It takes a big effort to wrap one’s head around it. And it is something I haven’t fully managed yet: God is a servant. It makes sense, if you think about it. If God is love, then God must serve. Service is where love finds its practical expression. If we want to find God, we shouldn’t be looking up, we should look down.
That notion ought to turn your whole concept of God – and what it means to follow God – on its head. It has direct bearing on the purpose of our existence. If you have grown up in a modern Western Christian culture, you have probably been led to believe that the purpose of your existence is to worship God, probably framed around some dubious interpretation of a text like Psalm 148. To be honest, the notion that our highest purpose is worship has sat uncomfortably with me for a long time. It constructs a picture of a God who is aloof and distant, like God is some sort of narcissistic megalomaniac who gets off on being told how marvellous Hen is. If we were created to stand around the heavenly throne for all eternity singing, then I can understand why we needed to invent the alternative of eternal conscious torment in the flames of hell in order to make it seem attractive.
Fortunately, that is not who God is. At least, if the revelation of God in Jesus is a trustworthy one. What the revelation of God in Jesus shows us is that our highest purpose is not to worship, but to be loved. The glory of God is not found in our praises of Hen, but in our being alive– to quote Irenaeus (AD 125-202), one of the great theologians of the early church:
“For the glory of God is a living man [my emphasis]; and the life of man consists in beholding God. For if the manifestation of God which is made by means of the creation, affords life to all living in the earth, much more does that revelation of the Father which comes through the Word, give life to those who see God.” (From Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies), 4. 34. 5-7) [As an interesting aside, Irenaeus refers to Jesus, not to the Bible, as “the Word”; and another interesting aside is that if this is the case, if God’s glory is tied to our wholeness, then having billions of people enduring the torments of hell would seriously diminish God’s glory. It would mean that Hens plan for salvation had essentially failed, because it is God’s will that none should perish (Matthew 18:14).]
One of the most startling events of Holy Week illustrates this point, that we were created to be loved, that the God of the entire universe never seeks our praises, but humbles Henself to serve us in love. It is a profound truth, and I don’t think we pay nearly enough attention to the occasion of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet:
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “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. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (John 13:12 -17)
Jesus doesn’t leave any room to squirm out of it: if we can never be greater than God, and God can humble Henself to serve, then our only legitimate response to God is to serve one another. More, we are “blessed” when we imitate God by engaging in loving service to one another [contrast that with most Evangelical ideas of what “blessing” means… just saying]. The blessing we receive from God is not the right to worship Hen, but being loved by Hen, and the blessing we give is when we love others.
This is not the only occasion Jesus preached this message:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20: 25-28)
When James and John (or their mother, depending on whether you go with the account in Matthew’s gospel or with Mark’s) ask Jesus for the right to sit at his left and right in the Kingdom, they are not assuming some otherworldly Kingdom, but believe – as many Jews of the time – that the Messiah would crush the Roman oppressors by force and restore Israel to a place of political prominence, in this world. They are asking for political power in the here and now. Despite all the time they have spent with him, they still can’t wrap their tiny noggins around the fact that Jesus is not a Davidic warrior-Messiah. This response from Jesus completely derails them. It is a wonderful example of how subversive Jesus can be. I am sure he knows full well that it is not only the Gentile rulers (read “Roman oppressors”) who exercise power oppressively. And I am sure his disciples can join the dots that they are being compared to the very people whose values they oppose. A central Jewish preoccupation at the time was with finding ways to define themselves as separate from the Roman culture that threatened to assimilate them, to establish a cultural identity that set them apart for God. This is what drove the Pharisaic emphasis on the Sabbath and dietary laws (it wasn’t because they believed this would grant them access to ‘heaven’). But here Jesus suggests that they cannot accomplish this by religious and cultural imperialism; the only way to set themselves apart is by service. It is more inflammatory comment than it might appear to us today, because Jesus is also suggesting that the Messiah has not come to conquer but to serve in love.
And so we see in Jesus that God is not a tyrant, but a servant. It should unravel all of our preconceptions about the God who made the universe:
Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. (John 12: 44-46)
If we believe Jesus, if we take seriously his washing of the disciples’ feet as a demonstration of the nature of God and understand that this needs to radically transform how we relate to others; if we acknowledge that we do not set ourselves apart for God by imperialism but by service, what does that mean for the way our faith manifests in real terms?
I would suggest that it means that we need to stop seeing personal spiritual growth – interpreted as having a ‘quiet time’ every day and trying to achieve some sort of moral purity by not breaking any Biblical laws – as ends in themselves. It means our faithfulness is not determined by participation in ‘praise and worship’ at church, or about regular attendance at Bible Study. Valuable as these things are, they are not markers of faith. Service is. What does it mean to you to “first be the servant of all”? What does it look like for you to put the towel around your waist and kneel at another’s feet, to wash them? If no servant is greater than hens master, and Jesus served even those marginalised by society, what is my excuse?