“Humble service”

“Humble service”
Thursday 18 April 2019

There are a lot of times in the gospels when the evangelists treat the same incidents in Jesus’ life in a different way to make a particular theological point. One of the really stark differences between the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and the gospel of John is in the treatment of the event that we celebrate today, the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples.

The Synoptics tell us that the Last Supper was indeed a Passover meal. They tell us in detail how Jesus sends two disciples ahead to find and prepare the location. Perhaps he did this so that he didn’t have to let them all know where the meal would be held, thus preventing Judas from passing the information on to those who wanted to arrest Jesus. By doing this, Jesus made sure that he could share the Passover Meal in peace with his disciples.

John gives the meal a different a setting. He says that it occurred the day before the Passover. His intention seems to be theological. His timing made the Friday afternoon the time when the lambs would be slaughtered for the Passover Meal, making a statement thereby about how he understood Jesus sacrifice on the cross that Friday afternoon.

The other really striking difference is that the Synoptics tell us about the institution of the sacrament of Eucharist by Jesus at the Last Supper. Yet, even though John provides us with a far far longer account of the evening (5 chapters), he does not mention the Eucharist is such. John’s theological understanding of the Eucharist has already been given to us in chapter six in the context of the feeding of the five thousand.

Rather, John gives us an account of Jesus getting up from table and washing his disciples’ feet. Some argue that, although there is no specific mention of the Eucharist in John’s gospel, this description of Jesus’ servant action is in fact an example of Eucharistic theology. Those who break the bread together and share the wine are a people who should be given to service, just as Jesus who gives himself to us in the Eucharistic elements was given to service.

A priest once told me back in the 1970’s that the notion of service is a hard one for we Australians to grasp. He pointed out how poorly Australians performed as waiters and waitresses at the time. He suggested that we were a far too egalitarian society to accept the notion of one human serving another. It was a concept far more easily grasped in more class oriented cultures.

Well since that time, as people in the hospitality industry came to terms with this problem, we have seen an enormous change in the standard of service in eating places. There has been an enormous effort put into the development of training courses with recognisable qualifications to ensure that the experience of those who are customers in eating establishments is a pleasant one. In a sense all that has been done is to help those who would serve to recognise that at the centre of their task is the need to treat the customer with respect – nothing more than we should do at any time.

So the theological virtue involved in Jesus’ notion of service is that of respect for the other, wanting the best for the other, being prepared to put oneself out for the other.

In true Christian service, I do not demean myself by my actions of respect and reverence for the other. On the contrary, all that I am doing is recognising in the other person the fact that they are dearly loved by God and that I am prepared to assist them to experience that love in a concrete way through the service I render to them.

There is certainly an aspect of humility involved in being a servant to another. But it is not an unhealthy, self deprecating humility. Rather it is the humility that Jesus demonstrated in his whole life death and resurrection. As we read in chapter two of the letter of Paul to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

The humility that Jesus practised led to his glory as he was raised up on the cross and then raised to new life by the Father in the resurrection. Jesus has modelled true humility to us in his life and death, and in his actions at the Last Supper, he has symbolically demonstrated to us that the life that we are called to is one of service.

As we come forward on this holy night to share in the gift of Christ’s body and blood, let us commit ourselves in our hearts to the service of one another and those with whom we come in contact in our daily lives.

Fr Allan Paulsen
Priest in Charge

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