Not to Be Served But to Serve

October 21, 2018

This is the transcript of my sermon read to the congregation of Free Community Church on 21 October 2018. The Scripture passage is Mark 10:35-45. The transcript is also available on Facebook. The video may be watched on Vimeo.

Siblings in the Lord, you are my siblings –

I understand that FCC is on a sermon arc on the topic of service? Rev Miak Siew tells me that he mentioned last week the virtue of downward mobility that should characterise Christians.

Not to move from ease and comfort to greater personal ease and comfort – much less to stay the same, as we’ve always been, literally unmoved. Rather, to move from a place of ease to where we can be the help to those who live uneasily. To move from a place of comfort to where we inside can serve more and more as comfort to those who need it.

In the words of John the Baptist: “I must decrease, he must increase.” (John 3:30) “He” here refers to Jesus, through whom we believe the world is saved. You see, as Christians, where we come from, who we are, how we are, what we’ve done – these aren’t eternal truths. They aren’t values we can store up so as then to kick back and relax, like why we put money in the bank.

In fact, all that defines us, each of us – all that marks us out as special in our own eyes – has to be invested back. It has to be given over in service of professing who God is. That is what glorifying God means. It is our life goal, to recover within humanity the image of God.

But what is this image? How does God’s mind look like? The Apostle Paul, writing to believers in Philippi, gives us the answer:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage. Rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)

What a remarkable passage this is! Turn the words in your head again: there are, in them, 2 express exercises of servanthood in Jesus.

First – we are told – he who is “in very nature God” didn’t use his Godhood to benefit himself but, as Maker, “made himself nothing”. “Nothing” here describes, yes, humanity, the nature of which is named specifically as that of a servant. In other words, true human nature is to be God’s vessel. So, when God became human in Jesus, He didn’t just turn from Creator to creature; importantly, he also turned from master to servant.

Then, in a second exercise, we read that, as human, as man, Jesus “humbled himself” by obeying God even to death. Jesus, as nothing, chose to embrace literally being nothing; he chose to put himself under God’s will. To be – through and through – pure instrument for God. He gave up his freedom to be something, someone; he gave up himself.

Therefore, the 2 activities: as God, the Son became man. And, as man, Jesus became death, non-man.

We have reached what seems to be an absurdity, a circularity – can you sense it? Jesus as God gave himself in complete service of God. But what is this that God desires, even to the point of desiring it unconditionally of Himself? That one gives oneself always to others.

Jesus the servant teaches us that we serve God truly only when we serve others. There is no other way to be in His presence. The theological word for what Philippians 2:5-8 describes is kenosis – meaning, in Greek, emptying, in the act of doing so.

God is God because He emptied Himself – of both who He is and who He became – so that, by this emptying, the world can paradoxically begin to be full. And the world continues to be filled when we Christians learn to empty ourselves too.

Yet, during the time of his ministry, Jesus’s disciples didn’t understand the extent, gravity, and ethics of this calling. You heard last week of how Peter told the Lord seeking to wash his feet, “You shall never wash my feet!” (John 13:8) Peter revealed his worldly understanding of what masters and servants were. Lord Jesus, for him, must not degrade himself, be made lower than who he was, his servant.

This week, we hear of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, also failing to understand the nature of Jesus’s revolution. Imagine being part of a great movement whose meaning you totally misconstrue! It’s like journeying to the Himalayas and bringing along your dancing shoes. Yet, this can be said not only of the Zebedee boys but also of many Christians to this day.

Peter might have misspoken out of reverence for Jesus, but James and John – these guys were something else. The 2 were being sneaky, wanting to secure for themselves positions of high power when Jesus’s political coup they had imagined succeeded.

Their scheme is clear not just in what they were asking for but also in how they were asking. They approached Jesus – we read – like this: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.

