Muhammad Ali referred to himself as the greatest fighter of all time. Some might count it as braggadocio, but few men matched his prowess as a boxer. In 1999, Sports Illustrated named him the athlete of the century. There aren’t many athletes who rise to the level of Muhammad Ali. It wasn’t just about his physicality in the ring, but his attitude, his personality, his activism, all of these contributed to the man who was Muhammad Ali.
Greatness is something many aspire to, but few achieve. Of the billions of people who have lived in recorded human history, we really only remember a very elite few of them. Of the millions of Americans that have lived and died since 1776, it would be a liberal bet that we collectively remember more than 300 of them. Of course, I’m only guessing, but the truth is, it takes making quite an impact for your name to live on for even a couple of centuries, much less a few millennia. Will Muhammad Ali be remembered in two hundred years? Five hundred years? A thousand?
I don’t say this to disrespect his memory, but rather I want to talk about greatness. When the question is asked, “Who’s the greatest?” almost every red blooded American born in the last seventy-five years thinks of Muhammad Ali. So for many Americans, Muhammad Ali is one embodiment of greatness. And watching his struggle with Parkinson’s Disease for the last half of his life solidified him as an icon in the American psyche.
One of the greatest challenges Christians face is to conform our minds and our conduct to the standard of God’s kingdom. Inherent in this is that we will have to redefine many of our notions about what really matters. One of those notions is how we define greatness. Timothy Keller once preached a message called The Upside Down Kingdom, and the title is dead on. God’s kingdom flips everything we thought we knew on its head. Where the world sees greatness achieved through superior skill and ambition, God’s kingdom defines greatness in different terms.
Matthew chapter 18 begins with a question posed to Jesus: Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Jesus’ immediate answer is to call over a child and say that if we don’t become as one of these, we’ll never enter the kingdom. Children are the model. Clearly it isn’t a childlike maturity. Nor is it a childlike understanding of things. But rather, the greatest in the kingdom trust God in all things the way a child trusts his parents. There’s a certain innocence in the way three year olds blindly trust their moms and dads. Children don’t know all their parents’ imperfections; they simply love them and believe they can do anything. It’s that kind of trust that God is looking for in his kids: a childlike trust that the Father loves us and can do anything. If you can maintain that, you can be great in the kingdom.
Look to some of Jesus’ other teachings as well. Kingdom people are those who turn the other cheek when provoked (Matthew 5:39), those who still give after they’ve been taken from (Matthew 5:40), those who go the extra mile when forced to perform (Matthew 5:41). They are those who judge themselves before judging others (Matthew 7:5). Let’s be honest. These three things alone prove one thing about many of us: we’re horrible kingdom people, much less great ones.
But, the good news is that Jesus knew we’d be bad, and he saved us in spite of our badness. See, kingdom greatness isn’t really about you because you aren’t all that great. Kingdom greatness is about Jesus because he IS the greatest! To make it simple, if you’re pursuing greatness so you can be great, you’ll miss it. Greatness isn’t the thing we should pursue. Jesus is the person of our pursuit. If you pursue Jesus for the sake of knowing and loving him because nothing else compares, and not for the sake of being great, then you’ll be great in God’s kingdom.
In God’s kingdom, you don’t achieve greatness by chasing after greatness. You become great by chasing after Jesus and not seeking greatness, but seeking to serve. If you and I possess any greatness, it’s his life in and through us that makes us great, and nothing else matters. Only Jesus.