Not to be served but to serve

Jonathan Rowe, 7 May 2023

Acts 22:24–30; John 14:15–21

Many years ago, I went to work for a few months in Pakistan. Upon arrival, I received a piece of advice about relating with people from someone who had lived there for many years. Interestingly, it wasn’t a piece of advice about what I should do, but a comment about how people might view me.

People in Pakistan, I was told, ask two questions when meeting someone, and the answers to these questions influence how one is treated. Here are the questions: ‘Are you above me or below me?’ ‘Are you for me or against me?’ This comment stayed with me, enabling me to interpret several surprising interactions in Pakistan.

It also helps us interpret our Bible reading today. For the dispute between the disciples concerned precedence and hierarchy. Is that disciple above me; is this disciple below me? In a society where honour and status are key to self-understanding, the answers to these questions concern not merely one’s place at table but one’s very sense of identity.

And demonstrating one’s precedence becomes an important part of living. For the point of asking these questions is to work out how to behave, how to relate to others. If one is below someone in the social pecking order, then one expects to render some service, perform some duty. If one is above someone, the expectation is that the other will serve your needs.

The temptation, of course, is to abuse one’s superior position. The Gentile kings had a reputation for lording it over others – behaviour which both shows others who is in charge and reinforces a sense of personal worth.

Jesus breaks this pattern. In doing so he identifies with the servant in the prophet Isaiah. The servant in Isaiah is an icon of God. The gods of Babylon are incapable of transmitting their glory through idols; yet Israel’s God glorifies himself in his servant Israel (Isaiah 49:3).

Jesus embodies Israel, coming to serve. And just as the head, so the body: the Church, too, is called to serve. Serving starts with the needs of the other, not one’s own needs. We see this dynamic not only in Jesus’ life, but also after his resurrection.

So, remarkably, the risen Jesus, vindicated and alive, doesn’t make a grand entrance. Instead, he asks Mary, ‘Why are you weeping?’ And he enquires of the men on the road to Emmaus, ‘What are these words you are exchanging?’

This humble, servant-hearted approach to people extends to us. The risen Jesus stands alongside us and asks us questions. Why are you weeping? What do you mean?

This ‘coming alongside’ sort of approach differs markedly from announcing his victory with a fanfare and ready-made answers. And it’s an example we do well to follow, in our home lives, in our evangelism and our politics.

Jesus’ humble, servant-hearted approach to people … this ‘coming alongside’ sort of approach … it’s an example we do well to follow, in our home lives, in our evangelism and our politics.

What might imitating Jesus in this way lead us to do and say as we interact with people who are for us and who are against us? Whether we consider ourselves above or below those we meet, this coronation weekend let us put into practice the declaration made by His Royal Highness King Charles. You will recall that upon entering Westminster Abbey he was greeted by a chorister:

Your Majesty,
as children of the Kingdom of God
we welcome you
in the name of
the King of Kings.

To which the king replied:

In his name and after his example
I come not to be served
but to serve.