You heard that right. Peter might have wished to preserve Jesus’s image – believing that there were things a master shouldn’t do – but James and John, as disciples, were making demands on their teacher. They were effectively saying, “See, Jesus, we willingly serve you, and we have served you well. Our service itself is a bet on you being successful at length. As such, don’t you think you owe us a favour?”

If Jesus were running a company today, we’d call this corruption. Promotion based on private request, not on performance, aptitude, or relevant experience, bypassing the whole deliberation of a board of directors. Thus, if Peter had assumed a worldly master-servant relationship, the Zebedee brothers had assumed the covert, double-dealing culture of secular power.

The service of James and John came at a price: advantage to themselves. Their subsequent exchange with Jesus therefore shows both sides not really being on the same plane. Jesus warned them of the cup he was drinking and the kind of baptism he had – but they didn’t get the analogies to his calling. They thought, “Sure, we can drink as you drink and be baptised as you are baptised!”

Perhaps, Jesus should be less a poet? You see, Jesus had meant drinking of God’s will, and, to do this, one’s cup had to be empty of one’s own will first before God could fill it with His will. But the hearts of the 2 brothers, in the context of their express desire, were clearly already filled. How could they drink what Jesus was drinking? So here is dramatic irony, if we take the time to wonder why the conversation wasn’t going too well.

No doubt the rest of the disciples had understood perfectly the worldly politics at play because – we read – they became very angry with the Zebedees. Maybe they felt that the Sons of Thunder were trying to steal their thunder, their rightful chance to become King Jesus’s right- or left-hand man.

Indeed, by this point in Jesus’s ministry, following Mark’s Gospel, all was going disastrously for Jesus. His disciples should have learnt much about his coming kingdom by then. They knew the supernatural swirl at his baptism. They saw him heal the sick, raise the dead, feed the hungry, forgive sins. They themselves were sent out to preach repentance to villages.

They had watched Jesus’s popularity grow and the crowd debating whether he was a prophet or the very Messiah. They even experienced his blinding glory directly during the night of his Transfiguration on a mountaintop.

Yet, in all these, they saw the end, Jesus in triumph, and missed the essence. They saw what Jesus was doing but didn’t see how he was doing it. They anticipated, desired, Jesus the king but made light of Jesus the servant – when Jesus was to be King of Servants!

So, in this climactic moment, at the height of the Gospel’s revelation of the disciples’ lousiness, Jesus said:

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45)

We should see here surely Jesus’s clearest expression of his 2 exercises in servanthood, what Philippians 2:5-8 shows as his emptying, his kenosis. As God, the Son came to serve and not to be served; as man, he would obey to his death God’s will that he be of service to the deliverance of others.

The obvious point to be said of Jesus’s calling here is already made by him. He told his disciples not to think in terms of the Gentile rulers and officials – and, we may add, corporate and public executives and grassroots leaders. Forget your conventional, secular ideas of greatness and of ranking.

But a second point is more relevant to us today who sometimes talk rather lazily – and complicitly – about being servant leaders. Servant leaders! This has become a buzzword many a social, political, or economic figure uses almost always to invite ideas of their humility, humaneness, and friendship, creating their little personality cults.

What this concept really wants to say is that service can come by means of leading, that leading itself is already serving – so long as one is people-centred and puts on a human face.

You know that wildly popular TV series Undercover Boss? Are you familiar with it? In this show, each episode has a company’s owner or senior executive go undercover as a fresh employee in the company. He or she then makes friends, learns about the struggles of employees, and eventually returns to his or her position to install changes that can bring better workers’ welfare and boost the whole business.

This idea of a servant leader may borrow from the teaching and even life of Jesus, but, in at least 1 fundamental sense, it’s unlike Jesus’s example. The Lord wasn’t a servant leader primarily to understand popular needs, to be able to heal and feed more people or to do so better. He wasn’t a servant leader simply by surrounding himself with common folks – fishermen, tax-collectors, village aunties, grassroots leaders, and what not.

