When they had come into a house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about during the journey?” 34 They didn’t respond, since on the way they had been debating with each other about who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,“Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” 36 Jesus reached for a little child, placed him among the Twelve, and embraced him. Then he said, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.”
This weekend I was able to hear Dr. John Perkins speak on reconciliation. With the wisdom of his 85 years but the energy and spirit of a much younger man, Dr. Perkins shared powerful reflections on what he believes reconciliation really is. He says most churches go about reconciliation without questioning false idea that there are two races that must be reconciled, which merely reinforces our old notions of hierarchy and separation. In reality, Dr. Perkins reminded us that race was created by humans, not God, and that we are all part of one diverse race, all reflecting the image of God. “Reconciliation is the gospel,” he shouted; it is about reconciling to each other and to God, who as Paul says “…through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation”
Dr. Perkins’ words came to mind when I read this week’s somewhat amusing scripture, where Jesus’s friends sound much more like my brother and me bickering as children than disciples who are called to usher in the Kingdom of God.
But jokes are usually funny because they are true, and we should know by now that the disciples are people just like us, prone to bickering and insecurities. The age-old question of “who is the greatest?” has plagued me long since I stopped fighting with my brother, still popping up in yoga class, at grocery stores, and when I walk into church on Sunday mornings. Like the disciples, it comes up for me even in spaces that should be sacred; I heard it this weekend, when I sat in another “intentionally diverse” church in Durham, and found myself thinking about whether my church is greater at reconciliation, greater at interpreting Jesus, or greater at being a community.
The disciples’ arguments created distance in their community, separating them from each other and from Jesus and perhaps foreshadowing their upcoming betrayals. In the same way, today after centuries of asking “who is the greatest,” we are still haunted by the lies, power, and competition that have left us divided from God and from each other.
This model makes no sense to Jesus, and he tells the disciples their game will only backfire: “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” He goes on to explain that if they really want to be close to him, they must do it not by distancing but through community: “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.”
This is the reconciliation of which Dr. Perkins spoke. Literally a re-“coming together;” coming together again. Not striving to forge something new that might seem impossible, but returning to our created state, our true selves that exist in and with God and each other, that were connected once and will be again. Dr. Perkins says that reconciliation is first and foremost a reconciliation to God. Black and white folks can drink coffee together, we can even wash each other’s feet, but that is not reconciliation, he insisted. Reconciliation is repentance, forgiveness, a union and closeness that comes only through our creator. It’s not a two-pointed line between black and white but a multi-dimensional relationship with each of us connecting to God through each other and to each other through God.
Asking questions like “who is the greatest” sever these relational lines, dividing us not only from each other but from God. Like the disciples, Jesus tells us that to reach true reconciliation we must seek not greatness but humility, justice, and community.