Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"Service": The new and only name for "power" Jesus gave his disciples

Power is an ambiguous reality. Exercised in and by the church throughout history, it has brought with it tremendous good as well as enormous suffering, pain, destruction, and yes, evil. No age in the history of the Christian community has been spared from its fortunate as well as unfortunate effects. This is perhaps the reason Christ, Scripture tell us, “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7), and commanded his church to speak another language. This is also why before commanding his disciples to preach the Good News in Matt. 28:18, Jesus reminds them first that “all power in heaven and on earth” had now been given to him (and to him alone). He also chose to give it a different name altogether when exercised by his followers. (Mk. 9:35) He called it ‘service’.

This isn’t ‘power for the sake of service’, nor is it ‘service exercised in and through power’. These are modifications and distortions of the simple and straightforward Gospel message by what became an imperialistic medieval Christianity whose claim to fame are the bloodbaths of the crusades and the torture and burning of countless souls. There’s can be no ‘power interpretation’ here. Christ called it ‘service’, period. And one who doesn’t get that is no different from James and John, and pretty much the rest of the disciples who, at one point, couldn’t understand that Jesus did away with the language of power once and for all. Of course, not all ‘couldn’t’ understand; some simply ‘wouldn’t’. And the spectacle of individuals throughout the church’s history who sought to ‘qualify’ or ‘modify’ Christ’s statement in order to accommodate ‘power interpretations’ is proof of this.

Consider Judas, supposedly the most intelligent of the disciples. Scripture scholars tell us that Judas most likely knew in his heart of hearts that Jesus was the Messiah. More than any in Jesus’ ‘inner circle’, he was the one who was most convinced that this carpenter was indeed the savior Israel was waiting for. Why otherwise would such a bright and clever man choose to follow a nobody? But more than any disciple as well, Judas was the one who not only failed to comprehend the kind of ‘power’ Jesus preached, he was also the one who refused to do so. And so began his effort to ‘qualify’ and ‘modify’ Christ’s message—according to his own interpretation. It was in fact Judas’ belief in what had become for him a ‘distorted’ understanding of Christ’s version of ‘power’ that led him to commit that fatal mistake.

We must not imagine Judas’ betrayal as a mere act of hatred towards his master, even if this might seem logical given the rebuke he receives from Jesus earlier on in the gospels (Matt. 26:6). It is rather, very possible that Judas, realizing that Jesus would never go the route of power as he understood it, resorted to something more drastic, something that in his mind, would force the hand of God to reveal to the world, once and for all, that this man Jesus was his Son, the all-powerful Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. If an act of betrayal would cause God’s only-begotten to suffer in the hands of the unrighteous, and if that would lead to the Almighty coming down with all his might and fury at the tormentors of his Son, then Judas was willing to take the chance and betray Christ—anything to once and for all show to the world, the might that he was convinced Jesus always had.

Sadly, Judas miscalculated, and in despair took his own life. Jesus would never go the way of power, especially not in the way the world had understood and wielded it. Judas got it all wrong. For the Incarnation, the kenosis or “self-emptying” of God represented the death-blow to power; and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ was the final act in the drama whereby power, though it continued to wield its influence in the world and its allure among men, would have forever been defeated. Christ’s death on the cross is the Father’s final ‘stamp’ in the saga of power’s demise and the ultimate affirmation that from hereon, the way of the “suffering servant” is the only way:

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”. (Mk 8:34)

Judas, however, wasn’t the only one. Neither was Peter, the ‘prince of the apostles’, an easy convert to Jesus’ understanding of power as ‘service’. Peter would hear none of the suffering Christ would endure (Matt. 16:32), and had flat-out rejected Jesus’ offer to wash his feet. He probably thought it unbecoming of a leader to stoop down and wash dirty feet (Jn 13:6). But Jesus was clear about it. Rebuking Peter in the gospel of Matthew for putting an “obstacle” on his way (Matt. 16:23), he lays down in very clear terms, for his disciples and all his future followers, the way power was to be understood from hereon:

“Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him”.
(Jn. 13:12-16)

‘Service’ is the only genuinely Christian way of understanding power, there is no other. We on our part, however, have often reduced Christ’s action to a ‘symbol’—like the washing of his disciples’ feet on Holy Thursday—that we fail to see how literal it was and how ‘non-symbolic’ is the demand attached. Service isn’t a ‘symbolic act’ done in order to merely recall Jesus’ action two thousand years ago. Service is a ‘real’ and ‘literal’ act expected of a Christian, especially a priest, in order to continue Jesus’ two-thousand-year old action, making it present in every age. Service is no after-thought, no icing on the cake, no mere sugar-coating. Service is what we are, or at least what we as followers of Jesus ought to be about.

