I heard a sermon once and it changed my life. The time, location and circumstances have faded with the memory but the vision has remained clear. It was in the letter that Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi, in the second chapter where he quotes a hymn:
Christ was truly God. But he did not try to remain equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave, when he became like one of us. Christ was humble. He obeyed God and even died on a cross. Then God gave Christ the highest place and honoured his name above all others. So at the name of Jesus everyone will bow down, those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. And to the glory of God the Father everyone will openly agree, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”
It was a picture that was thrust into my mind and burned into my memory, of a hand that could have grasped, could have held on, but let go, willingly let go. There were lots of questions: What kind of person would willingly let go of his right and come to this life where he would suffer be tortured and die? For what purpose? And what did it mean for me? The thought, uninvited, which broke into my ordered world, carried an unavoidable and unmistakable challenge. It was about attitude, about my attitude. Paul was saying: we should have the same attitude as Christ Jesus.
Many years later sitting with a group of international students, some believers and followers of Jesus, other unsure, while others Buddhists, Atheists, Hindus and various strands of religious background, we were thinking about Peter and the call from Jesus at the side of the lake to “come and follow me”. One of our international friends asked “If I decide to follow Jesus, will I have to give up everything too?” As usual I didn’t know how to answer the question, others stepped in to do that, but afterwards thinking about it, I knew. The answer had to be “Yes”. Yes it did mean giving up everything and yes it did mean not grasping what you thought was your right but letting go and giving it up. It would look different for different people. What it meant for others was not my business. I knew what it meant for me.
Now as almost everyone pitches in with their take on the life of Nelson Mandela, there is one thing that strikes me, more than anything else, about the man: his humility. How he seemed to continually stress that he was not a prophet or a king, but a servant. That is true greatness.