The word “servanthood” is not recognized by my computer’s word processing program. Whenever I type the word it shows up with little red underline marks and a half-dozen other suggested words to put in its place. I don’t think we recognize “servanthood” either. It’s certainly not visible in the world in which we live; a world of smear campaigns, scraping and fighting to get to the top of the heap; broken promises and broken deals, cheating and killing – and for what? Just to get ahead. Just to be a step in front of the next guy; just to put our hands on something – money, honor, prestige, power – before someone else can get their hands on it. So, no, we don’t recognize servanthood.
Paul uses Jesus to show us what servanthood is, and he does it with what is probably his best and highest words he ever put to paper about Jesus. The passage is found in the New Testament book of Philippians. Paul writes: “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.” Or as the old King James Version puts it: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”
How did Jesus think of himself; what was his mind? Paul answers, “He [Jesus] gave up his divine privileges and he took the humble position of a slave.” In every strand of the New Testament, the followers of Jesus are called to imitate him in one vital dimension: Service. Jesus’ prayer life, his model of making disciples, his teaching style, his forty days in the desert, even his work as a carpenter; these have all been imitated by different elements of the church.
But the greatest imitation of Christ, and what the New Testament communicates as the essence of “being like Jesus,” is consistently, servanthood. Jesus emptied himself of his rights and set aside all things he correctly deserved, for the benefit of others. This is our example. If we refuse to serve others, then nothing else we do will matter. So nothing less will do.
Of course, if you start thinking about Jesus, the Son of God, emptying himself it can warp your mind. How did this happen? How could God empty himself like that? It is a beautiful mystery. It is one worth thinking and meditating on, how the essence and infinity of God could be crammed into the limitations of a human being. It is the wonderful puzzlement of the Incarnation itself. But if all you do is sit and think about it, all you will end up with is a headache. Paul’s intent in writing these words was not to provide a full explanation for the life of Jesus. He wrote this to provide an example of how to live our lives like Jesus. It is the life of love and humble service.
See, Paul isn’t writing to tell us what to believe. But he is giving us instruction on how to live, on how to treat other people. You can be orthodox in all your beliefs, and still be a jerk. You can believe the Bible, read a bit of it every morning, say your prayers and give money toHaiti, and still treat the people around you badly.
To paraphrase Paul from another of his famous letters, you could speak all the languages of earth and heaven, but if you don’t love others, it’s only a loud obnoxious noise. You could understand all the mysteries of God and possess all knowledge, and have faith to move mountains, but without love it is nothing. This is the mind of Christ.
Now, to humbly empty ourselves like Christ did, does not mean we think we are less, that we are worse, or we are lower than other people. It simply means we don’t think of ourselves at all. We quit protecting our interests, our personal ambitions, our agendas, and our desires for what we want. Instead, we give ourselves over to others in love, at whatever cost – even death on a cross. That is what servanthood looks like.
It was extremely important for the church of my youth to prove that every single miracle in the Bible be proven as an historical and scientific fact. A literal seven day creation, the plagues on Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, Joshua making the sun stand still, the Hebrew children surviving the fiery furnace, and of course, there was the story of “Jonah and the Whale.”
As the story goes, Jonah was a rebellious prophet who would not follow God’s instructions. In an attempt to escape his vocation, he boarded a ship and took to the sea. He quickly found himself thrown overboard and then swallowed whole by a whale of the deep. Dear Jonah spent the next three days in the cramped quarters of the behemoth’s belly.
Being one of those biblical stories that defied logical explanation, my pastor would return to the tale time and time again to make sure, I assume, that the congregation had not been bluffed into disbelief by the humanists and Darwinians who assaulted our faith. To bolster that faith, he would tell this backhanded story.
It seems a young girl was talking to her science teacher about whales when the teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human being. The little girl protested, stating that the prophet Jonah had indeed been swallowed by a whale. The teacher reiterated that such a thing was impossible.
So the little girl said, “When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah.” The teacher, a bit brusque, asked the girl, “Well, what if Jonah went to hell?” The little girl replied, “Then you will have to ask him.” This punch line was always met by hysterical laughter, derision aimed at those who dared not believe the validity and veracity of Jonah’s story.
Pardon the pun, but the whale in Jonah’s story is too often a red herring. We get all tangled up in the scientific plausibility of such an act taking place, and miss the point of the whole story. Jonah’s tale is not a scientific treatise. It is a story about God’s relentless, patient, persistent, and sometimes hard grace. Hard grace: What is it that, exactly?