Service is the only language of “power” those who wish to follow in the footsteps of Christ ought to use, for it was the only language Jesus himself employed. And self-effacement is the only acceptable response to the inevitable interpretation that the world will give to the service that we render—for the world can’t do otherwise. It will call our service, ‘power’, or ‘influence’, at times ‘clout’ or ‘importance’. At other times it will entice us with the thought that has entered the minds of a not a few well-meaning churchmen: that it’s perfectly alright to seek power as long as we seek to use it for good as well. Perhaps the unspoken idea is that it’s better to have it than not, for by having it, one can use it for doing good.

I was once talking to a fellow-priest (a friend from seminary in Belgium) who was so happy he was being given a new ‘title’—for him an obvious promotion. “This isn’t only a personal honor”, he told me when I asked why he seemed so delighted at the prospect, “this is also an opportunity for me to make use of the position and the title to further my pastoral plans and projects for the church. It’s not just for me, it’s for the people I’m serving as well”. Knowing he was a good man, I kept silent, inclined with all my heart to believe him and wish him well as he embarked on what I knew was going to be a dangerous and tricky game. In my mind meanwhile, a phrase I remembered from literature class in seminary kept repeating itself:
“He who sups with the devil must use a long spoon”.

Power is a corrupting reality. On rare occasions perhaps, and with the rarest of men, it may fail to do so. Think of Pope John XXIII, for instance. There was a man who understood quite well Christ’s warning about power. But how many among us can withstand its corruptions once it becomes ours? Mind you, Jesus himself said a very clear ‘no’ to it, right from the start. The temptation story in Matthew 4:1-11, as the theologian Bernard Harring says,
“totally unmasks the satanic temptations to use religion for the sake of utility, self-exaltation, and earthly power; and it reveals these temptations to be in direct opposition to the vocation of the Servant-Messiah”.

In his book Priesthood Imperiled, Häring tells an interesting event at the end of Vatican II:

“At the Second Vatican Council, warnings against Church triumphalism were frequently sounded. At the very last session, several cardinals, patriarchs, bishops, and some theologians, including myself, were gathered to discuss a final proposal to the Council, and it was this: We had planned that the Council Fathers should not return to their respective dioceses without first having solemnly pledged apostolic poverty and, above all, apostolic simplicity by renouncing all antievangelical titles... Several hundred bishops were ready for this step. However, time was pressing, and the proposal never came to pass”.

One can’t help but wonder what the church would be like if things had turned out differently, if what Häring relates came to pass. But that’s all wishful thinking now. What is certain is that we all have a long way to go in living out the ‘new understanding of power’ which Jesus had inaugurated, spoken in the plain and unadulterated language of self-effacing service that says simply, “I serve. All power belongs to Christ”. We have but to remind ourselves of what Paul and Barnabas did at Lystra when those who saw them heal a cripple wanted to offer them gifts and sacrifices, thinking they were gods (Acts 14:9-18). The pair refused the adulation, telling everyone that they were no different from them, and then pointing to God as the source of their good deed. (Acts 14:15)

The desire for power in whatever shape or form is a betrayal of Christ crucified. It’s a betrayal of the Christ who was baptized by John in the Jordan. It’s a betrayal of the Christ who washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. It’s a betrayal of the Christ who refused Satan’s offer of power in the desert. Make no mistake about it, and do not think that there can be a justification for seeking it. Calling it ‘responsibility’ doesn’t work, nor does saying that with it one can ‘do more’ for the church. And neither does piously declaring it to be a ‘burden one does not seek but which was merely placed on one’s shoulder’ make it more palatable. True discipleship consists in service, minus the trappings of power, honor, prestige, and popularity. Incidentals you call them? Then we can do away with them. They don’t belong to the substance and essence of what we are and what we’re supposed to be about anyway. There’s only one kind of ‘power’ that sits well with the Christ of the Gospels, its name is ‘service’. It has no other.

Strive, even in seminary therefore, to rid your minds of any possible ‘qualification’, ‘modification’, or ‘personal interpretation’ of the message of Jesus who came “to serve and not to be served” (Matt. 20:28). Instead, take the plain words of Christ literally, and take it to heart. There are some instances in which we must simply allow the plain and simple voice of Scripture to speak to us, with no attempt at dissembling. And the admonition to service is clearly one of those instances. Jesus’ rejection of the devil’s temptations in the desert is proof of it. One who seeks to follow in his footsteps must not only avoid actively seeking power and authority, he must not even think about it, especially not when he thinks of the service he is asked to render. This isn’t easy. But it has to be done. We must not deceive ourselves; it is best to steer clear of power, even the thought of it. Do not even contemplate what you would do if you were given the position “without seeking it or working for it”. This is idle thinking, and idle minds are the devil’s workplaces. Just free your mind of such thoughts and when they do enter your heads, banish them as quickly as you can. Remember, “He who sups with the devil must use a long spoon”. “Serve”, that’s all that Jesus asks us to do.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)