on the Cross as a common criminal, the lowest of the low.
But those who followed him and formed the first meeting to worship, the first churches, emulated his humility – and his teaching to embrace ‘the little child’, that is the humblest and to disregard status.
People were welcomed into the first churches regardless of status (as St Paul wrote in Galatians 3.28): There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. This was a radical change in a society where status mattered enormously. In their society, it mattered whether you were free or a slave, Jewish or Gentile, or male or female but not in the Church that Jesus created.