If you are a sports fan, you may have heard about the word, “GOAT.” What does it mean? I can tell you, it has nothing to do with the animal we know. And it is not the bad name to label some players who cause a team to lose a game. Actually, it’s quite the opposite: GOAT is the acronym of “Greatest Of All Time.” Yes, this word is a really honorable title bestowed only on a handful of excellent players who are widely considered the best in sports history. For example, in basketball, Michael Jordan is always listed as the GOAT. In soccer, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo can be the GOATs. In tennis, people call Roger Federer and Serena Williams the GOATs. In baseball, maybe the Hall of Famers can be the GOATs. True, the word “GOAT” sounds a little funny, but no doubt, it’s a very hard-earned title. Sports media or magazines sometimes have debates on the GOAT-ness of some players. But some players are indisputably recognized as the greatest of all time by most people.
Not only in the world of sports but also in different fields of our life and work, we can find some people who also deserve the title “GOAT.” They are the ones who have aspired to be the best in what they do and finally become true professionals in their respective fields. Great artists, acclaimed writers, excellent chefs, pioneering engineers and scientists, good-hearted civil officers, inspiring leaders of social movement, and all the great experts in big or small areas in our lives. I think we can call them the GOATs too. Then, I thought, if we want to find the GOATs in the church, who would be qualified for the title? Who can be the Christian GOATs, the greatest of all time?
In today’s Gospel story, it looks like the disciples are already into the discussion to figure out the GOAT among them. They were heading to Jerusalem, and the disciples were obviously in a heated debate through the long walk. And Jesus is interested to know what it was all about. So when they have arrived in Capernaum and have settled into a house for a meal and a rest, Jesus asks: “What were you arguing about on the way?” (Mark 9:33) But there is no response. The Gospel says, the disciples were silent, because on the way they argued with one another about who is the greatest (Mark 9:34).
Here, their silence tells us many things. Why don’t they tell anything back to Jesus? Do they feel embarrassed because as grown-ups, they shamelessly raised their voices against one another claiming, “I’m greater than you and here’s why?” But in Jesus’ days, social class or rank was much more important and visible than now, and it’s how people ensured their social order. So in their context, the disciples’ debate is not something totally absurd or unacceptable. Then, what’s the reason of their silence? Are they just afraid of telling Jesus about the truth because Jesus doesn’t like the idea of greatness at all? I don’t think so. As far as I know, Jesus never condemns our quest for greatness. Then, what’s the reason? I think, for Jesus, the disciples pursuing to be the greatest is okay, but “the way” they try to be great is not okay. The disciples are silent probably because they are somehow aware of the way of Jesus, even though they deny it.
Jesus takes this way to Jerusalem, takes his steps forward to fulfill his mission, that is, to obey God to the point of death. And Jesus knows, there is only one way to be the greatest victor and savior who can liberate people from the power of sin and death. And this way is the way of the cross, the way of humbling oneself and sacrificing oneself for the sake of others.
But walking on the same way, the disciples have totally different visions for their way to be the greatest. So far they have witnessed Jesus’ divine power and his great miracles: healing the sick, feeding five thousand, and even making the dead alive. On their way to Jerusalem, therefore, they expect that Jesus will finally turn the world upside down and build the glorious kingdom of God where they will be the greatest and enjoy high positions and power next to Jesus. And this lofty aspiration leads them to deny Jesus who predicts his passion and death again and again: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mark 9:31-32).
To the disciples who dream of being the greatest in God’s kingdom, Jesus tells the true and simple way to be the greatest of all time: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Yes, Jesus doesn’t mind the disciples and us being the greatest and the first. But he radically transforms the way to be the greatest. Jesus tells us, “Do you want to be the greatest, the GOAT in your life? Go ahead and pursue your quest for greatness. But be very sure that the way you should take will never be the way up, but the way down; the way you should walk will never be the way of triumphal procession but the way of the cross.”
How can we become the greatest? By taking the way to possess power and elevate ourselves for self-focused and self-serving purposes? No. We should take the other way around, the way to love others in the life-giving power of Jesus and to serve others for the self-giving and self-sacrificing purposes. And how can our church, First United Methodist Church of Montclair, become the first and greatest church in God’s sight? Our church’s motto clearly tells us the way: “Love First. Serve First.” Yes, that’s the way we become the true first church in this community. True greatness comes in loving others and serving others.
The GOAT, the greatest of all time, I hope and pray, we all walk the way of the cross with Jesus and with one another every day, so that Jesus may bestow that honorable title onto us, the faithful servants of God, someday. Until the day comes, let us love others first and serve others first as our Lord Jesus Christ showed us. Amen.