The heartbeat of the Christian faith and life is the Cross and Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is likewise His Cross which His disciples are given to receive, to carry, and to rely upon for life. For it is in the Cross of Christ that true divine greatness and the almighty power of God are made perfect in His voluntary weakness and demonstrated in His mercy and pity toward us poor sinners.
He has such compassion and bestows His charity upon you, not from some high and lofty, far-away distance, but up close and personal. Nor is His giving to you like the painless writing of a check as an impersonal donation from your disposable income to some cause or another for the sake of a tax write-off. But, no, His divine charity is the true greatness and real strength of self-sacrificing love and voluntary suffering, for the sake of saving you, though you have no way to repay Him.
So, then, in answer to the disciples’ question and discussion, it is Christ Jesus, and He alone, who is the greatest of all. He stands head and shoulders above any and all other contenders. Indeed, He is lifted up above all others when He is lifted up in death upon the Cross, and when He is then raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of His Father in righteousness and glory forever.
Again, His greatness is found precisely in His grace and mercy toward us, which He exercises in His obedience to the Father, and in His humble service to the point of His death upon the Cross. It is in love for His Father, and in steadfast perfect faith in the Father who sent Him, that He takes up that Cross and offers up His Body and Life upon it in love and compassion for His neighbor.
In doing so, He has made Himself the least of all and the servant of all. He who is the almighty and eternal Son of the Living God from all eternity, has become like a little child. More than that, He actually was conceived and born as the little Child of St. Mary, in order to redeem the world and everyone in it, to rescue all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve from sin, death, and hell.
To be and to live like a little child, as Jesus has done for you and your salvation, is to live by faith in the Lord your God, in His Word and promises, and in His gracious providence. It is to rely on Him, and to receive all that you need from His hand by way of those He has given to care for you. It is to boast not in yourself but in His grace and mercy, and to give Him thanks and praise.
It is by living in this way on your behalf, by faith in His Father, in flesh and blood like your own, that the Lord Jesus — your Teacher and Master — has humbled Himself to render the greatest of all service, to become your Savior, and to save you at the cost of His own Body and Life. So has He atoned for all your sins, reconciled you to God the Father, and poured out His Spirit upon you.
Of course, this is the great irony and paradox of Christianity: That forgiveness, life, and salvation are in the Cross of Christ alone; that your true and only life is in His innocent suffering and death.
Those who are called and catechized to be the Christian disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ — who are called to follow Him and learn from Him — are thus taught by His Word and by His example to be and live like Him: in faith toward God, and in fervent love for those He places around you.
So do you become like a little child and live by faith in your dear Father. And so you also bear the Cross of Christ in self-sacrificing love and humble service for your neighbors in their need. Not simply trading favors, tit for tat; nor doing good merely for those who can repay you in some way; but sacrificing yourself, giving up your time, treasures, and talents, for the sake of holy charity.
Understand that you are, in fact, a little child in relation to God. You are dependent on Him for absolutely everything, and yet you are not able to repay Him at all. As that is how it is for you, so then, learn to love and care for your brothers and sisters in Christ, and for all your neighbors in the world, regardless of their age or abilities, as your dear Father in heaven cares for all His children.
In particular, care for those who actually are little children, and for those who are like the little children, because they are so small and weak and helpless; because they need your help, and you are an instrument of your Father, like an older brother or sister caring for your younger siblings.
To live in these ways, both in general and in particular — to receive what you need from God, and to give to your neighbor as God gives to you — that is simply to live by faith and in love as a Christian. It is to live by the Cross, by the fruits of the Cross of Christ, and so to bear such fruits for others after the same kind — at your own expense, but in the confidence of the Resurrection.
Sounds pretty good. Except that it really is no wonder that the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus what He meant when He told them where He was going and what lay ahead of Him in Jerusalem. They did not want to know or understand the Cross, neither His nor their own; for that is surely not the sort of greatness they had in mind in their discussion on the way.
Nor is that what you desire for yourself, either, truth be told; not according to your sinful nature. Quite the opposite, actually. The fallen flesh of your old Adam has other ideas entirely! You do not want suffering but prosperity and pleasure. And you do not want to serve, but to be served.
On your way through life, as you chart your course and blaze your trail, as you take your classes, do your job, and pay your dues, you also discuss and contemplate your greatness vis-à-vis others. Not the greatness of the Cross, but the greatness of the world and its idols. For that prize you compare and contrast, you jockey for position, you compete, and you maneuver for your own advancement, benefit, and profit. That is what occupies your attention and captures your heart.
Consequently, you are not able to comprehend the Cross and Crucifixion of Christ Jesus, who lays down His life and sacrifices Himself, not for His own benefit, but entirely for others, even for those who have hated Him and been at enmity with Him, in order to save them from their sin and death, and to reconcile them to God in peace. Such divine, self-sacrificing love is pure grace and utter charity — and so contrary to your own instincts of survival, self-preservation, and self-promotion.
Which is why you must be catechized, put to death, and born again to newness of life — by the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel, and by the Cross of Christ which is preached to you in His Name — in order to become a little child of God and a faithful disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And then again, it is necessary to remember and bear in mind that the only true greatness is that of Christ Jesus Himself, who has become for you and for all the least and the last, the faithful Servant of God and Man, the Sacrifice to end all sacrifice for sin. For not only has He become the little Child who lives by faith in His Father, but so also is He the sacrificial Lamb who lives and dies in love for God and Man, who takes upon Himself and takes away the sins of the world.
This is the great service that He has rendered and accomplished for you and for all.
And it is in this greatness of His own Cross and Passion that He gently calls you to Himself, again and again, and catechizes you by and with His Word and Holy Spirit unto repentant faith in His forgiveness of all your sins. And as the Father has raised Him from death and the grave, and has seated Him at His right hand in glory, so does He raise you from death to life, now and forever.
So has He given you a brand new birth and made of you a little child of God by your Holy Baptism into His Cross and Resurrection. And He has sent His servants of the Word to you, to preach and teach and catechize in His Name and stead; to forgive you all your sins, and to nourish your faith and life in Him by the means of His Gospel within the household and family of His Church.
Thus, He teaches you to be and to live as a child of God, not by the force and fury of the Law, but by caring for you and providing for you, and by loving you relentlessly, despite your daily sins, your unbelief, ingratitude, petty grumpiness, and persistent disobedience. He calls you daily to repentance for all your sins, by calling you to the great goodness of His grace, mercy, and peace.
Not only does He feed and clothe and shelter you, guard and protect you, guide and lead you for this body and life, but He freely gives to you His own life in body and soul, for now and forever. Which is to say that He feeds and clothes and shelters you, guards and protects you, guides and leads you unto the resurrection of your body and the life everlasting of your body and soul with Himself in the Kingdom of His own God and Father.
As He has given Himself for you unto death upon His Cross, so does He now give Himself to you from the Cross in the Sacrament of His Altar. He humbles Himself in the form of bread and wine to feed you from His own nail-scarred hands, to serve you with His own holy Body, and to pour out for you, not only cold water, but that Cup which is the New Testament in His precious Blood.
Receiving these good gifts that Christ Jesus freely gives, you receive the Lord your God Himself, and you partake of His divine, eternal life. That is the greatness of Christ and His Cross, which is now also yours as a child of God in Him, by His grace alone, through faith in His Holy Gospel.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.