Thursday, April 13, 2017

TO SERVE AS JESUS SERVED, TO LOVE AS HE LOVED (Service as the Only Truly Christian Understanding of Power, Reflections on Holy Thursday)

"Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me 'teacher' and 'master,' and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you also should do." (John 13:13-15)

Jesus, who "emptied himself and took the form of a slave" (Phil. 2:7), commanded his disciples to speak, not the language of power, but that of service. In fact, service was the only name he wished his followers to call the power they were to exercise.

"If anyone wishes to be to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all". (Mk. 9:35)

No, it wasn’t "power for the sake of service," nor "service exercised in and through power". There was to be no "power interpretation" here, no ambiguity in Jesus' command.

"As I have done for you, you also should do."
He wished his disciples to serve, not "lord it over" one another. And yet understanding what Jesus was trying to teach didn't come easy to any of them: not to James and John who wanted to sit at Jesus' right and his left, not for the other disciples who argued about who was the greatest among them, and certainly not for Peter who, at one point, was even called "Satan" by Jesus himself.
 
And what about Judas, perhaps the most intelligent of the disciples? (He was the group's treasurer.) Some scholars have argued that Judas most likely knew in his heart of hearts that Jesus was indeed 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 “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 was 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 told them he was to endure (Matt. 16:32); and he 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 Christian way of understanding power, there is no other. We on our part, however, have often reduced Christ’s action to a mere ‘symbol’ we see on Holy Thursday that we forget how 'non-symbolic' Jesus' act was, how literal his command that we serve.
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 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. 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 brother priest who was so happy he was receiving an important 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”.

Knowing he was a good man, I kept silent, inclined with all my heart to wish him well as he embarked on what I knew was going to be a dangerous and tricky game.

Power corrupts. 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?

Jesus himself said a very clear ‘no’ to it; he did it even before he began his ministry.
The temptation story in Matthew 4:1-11, as the theologian Bernard Häring 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”.

We still 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.
For one who wishes to truly follow Jesus, 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 declaring it - as some have done - 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' we 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.

We must strive thus to rid our 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).
We must instead, take the words Jesus spoke to his disciples on this day, as literally as possible, and take them 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 serve as he served 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 with total fidelity in the footsteps of Christ, 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.

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