When I was a little girl, my brother Jason and I used to argue with one another about who was smarter. Very often this competitiveness is what drives us to better ourselves in life. My oldest nephew has decided, as both my brother and I thought at one time, to be a baker when he grows up. So, one Memorial Day weekend, he decided that he mastered our family’s whoopee pie recipe. So he challenged my mother to a competition for the Memorial Day picnic to see who made the best whoopee pies. If he won he would get $10 and a special day with grandma. If my mother won she would get $10. The terms were set by my nephew. It was going to be a tough battle being that my mother is a master baker in her own right and whoopee pies are a specialty of hers and have been for more than 40 years now.
My nephew did nothing different than any of us do. This sense of competition and wanting be first drives us forward in our goals in life. It gives us the ambition that we need to better ourselves as professionals and as individuals. This was the same drive that inspired the disciples to try harder and to be more. This is the same drive that can be harnessed and used to deepen our faith experiences and our spiritual connectedness minus the money part of the deal.
This desire to be the best, to be the first, to be number one is something humanity has sought out since the very beginning of time. Solomon wanted to be first in wisdom. In our lives, we want to be the first in line at the store. We want to be the first one into see the doctor before they get backed up for the day. We would much rather be in front of the traffic jam than at the end of it. In education, many of us want to be at the head of the class. Globally, we want to be ranked as number one amongst the developed nations. We are always seeking number one status; and so were the disciples. They wanted to be seated next to Christ. They wanted to be the best at being like Christ. They wanted to be at the head of their class.
This enthusiasm in life is what stirs our passion and drives us to try harder and to work harder for what we want in life. In faith and religion, it is a sign of our joy in God when we try to be number one in our connection to God. The drive to be better, to work harder, can work to bring us closer to God and to one another when we utilize it to be focused on God. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Keep feeling the need to be first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity”.1
When we focus our desires to be first on love, on helping others, and on generosity then we are focusing our lives on that which God always intended. God intended humanity to live in relationship with one another. He intended us to feel his love clearly and to place our complete trust in him in such a way that we never have to question what God has in store for us, we never have to ask where God is, and we never have to wonder our purpose in the world.
Our gospel lesson this morning speaks of the command about what it takes to first amongst believers in Christ. This passage is part of a chapter that speaks of Jesus being the true vine and we are the branches and we must go forth and bear fruit in our works. We must put the love of God first in our lives. We must put care for neighbor, friend, and stranger first in our desire to achieve that closeness with God. To abide in the love of God means to set aside our desires to be first in everything else in life. We must set aside our desires to live this life just for ourselves, our own benefit and our own experiences.
Life isn’t about who is better at what. Who gets the best grades in class. Who has the nicest lawn. Who has the nicest car. Who is the best artist. All of these are just things and talents, none of them will bring happiness in life though they might bring us success in careers. These things cannot fill the void in our lives. They do not necessarily bring us closer in relationship with other people or our maker. Remember the words of Christ, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love … I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete”.2 So when we feel that urge to be competitive, when we feel the need to be first, seek to be first in love. Seek to be first in expressing the joy of Christ to all peoples because this will bring the fulfillment we seek in life. This week as you contemplate the love of God further, ask yourselves “How have I expressed God’s love today? How have I touched the life of someone else?” Put the love of God, which Christ brought to our lives, first in all that you do and allow it to bring forth the fruits God desires of all his children.
1. Martin Luther King Jr. 20th Century.
2. John 15: 10-11, NRSV.