Hard grace is Jonah in the belly of the whale. How is that grace? If that big fish had not arrived to gobble down Jonah, he would have drowned in the depths of the sea. The whale was not Jonah’s undoing. It was his salvation. The belly of that whale became the incubator – indeed a painful, disgusting, cramped incubator – in which mercy took root, rescued and transformed him. That is hard grace, and Jonah is not the only one to experience such a thing.
God’s mercy often comes to us by painful means. Heaven’s love can wear a disguise. The circumstances that lead to our transformation are sometimes delivered in strange packaging. Hard grace arrives at our doorsteps as sickness, financial collapse, divorce, betrayal, bankruptcy, addiction, injustice, self-inflicted wounds, foolish decisions and personal rebellion.
Hard grace is all those things that God allows into our lives that deconstruct us. Yet, our deconstruction is not our destruction. It is for the merciful purpose of our transformations and remaking. We are not left to drown in the trouble of our own making. God’s ferocious mercy does not abandon us, but comes to us in the strange and disguised goodness of a hungry whale and gobbles us down; providing a place to learn, grow, change, and get on with the life God has for us. It hurts us, yes, but hard grace never harms us.
I wish this kind of hard, transformative grace could be taught, for it would save us all much agony, but it can’t be. Hard grace can only be experienced. But once it is experienced, and we never wish for a repeat performance, mind you, we become changed people. As Julian of Norwich said, “There is the fall and then there is the recovery. Both are the mercy of God.” Such mercy is the greatest miracle of all.
There were four rabbis who had a series of ongoing theological arguments, and three were always in alignment against the fourth. One day, the odd rabbi out, after the usual “Three to One” vote, decided to appeal to a higher authority. “Oh, God!” he cried, “I know in my heart that I am right and they are wrong. Please give me a sign to prove it to them.” As soon as the rabbi finished his prayer, a storm cloud moved across the sky above the three opposing rabbis. It rumbled once and then disappeared.
“A sign from God!” the fourth rabbi cried. “See, I am right!” But the other three disagreed pointing out that storm clouds could form on any hot day. So the rabbi prayed again: “Oh, God, I need a bigger sign to show that I am right and they are wrong. God, send a bigger sign!” This time a much larger storm cloud appeared and a bolt of lightning slammed into a tree right beside the three opposing rabbis. “I told you I was right!” cried the fourth rabbi again. “God has vindicated me.” But his friends insisted that nothing had happened that could not be explained by natural causes.
The rabbi, then and there, turned to God once again, this time to ask for a very, very, big sign. But as he began to pray, “Oh God…” the sky turned pitch black; the earth shook, and a deep, booming voice called from heaven: “HE IS RIGHT!” The rabbi put his hands on his hips, turned to the other three, and said, “Well? I told you I was right!” The other three rabbis looked to one another and then responded in unison: “So what. It’s still three over two.”
Within Jewish faith there is this beautiful, argumentative contrariness. It is faith, for sure, but it is never settled. Spirituality is an on-going wrestling match with one another, and especially with God. There is a Yiddish word to describe it: Chutzpah. In a Yiddish proverb chutzpah is illustrated by a young woman who wakes in the middle of the night and goes to her parents’ bedroom and murders them. She is quickly arrested and brought to trial. Before the judge she pleads for mercy, if not full pardon for her actions, based on the fact that she is an orphan.
For our spiritual forefathers, chutzpah was a required spiritual ingredient for living. Moses wins several arguments with God in his desert years. Job demanded that God show up and defend his actions. Abraham bargained with God to save innocent lives. Jesus fought his Father tooth and nail in the Garden of Gethsemane. Of course the most shameless and brazen arguer of all was Jacob. He wrestled with God face to face with audacious chutzpah running out of his ears. There was sweat and blood, flying punches, kicks to the head, drool, tears, and exhaustion; God and man locked in mortal combat. But Jacob would not quit until he prevailed.
More times than we care to admit, our relationship with God is not a Harlequin romance, wrapped in a tidy package with a bow on top. It is more like a game of tug-o-war. God speaks and pulls and we pull back. He yanks again and we curse and shout across the mud pit at him. He shouts back. It goes on like this for a long time – most of our lives even – and sometimes God wins and sometimes we do.
Why is it this way? Because God isn’t after blind, robotic faith, we behaving as androids receiving signals from above transmitted to our spiritual antenna. No, God is after a relationship with us, for us to genuinely know him. And sometimes to know this God we must wrestle with him. When we give up on listening, struggling, wrestling, and protesting – when we lose our chutzpah – we have given up on faith, and the only thing left is atheism or cynicism; hardness toward God or disbelief in him. The struggle means the relationship is very much alive.