(If you have access to rectangular children's blocks, or wooden 2x4's that are each about 6 inches in length, you can build this pyramid. If not, you can draw it on the board.)
(Knock off the top block and nothing happens. Then rebuild or redraw the pyramid, inverted.)
(Flick off the same block--now on the bottom--and the whole pyramid collapses.)
This is what happens when the greatest becomes the least. His actual importance (or influence) becomes much greater. This was the main topic of Christ's last counsel to his Apostles during his last week on the earth.
WHO IS THE GREATEST?
Jesus wanted to eat the Passover Feast with his disciples, his last meal with them before he died. Apparently none of them had a safe place for this in the City of Jerusalem, which was now dangerous for Christ. So Peter and John asked, "Where wilt thou that we prepare? And he said unto them, Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you, bearing a pitcher of water; follow him into the house where he entereth in. And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? And he shall shew you a large upper room furnished: there make ready" (Luke 22:9-12). The disciples did as they were told and very easily discerned who they should ask, even in the great city bustling with Passover pilgrims, because a man bearing a pitcher of water was a highly unusual sight. (Please check out Michaela Stephen's great insight on this in the comments below the post.)
As they sat to eat, there was a dispute among the disciples about who was the greatest among them (Luke 22:24). Possibly this was because of the traditional seating arrangements at the Passover table. Jesus was the honored guest and so it would have been appropriate for the next in authority to sit next to him.
It seems a petty deal for the Apostles of the Lord to worry about, but maybe two considerations make it seem not quite so silly. One is that Jesus was continually telling them that he would be dying, and he had just barely restated that prophecy. Naturally they would have wondered then, who would be the leader when he left? The other consideration is that the Apostles likely were not the aged, wizened, bearded men picture in all the paintings. "Most lived into the third and fourth quarter of the century [so] they must have been only teenagers when they first took up Christ's call" (Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, p. 525). The New Testament often depicts them as being impetuous--Peter and John especially--so they were likely very young and inexperienced.
CHRIST'S VISUAL/VERBAL/TACTILE ANSWER
"[Jesus] said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. For whether is greater [in the eyes of the world], he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? Is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth" (Luke 22:25-27).
Christ actually had been trying to teach this to his disciples on many occasions before. Matthew, Mark and Luke all recorded him saying that one must become as a little child in order to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 13:32; 18:1-4; Mark 9:33-36; Luke 9:46-48). And all four gospel writers record him telling them to find their lives by losing them in service (Matt. 10:39; 16:25-27; Luke 9:24; 17:33; Mark 8:35; John 12:25), but apparently it hadn't quite stuck. So this time he added a terrific visual, tactile aid they could not forget.
It is helpful to understand the differences between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and the Gospel of John. Matthew, Mark and Luke all wrote their books about Jesus' ministry before John wrote his. When John was writing, much later, he very likely had the other three texts in front of him as a reference. Therefore he usually did not write the same details they wrote, but filled in things he noticed were missing, particularly things that were important for the members of the Church to understand. (See Bible Dictionary, "Harmony of the Gospels" for a chart that illustrates this.) This is one of these occasions.
And this is what John wrote:
"Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end" (John 13:1).
"He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded" (John 13:4-5).
This was possibly a new ordinance Christ was introducing to his disciples, probably related to some of our temple ordinances today, although not a lot of detail is given about that. (It is alluded to in the JST Appendix to the Bible, p. 809, in the John 13:8-10 entry.) But even if it was a ceremonial washing, he did not put on high-priestly robes. Instead he stripped himself down to take on the appearance of a Roman slave. The Jews were so modest that what they called "naked" was to have one's elbows and knees showing, so by this shocking state of un-dress, Jesus got the Apostles' attention in a way they would not soon forget. His actions actually caused Peter to recoil and protest, "Thou shalt never wash my feet" (John 13:8). Jesus then explained that he was offering a spiritual cleansing (vs. 8-11), and that he was trying to teach them a vital lesson.
"So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord; and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them" (John 13:12-17).
CHRIST'S MODEL OF HIERARCHY
Jesus clearly illustrated to them that God, the greatest of all, is a servant, not a boss. And it's true: He issues commandments for our happiness, but he never forces us to do anything. Yet he is always there ready to help us when we ask.
Church positions, such as theirs or ours or anybody else's, are opportunities to practice this type of service. Our roles in our families, in our neighborhoods, and even in our workplaces also give us these opportunities. What we might consider the "highest" position in a ward is the bishop, right? But the Greek word from which the word bishop came means literally, "chief slave."
Christ was warning us that we must not turn a service position into a status position.
During the years that my older children were in elementary school, we had a school secretary and a school custodian who were both nearing retirement. The secretary was famous for refusing to help unless it was part of her job. The parents, students and even teachers learned to tiptoe around her.
