Eternally Servant and Lord
Fourth Sunday of Easter (C) | Fr Robert Eccles ponders Jesus’s example of authority and leadership in today’s readings.
A moment’s reflection on our three readings and the psalm for today, brings us to the thought that one issue all these very different writers are interested in, is that of authority and leadership. There’s a theme for Vocations Sunday! This matters for the Church: by what authority does she do these things? And it matters for us now. Many people are attracted to the Church because she claims to speak with authority, and of course plenty of others are put off joining her for just the same reason.
In our first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, St Luke tells you how Paul and Barnabas descend on Antioch and take the lead there, giving a strong line to the preaching of the gospel in that town and incidentally, making their own situation too hot to handle. It’s at Antioch that the offer of the good news, refused by the Jewish congregations, is gladly accepted by the Gentiles, the non-Jews. The Church that is for everyone is born. Christianity turns out to be so much more than just the affair of those Jews who believe that the Messiah has come, for God has made His Christ a light for the nations so that His salvation might reach the ends of the earth.
The other readings talk about the peculiar kind of leader that Christians claim to have. They describe him as a Shepherd. In the Bible, kings liked to give themselves the title Shepherd, to show that they cared for the flock as a good shepherd should, and prophets like Ezekiel – we heard from him during the Easter Vigil – found them to be no good at it, self-seekers as they mostly were. And the prophets declared that God Himself would be the Shepherd of Israel, to rule His people with fairness.
The New Testament writers pick up on this. Behold the Lamb of God, John the Baptist said already before we were even introduced. It is the Lamb who is at the throne who will be your Shepherd, and will lead them to springs of living water, says the book of the Apocalypse. Splendid book, the Apocalypse. A Lamb for humility, a Lamb that can offer no defence when they seek its life to take it away. The Lamb is Christ our Passover who has been slain, that spotless Lamb. The figure, then, of service and gift of oneself to the point of total sacrifice, that once and for all offering made for us at the Cross. But, says the seer in effect, look again. Look and see where the Lamb is to be found. Did you see? He is standing “at the throne”, and the throne of course is symbolically the source of authority and power and rule.
You see the contrast? The paradox even? The Lamb the symbol of powerlessness, and the throne the symbol of power. This in fact is the last, the final image given us by the New Testament. My power, says the God who speaks in the New Testament, is made perfect in weakness. Jesus did not claim equality with God but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, yes, even to the death of the Cross. It is the Lamb, the one who takes the form of the servant, who is the Shepherd, the ruler, and the guide.
The Lamb who is to be our Shepherd, according to this picture, is not one who will lord it over people and make their decisions for them. Or, as is the way of the world, get his way by pulling strings. The good shepherd, good in the sense of the right one, the one who suits us, is the one who pours out his life in service. Who is completely, the Man for Others. And whose leadership is one of example – offered to you to follow. The Church, so long as she is truly being the Church, knows no other kind of leadership but that of loving service.
So in this same gospel of St John, at the Last Supper Jesus kneels to wash the feet of his disciples and Peter protests, No, Lord, you can’t possibly do this to me. Now imagine Jesus were to appear before us and kneel down in front of us and reach for our feet! We would recoil in horror: No, Lord, it is for us to kneel to you, for us to worship you, to serve you. But Jesus says to Peter, unless I wash your feet you can have no part in me. Nothing in common with me. You can’t be in communion with me. Unless you let me wash your feet.
Jesus never set limits to those he was prepared to get involved with, he ate and drank with the rough end, and now he has broken the barrier that separates the clean from the unclean. That barrier is always there. There’s no clamour, is there, to do the mucky jobs, to get involved in other people’s filth. Some people are called to go deeper, to where they will get involved in human dirt and disorder. There are those who are called to go into the prisons and young offenders’ units and get involved with people who do drugs and crime. In one of my parishes the nice neat ladies of the Union of Catholic Mothers decided to volunteer to go into the local prison with the chaplains! Did their husbands panic? They panicked! Of course it was a great success.
Now the challenge in the gospel about the washing of feet, is not only to imitate Jesus, but to imitate St Peter. Not just to imitate our Lord in being at the service of others, but also to imitate Peter who gives in to him, who lets Jesus do that intimate thing, wash between his toes.
I could be the sort of person, the sort of priest, who is always rushing round looking after others, comforting others in their need. The gospel makes me ask, who do I allow close enough in to look after me, to minister to me? There has to be a mutuality of giving and receiving, of serving and being served, shepherding one another. It cannot be all one way. If you have a ministry or service in the church, or just to the family, could I respectfully suggest that you put up a bubble above your head and put there the face of the person who you allow to listen to you, care for you? If there isn’t anyone that comes to mind, perhaps it’s time to pray about it?
Jesus said, if I your Lord and Master have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. You know this is the only time in the gospel when Jesus calls himself Lord? Not when he is doing something spectacular, stilling the storm or feeding the 5,000 or raising Lazarus, but here on his hands and knees, doing this menial thing.
I once had a sort of Sunday-school idea of Jesus as Lord for eternal ages who comes to earth for thirty years as a Servant, and who then goes back to the highest heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father, to be Lord again for ever. Yes, but in St Luke’s gospel when Jesus is talking of his second coming, he says he will stand knocking at the door, and if anyone opens he will come in, put on an apron and make them sit at table and come and serve them. That should not surprise us because we are told about Jesus that he is the same, yesterday, today and for ever. Jesus eternally Lord, eternally Servant. Jesus eternally telling us, Follow me.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a 6th-century mosaic in the basilica of St Cosmas and St Damian in Rome.