I was once asked for my autograph.
It was a heady moment, and (truth to say), somewhat connected with my walking out of the stage door of a theatre carying a guitar case.
But even so, I tell people about it as often as I can.
It’s probably the nearest I’ll get to celebrity, unless another mistake comes my way.
And (speaking of yo-yos who suddenly find themselves centre-stage): it must have been strange -perhaps a little intoxicating- for mere fishermen and working men, to suddenly find themselves on the receiving end of all this paparazzi interest about Jesus, and to actually be sought after by people who would previously have looked down on them.
And so Luke includes a couple of stories (in Luke 9) that highlight those mad spurts of foolish pride when someone asks for your autograph (by way of an outlandish example).
The first is an insight into the inner working of the band of disciples:
“An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. ..”
It sounds a pretty childish line of conversation, but probably derives from their swapping stories about their own adventures on the mission which is recounted at the beginning of the chapter, when: “They set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.”
Healing people! We healed people! Us!
It also sounds very similar to the request of James and John in Mark 10: ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’ This rather arrogant request (which upset the other disciples, who clearly had their own notions of a pecking order) is blamed on J &J’s mother in the parallel verse in Matthew 2o: “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
Jesus takes the request head on, and not at all tolerantly. According to Luke, “Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and made him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.’”
In Mark’s gospel (Mark 10: 42-43), the rebuke is even more stinging: “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you.”
Just don’t play those worldly games of power and pride! It is absolutely nothing to do with the real you!
So how do you achieve top billing in the Kingdom of God? The principle is quite clear: “It is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” The principle is acted out most memorably in John 13, when Jesus, as the lord of the feast, takes up the towel and basin and the role of the lowliest servant. “I am among you as one who serves.” “Go thou and do likewise.”
How does that servant-attitude translate into ministry situations? Luke adds a story to illustrate:
“As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them. 56 Then he and his disciples went to another village. (Luke 9: 51-55)
When you are serving someone, then their needs and desires come before your service. If they are not ready to receive you, then you have no business getting uptight about it – you simpy have to wait until they’re ready. It is James and John (again) who misunderstand this aspect of being “great” in the kingdom of God.
But service in this way does not demean you or make you somehow of less value than the person you are serving. There’s a line in the movie Maid in Manhattan that helped me understand this: “To serve people takes dignity and intelligence. But remember, they are only people with money. And although we serve them, we are not their servants. What we do, Miss Ventura, does not define who we are…”
Bill Johnson said “Servnthood is our assignment.” it is not our identity. This is the truth that enables us to give and give and yet not be belittled or demeaned. Our worth comes from God, not from what other people think of us.
And if they put on airs and put us down, well, that’s ok. Move on round the obstacle or find another place to serve. Don’t trouble yourself to call down fire from heaven; just relax, let it go, repay good for evil and “heap coals of fire” on their heads.
And once you are free of the desire to be recognised and applauded, then all kinds of great things can happen around you – and God can trust you with bigger assignments because he knows you won’t get silly about it.
And -as Harry Truman said- “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you don’t care who get the credit.”
There’s a wonderful section in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Matthew 6 with which we can close:
“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.
2-4 “When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.
5 “And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?
6 “Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace…”
Let’s start today. Now.