The custodian, however, contributed to every activity. If we were setting up chairs for the PTA, Gary put down his broom and took over. If we had a meeting after school, he stayed and helped with the setup. If we couldn't get the microphone to work, he'd fiddle with it until it did. When one of my children was falsely accused of pulling the fire alarm, he jumped to his defense because he knew the children well enough to know that although this child might have enjoyed pulling the fire alarm, he wouldn't have lied about it if he had. He loved the kids, he loved the teachers, and he loved the parents. He was everywhere, offering his service. If we needed help with anything, we could rely upon Gary and we could know that he would never be annoyed by our asking.
Guess which one we sorely missed when they both retired? It was a little like the collapsing inverted pyramid when the custodian left.
CHRIST AS THE LEAST
Christ was the greatest of all who ever lived on earth, yet he offered himself as the servant to every single one of them. He lived his ministry upon the earth as a service, healing, blessing and teaching great truths, and then he gave his great sacrifice, the Atonement, which allows every one of us the opportunity to be resurrected, to repent, and to live with and become like God.
LOVE ONE ANOTHER
Jesus commanded his disciples to follow this model. "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another" (John 13:34-35).
He encouraged his Apostles by telling them the immediate result, while still here on earth, of following his model of love and service: "If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love" (John 15:10).
Wait a minute! Does God only love us when we keep his commandments? Isn't his love unconditional?
The answer is that we are always loved, but we can only abide or live in that love, i.e. feel its effects in our lives and character, when we are obedient to the commandments. If we don't keep his commandments, we are "beyond feeling"--we don't experience the comfort of his love even though it is there.
"These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full" (John 15:11). If we abide in God's love, our joy will be full. We abide in God's love by keeping his commandments. And what are the commandments? "This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:12-13).
Our lives will be calmer, happier, less stressful, more joyful, if we can only love God and our fellow man well and in every situation. We can die for our friends as Christ did, or we can live for our friends, as John "The Beloved" is still doing--either way we are laying down our life for them. Dying seems like the ultimate sacrifice (and in Christ's case that is actually true), but living for your friends has its own challenges in that you have to keep doing it again, day after day, placing yourself at the bottom of the pyramid.
USING THE SACRAMENT TO SANCTIFY OURSELVES
At the Last Supper, Christ introduced the sacrament, as his "parting gift," something significant with which to remember him. (Credit goes to my friend LeAnn Whitesides for that idea.) Michael Wilcox also looks on it as an opportunity to "breathe heavenly air" when we experience that "longing for home" mentioned in the hymn "More Holiness Give Me" (Of These Emblems: Coming Closer to Christ through the Sacrament, p.5).
"And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament [covenant] in my blood which is shed for you" (Luke 22:19-20).
In D&C 27:2 we are given a clarification: "[It is to remember] my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins."
"This verse indicates the two main things Christ did for us that we are to remember. Jesus laid down His body that He might take it up again and thus bring to us all the gift of the Resurrection. He also shed His blood that we might receive a remission of our sins through the compassion and mercy of the Atonement...As we partake of the sacrament we are invited to ponder, receive hope, and be comforted by the twin thoughts of Christ's dual victory over the two deaths...The sacrament is a memorial of both gratitude and hope" (Wilcox, p. 4-10). The broken bread can remind us of the broken flesh of his body, which brought us the hope of resurrection. The water can remind us of the blood which flowed from every pore as he suffered for our sins, offering us the hope of peace through repentance in this life and sanctification for Eternal Life.
We can also use the sacrament as a weekly reminder to ponder Christ's model of serving with love and consider how we could better use it in our lives this very week, this very day, this very hour. Every few minutes of our day we are given the opportunity to choose between service or status. With every opportunity we use to fit ourselves into the service position, we will become just a little more like Christ.
THE PROMISE TO RETURN
In Chapter 14 of John, Jesus helped to prepare his Apostles for his coming death by letting them know He would not be gone for good, and that, in the meantime his influence would remain.
Note: We'll discuss the gift of the Comforter in more depth with the next lesson.)
First he said, "Let not your heart be troubled...I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am there ye may be also. And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know" (John 14:1-4)
Then he said, "I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you" (John 14:18).
And then, "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him" (John 14:21).
And, "If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him" (John 14:23).
And finally the grand promise, which circles back to the first, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (John 14:27).
What he was telling them is a great and marvelous truth that is a comfort to us as well: the struggling Kingdom of God on earth would be (and is now) linked with the Kingdom of God in Heaven. We are never separated from the love of Christ. (See Romans 8:35-39.) Through our Christ-like service to all around us, and through our weekly sanctification at the sacrament table, we draw our earthly existence closer to heaven.
Elder Holland gave a beautiful conference address on the sacrament with very practical ways to remember Christ in October 1995. Read it here.