The Nobody who became a Somebody
A reflection on being competitive in the Kingdom of God. By Colin Sedgwick
Image | GR Stocks | Unsplash
How’s this for a lovely story?
A pastor had been faithfully ministering in his church for many years, and had seen much numerical growth. But things were changing, partly because a new young pastor had come to a neighbouring church and was beginning to attract large numbers.
One Sunday evening the congregation numbered just a handful. The pastor said, sadly, “Where is everyone?” After an embarrassed pause somebody replied that they were probably at that other church. Whereupon the pastor smiled and said, “Well, perhaps we ought to join them then”; he gathered up his books and led his loyal little flock down the road.
That must have been hard. But it was done with grace, dignity and humility.
The world we live in is ferociously competitive. We all want to be top dog, to be the most successful person in our particular field. When it comes to sport, of course, that’s fair enough: the whole point is to win, and if one person wins, then everyone else, obviously, must lose.
But in other areas it’s a very different matter. A famous novelist is reported to have said “Every time a friend succeeds, something in me dies”. Perhaps he said it with a smile on his face, not meaning it too seriously. I hope so. But I can’t help wondering.
This kind of competitive spirit creeps like poison into the church. When I was a very new minister, still feeling my way, an even newer one arrived. At the first ministers’ fellowship he attended he informed us - bold as brass - that “We are praying to become the biggest church in this town”. Not, note, the most loving church, or the most Christ-centred church, or the most Spirit-filled church… I have to confess that I sat there thinking, “Oh, you silly, silly man…” (Within a year he had gone.)
According to John’s Gospel there was a short period when John the Baptist and Jesus were both active in preaching and baptising. This is what we read in John 3:22-28…
An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him’”.
To us, as we look back knowing what we do, what happened was inevitable: the disciples of John gravitated to Jesus – of course! But some remained loyal to their teacher – and, it seems, got upset and jealous on his behalf: “Rabbi, that man… – the one you testified about – look, he is baptising, and everyone is going to him”. How dare they!
And how does John respond?
First, he states, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven… I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him…” (verses 27-28).
In other words, God has a purpose for each one of us, and our job is to find out what it is and simply get on and do it – and not worry about anyone else, even if their God-appointed role seems to eclipse ours.
Second, John compares the coming of Jesus, and the breaking in of the kingdom of God, to a wedding, with all the joy that implies. Jesus, of course, is the bridegroom and, says John, “My role is that of ‘best man’”.
In weddings in most societies the best man (or whatever title he may go by) is very important: much responsibility falls to him. But one thing he absolutely mustn’t do is steal the limelight from the bridegroom – just as the bridesmaids, however beautiful, mustn’t steal the limelight from the bride.
(I conducted a wedding once where one of the bride’s sisters drew a lot of attention to herself by acting like a prima donna: everything she said and did seemed to scream out “Look at me! I’m here!” It was embarrassing, and eventually another member of the family took her aside and told her very firmly “This occasion isn’t about you!” Fortunately it did the trick…)
My job, said John, is to point people to Jesus (John 1:33). So if my disciples are drifting from me to him, great! long may it continue! And he summed it up with that famous little saying: “He must increase: I must decrease” (John 3:30). Can we say that? Truly, from our hearts?
The poet T S Eliot wrote: “Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people wanting to be important”. Another witty writer offers the warning: “You may get to the top of the ladder, and then find that it has not been leaning against the right wall”. I like that!
In terms of the kingdom of God, the only way to be something is to make yourself nothing. That, and nothing less, is the way of Jesus (Philippians 2:7).
Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…
Lord Jesus Christ, please deliver me from any kind of competitive or jealous spirit, so that all the glory goes to you. If I am called to do great things, may I do them without pride, and if I am called to do little things, may I do them without resentment. Amen.
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister with many years’ experience in the ministry.
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com
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