This text, like all the texts we have considered in the last few weeks, is really quite shocking in number of ways: Jesus is explaining that the way to save is to suffer; the disciples are arguing blatantly about their desire to be top dog, to be in the most important seats in the house; and that the answer is to serve all. (RCL Job 38:1-7; Psalm 104:1-10, 26; Hebrews 5:1-10; and Mark 10:35-45.)
We need to be grateful that the disciples are remembered as having expressed their questions and ambitions so nakedly. Although in all fairness, given the earlier conversation, they may well have meant ‘When we follow you to the cross and beyond please promise that we at least will get to be covered in your glory later.” Jesus neither denies or confirms their request but immediately puts out the challenge that the real task is to serve now and not worry about how much glory there might be in the future.
So what does it mean to be the servant or slave of all? As I began to prepare for this week’s readings I suddenly was stopped short by this question and realised that whilst I had a fairly good idea of what a servant was I was not sure that I knew what it means to be the SERVANT OF ALL, and that might be quite a different matter.
To be the servant of one person, or one family, or one organisation is difficult and potentially all consuming but we pretty much know what that means. We put the needs of the other before our own. We make their needs our purpose. We do our best for them. We form our identity in relation to how well we serve them and how appreciated our service is. I suspect that such understandings inform much of our Christian philosophy of servanthood. And in this age we have an understandably confused response. We know we are called to servanthood. We sometimes admire it in others. And yet we, or at least I, have some healthy resistance to ideas of subjugating one’s own self to another person.
Why do I suggest that being the servant of all might be different to being the servant of one? Because as soon as we seek to be the servant of more than one we become vulnerable to competing needs: how can we fully serve the needs of our partner and our aging parents or dying friends? How can we be fully engaged in our family life and do all the things that we would like to in our church or work place or sporting group? How can we serve the spiritual needs of the relatively wealthy and serve the needs of the world’s poorest peoples?
Being the servant of all, which Jesus says we are to be, is not only more than being the servant of the one, I have been left pondering that it is significantly different. And our readings this morning lead me to reflect on three ways in which being the servant of all might be more than and different to being the servant of the one other. I ask you to reflect with me.
Firstly to our wonderful reading from the Book of Job in which Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God who cannot be named, eventually responds to Job. And what he basically says is that I am the creator of all that is and until and unless you understand that you will not understand any answer I may give you about the nature of your or even human suffering. Your question is too small, too puny, not big or hard enough to match the cosmic reality of what is really happening here. Being the servant of all takes us into the interconnected cosmic dimensions of caring for all people, all creatures, every thing – the whole of things. Now of course we can’t personally take on the whole world and its problems but I believe we are called out of our small insular world view that sees things in terms of my interests and my neighbours’ needs versus everyone else. God calls us to gird our spiritual loins and to see things from the divine perspective – the creation of the morning stars and the heavens … when we see things from that perspective we see a beautiful fragile globe spinning in space, in orbit around other amazing heavenly bodies in an inexpressibly beautiful galaxy among even more amazing galaxies …. Being the servant of all invites us to act and move and have our being in ways that honours the life force in all things, to walk in awe and wonder and light footed delight upon the earth that we share with all others.
And secondly our reading from Hebrews reminds us that our own high priest took upon himself our frail human flesh and therefore understands our every human weakness, need and joy. That Jesus fully entered into the human experience and thus has a loving understanding of the universal experience of all humanity. He was the Son of Man, everyman, every person, a commoner, the universal human. So the all that we are called to serve has been made sacred by the incarnation of God, the enfleshed life that Jesus lived. He enacted what it meant that we were all created in the image of God. And so we now suddenly live in a world where each starving child is sacred, each blown apart terrorist and innocent bystander in a city we can’t pronounce is sacred. Each person without love or a job or a place to call home is sacred. This makes being called to be the servant of all almost unbearable.
And so it would be if not for the gospel reading that by Jesus entering so fully into the life, joy, suffering, and death that is the lot of humanity, a ransom or a life restoring action has been taken for us that brings life into the midst of the brokenness and suffering. Resurrection - life that come out of death. In the Eucharistic prayer of thanksgiving we pray “the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world”. Because Jesus was the servant of all the world is restored, a pathway of peace and healing has been made through the travails of life and death.
And so thirdly being the servant of all means that we can companion loved ones and strangers to the gates of death itself, in the confidence that life and renewal and healing and forgiveness are to be found in the most unlikely place of all. It’s what we discover at Easter. It is what we partake in, with or without understanding, at the Eucharist. It awaits us at the end of our particular time. This makes being a servant of all the most outrageously hopeful vocation.
One of the reasons I am so convinced of this is an experience I had several years ago, an experience I have come to refer to in myself as “being taken up into the heart and mind of God”. It happened after a weekend in which a stolen car was pursued at high speed and was then involved in a fatal crash. On this occasion two of the seven young children in the stolen car were killed and both the driver and the passenger in the innocent car were terribly injured, the driver dying a few days later. When I got to work I had a sense of what would be waiting for me for both the older children and the other vehicles occupants were patients of the hospital I worked in. At the time I was the supervisor of social work services to the emergency and surgical departments of the hospital so all parties were patients in my area. It was also very busy because one of my other workers was away sick. I was so busy that I didn’t have time to wait for lifts so I was running down the stairs from the burns unit to accident and emergency when I began to fall, having caught my shoe in the cuff of my trousers. So I know that the whole experience I am about to describe took place in milliseconds because I did not fall but caught the handrail and re-established my balance. I experienced being raised high up until I could see – physically, emotionally and spiritually – things from an areal perspective. I could see the families of the deceased and the injured children and the suburbs they came from, I could see the state morgue a few suburbs away where the parents had had to go and identify their children, I could see the family of the older couple who had been driving home late from a happy family event when they were hit, I could see the emergency staff who had attended the accident, who worked in the hospital, I could see the police officers who had given chase and their families anxious for their wellbeing, I could see the hospital staff in all their despair, anger and competence. And what I felt was that the heart of God was broken open and filled with compassion for each and every one involved. I sensed not a shred of anger or judgement just overwhelming compassion. It was something I only glimpsed for a millisecond and yet it remains with me and informs and confounds my understanding.
And if this is all too far removed then remember the slogan of the 70’ and 80’s – “think global, act local”. Let your heart be as expansive as the Creator’s challenge to see the morning stars in their infancy. And respond to the one in front of you – your own image in the morning mirror, your partner of 50 years, your grandchild of 2 months, your neighbour, your never before seen companion at the bus stop, the TV footage of a distant community in need, an injured bird – respond in the knowledge that this one is made in the image of God, is precious regardless of their creed, religion, ethnicity, language, even species and that you have been called to be their servant.
Being the servant of all might lead us into places of delight and creativity and it might also lead us into places of deep suffering and even deeper healing and reconciliation, for reconciliation is always about bringing about peace between different parties. And we, being called to be the servants of all, are called into that deep place at the heart of all that matters. It shall be our salvation and the only hope of salvation for a world in need.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ.