It’s rather a ridiculous question, isn’t it? And it would be a matter of serious concern if such a query was voiced abroad. (So tell no one).
But there it is, right in the centre of one of the most solemn moments in Christian history:
“A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.”
Remember that this follows the disclosure that “one of you will betray me” so we have taken quite a leap from considering the worst to considering the best of the disciples. Perhaps that is precisely how the conversation ran: from the disciples refusing to acknowledge that they could betray Jesus, to considering who was the least likely to, (and thus, the best of them).
But Jesus cuts through the foolishness, likening their jostling egos to the way things are done outside, in a world where Jesus is not called Lord. “Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”
You are not to play power-games, or preen yourselves as a cut above anybody at all. You are not to be bossy, even when you’re the boss. You are not to be patronising or condescending, seeing yourself as one of the movers and shakers, the Haves, kindly bestowing your own resources on the Have-nots. “You are not to be like that.”
And Jesus offers two key strategies for leadership among the People of God. The first is that the “greatest” (an acknowledgement that some do indeed operate in positions of importance) should be “like the youngest” (the disempowered and unimportant in first century Jewish society). The second is that “the one who rules…[should operate as if he’s] “the one who serves.” The youngest may have been considered unimportant, but at least they were protected by membership in the family. Those who served had no such rights.
And Jesus was about to demonstrate what service without rights looked like for “the one who rules.” It looks like the cross.
“For I am among you as one who serves.”
And that’s the answer to the question. The Number One Christian is the ruler who serves. And his name is Jesus.
But Jesus acknowledges the roles played by the disciples too, and the consequence of that allegiance: “You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
This is heady stuff, and you would have thought it might tempt them to grandstand all over again about their individual claims to greatness, so Jesus quickly adds a codicil:
“‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’”
So all of them are about to be tried and tested, but Jesus underlines Peter’s part in these events, and -indirectly- his significant role in the early church. He dismisses Peter’s pledge of loyalty with a prophecy of failure. Now we regularly shoot the wounded, but Jesus prepared him for failure! Imagine that! Jesus’ prayer shows that Jesus’ battle was not against Peter’s disloyalty, but against Satan. Jesus knew that Satan wanted to destroy Peter through a natural fear for his own life and through a lifetime habit of self-reliance.
But Paul claims that prayer of Christ for us in our failure too, “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” Despite Peter’s shameful failure, Jesus loved him and prayed for him to the end. And the devil knows how to sift each one of us. He knows all our weakness. He knows how to break us. And we are powerless in our own strength.
But Jesus is indeed interceding. It’s going to be ok.