Saturday, February 4, 2012

To Become All Things for All Men: Reflections on Power and Authority in the Church (5th Sun. in Ord. Time, I Cor 9:16-19,22-23, Mk 1:29-39)

Power and authority in the church are meant for one thing alone, and that is the service of God and his people. This doesn’t in any way reduce authority or hierarchy to a mere functional reality in the church, but it does locate its reality firmly in one thing, and that is service.

What does this mean concretely? It means that power in the Christian community is meant to be two things. First, it’s meant to be for the service of God and his people, and secondly, if it is to be genuinely in line with the mind of Christ, it’s meant to be self-effacing.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals not only Peter’s mother-in-law, but also “those who were ill, possessed by demons, and those sick with various diseases”. He then retires to a quiet place and the following morning, gets up early in order to pray; as soon as he does though, the disciples “pursued him” to let him know that there are even more people hoping to see him and be healed. Without hesitation, and with nary a thought to his own personal need at that moment, he goes, preaching in the synagogues and healing more people.

The true follower of Christ is one who understands that to walk in his footsteps is to serve others, without hesitation, without seeking recompense, and to be, in the words of Saint Paul, “all things to all men”. And he likewise understands that such “service” is the one true definition of power and authority that Christ gave to his Church. Hence, at the Last Supper, having given his disciples his body and blood, and commanding them to do the same in remembrance of him, Jesus said to them:

“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 Christian way of understanding power, there is no other. It 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 words of Jesus in the Gospel:

"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. It shall not be so with you. Rather whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave...The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve". (Matt. 20:25-28)


There can be no ‘power interpretation’ here. Christ called his act of washing his disciples feet at the Last Supper, the act of a “servant”, and with that he forever redefined power in a new and radical fashion. Henceforth it is to be known simply as "service". And one who doesn’t get that is no different from James and John, and pretty much the rest of the disciples who, on so many occasions, simply couldn’t understand that Jesus was doing away with the language of power once and for all.

We on our part, however, sometimes tend to reduce Jesus’ action at the Last Supper to a mere ‘symbol’ we see on Holy Thursday, leading us to fail in seeing how literal it was and how ‘non-symbolic’ the demand attached to it is. Service isn’t a ‘symbolic act’ done by a leader of the Christian community in order to recall Jesus’ action two thousand years ago.

Service is instead, a ‘real’ and ‘literal’ act expected of a leader of the Christian community 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. A servant is what we are; and service is 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 cannot 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 Christians: 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 power, one can use it for doing good. Power belongs to the language of the world; the language of Christ knows only of service. To seek to merge the two is to deceive and delude ourselves.

[This somehow reminds me of certain well-meaning, as well as misguided characters in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings", who wished to possess the one ring of power, believing (or in the case of the more sinister ones, "pretending") that that they could wield its enormous power for good. It is no coincidence perhaps that Tolkien, a Christian, used the symbol of the most powerful of the seven rings as a reminder that when it comes to power, even the best of intentions by some of the noblest of men, can be distorted, corrupted, and led along a dark and destructive path.]

I was once talking to a fellow-priest who was so happy he was receiving an ecclesiastical title—for him an obvious rise in the 'ladder'. “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. The honor isn’t for me; it’s for the people I minister to”.

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 endeavor. Power, after all, no matter how good one's intentions with regard to it, and no matter how good a person is, can always corrupt. On rare occasions perhaps, and with the rarest of men, it may fail to do so. But how many among us can withstand its corruptions once it becomes ours?

Thus Jesus himself said a very clear "no" to it, right from the start. The account of the temptation in the desert in Matthew 4:1-11 represents the unmasking of the temptation 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 one called to serve.

Power, as it ought to be exercised in the Christian community, was meant by Christ to be self-effacing. Scripture is replete with instances whereby God’s messengers would do a miraculous deed only to remind people that they aren’t the source of the power that brought about these wonders. Jesus himself was wont to point to his Father whenever something wonderful was accomplished through him. And who could forget those immortal words of John the Baptist: “He must increase, and I decrease”.

A noteworthy Christian philosopher once said, “the most powerful signs efface themselves”. This is because for us Christians, there is only one who is truly the beginning, middle, and end of all our endeavors, both great and small, and that is Jesus himself. And our own value and worth are derived from the value and worth that we find in him, never simply in our selves.

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 ‘new understanding of power’ that Christ inaugurated is spoken in the plain and unadulterated language of self-effacing service that says simply, “I serve. All power belongs to Christ”. To speak in such way is to be constantly reminded that 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 or for people. 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 acceptable to Christ.

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.

(To my seminary students), I pray that you will strive even now—not later, but now—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. I know this isn’t easy. But it has to be done. How many well-meaning young men, full of ideals and dreams, have thought to themselves, “When I become someone with authority, I’ll do my best to serve in as humble a manner as I can”, have turned out to become the exact opposite of their vision when they do come into power?

Let us 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.

“Serve”,
that’s all that Jesus asks us to do.

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