Jesus was one because he was present where he didn’t really have to be. He was one for giving hope not because there was personal advantage at the end but because hope saves people. He was one because he dared to speak the truth and to live his heart and, by doing so, be brought lower and lower to a point that people looked at him and – here’s my point – pitied him.

Above my bed, there is a picture of a painting titled “Pity”. It’s done by the poet William Blake, among his first large-size prints made in 1795. This painting has a backdrop of dark grey skies, and, in the fore, 2 cherubim on white horses fly over a woman lying face-up in agony. 1 of these riders turns himself toward her and, in this motion, finds in his hands a small baby.

I’ve owned this print for decades, since my first visit to London in the early 1990s, and it still intrigues me. The painting has many known interpretations, but the general agreement is that the baby itself stands for pity.

This is what I imagine the painting to mean. The woman on the earth is suffering, and we who feel pity are among the fortunate travelling over her, noting fleetingly but never touching her reality. Pity is this part of suffering left in our charge. It is all that can prick us of there being another world outside ours, an urgent earth beneath our high horses.

I share this because I think we wouldn’t understand servant leadership aright if I were to use the preferred word today: empathy. Empathy is, by far, more politically correct because it describes active understanding, sharing in another person’s life. It assumes parity and fellowship, all kindness and light, whereas pity – this seems such a dirty word! Pity suggests that the pitier is, in some real existential way, better off; it cannot but often feel condescending.

Yet, this violence of difference pity inscribes is precisely why pity is radical in Christian thought. One who pities implicitly understands inequality and injustice. He or she is a Blakean cherub above an out-of-reach sufferer. The pitier understands abject difference not just in recognising his or her own privilege but also in knowing that he or she can never feel what a sufferer feels. The pitier – under the empathiser – cannot come alongside.

Pity, in its powerlessness, further recognises a third thing: that the sufferer suffers disproportionately, if not unnecessarily.

You see, in the Gospels, we don’t truly come to feel empathy for Jesus. Reflect on this – or, as Darth Vader says, “Search your feeling.” Rather, we pity Jesus. We just cannot enter the pain of his servanthood. He who was misunderstood by all he taught, rejected by all he helped, destroyed by his enemies as well as those he called friends. The Son of the Most High who was brought lower than where any of us is.

The Bible thus calls Jesus “a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief”. (Isaiah 53:3) Yet, this – not someone else – is our servant leader, the loneliest on a journey among a supposed likeminded, God-loving crowd.

Jesus inspires us through our own pity in how far he will still go – as God, as man, serving. This is the depth of his emptying; he lies lower than all of us, way beneath our sacrifices, and yet he keeps going. This is our God, the Servant King – what other supposed servant leader we hear talk of his or her service serves in this way, at a detriment to his or her own self?

I would be a liar to say that I personally come close to being close to living such exemplary servanthood. I pity Jesus, but my pity shames me: it shows me how much further as a child of God I still need to go. But let us not satisfy ourselves with some watered-down version of Christian leadership. Let us face up to the radical meaning of service, one that passes through the very nature of God, the story of the Gospel, and the depth of how much more we can always do.

Shall we pray?

Our Father in Heaven –

We do not understand life.
Life confuses us. It warms us
and, at times, hurts us.

But thank You
for giving us lifelong hope
inside a sign, a 2-fold mystery
that expands our perspective
of who to be.

This 2-fold mystery:
the mystery of Jesus’s birth,
God becoming nothing,
one among all of us in life.
The mystery of Jesus’s cross,
man becoming death
so that, through sacrifice,
others may live.

In these mysteries,
every time we find ourselves
in want of a way through life,
we can reflect
on what serving You means,
on what serving others means.

An emptying
of who You are into who we can be.
An emptying
of who we are so that others can be.

Guide us daily to where
we can be less to ourselves
and more the image of You –
because only in You
are we, at last,
at peace.

In the name of Jesus,
our Lord and Master,
we pray –

Amen.

Gwee Li Sui

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