The Epistle for Passion Sunday in the 1984 Welsh Book of Common Prayer opens with these words. It was read at the celebration of the Eucharist in St James' Tongwynlais today. Coincidentally, I preached my first sermon at Evensong on this text as a theological student forty eight years ago in this church.
"For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake." (2 Cor 4:5)
The concept of service and those who carry it out can be represented by very many different images. A servant looks after the material needs of others, providing food, clean clothing, help to wash, dress, or physical support to get around if this is needed. A servant is employed to put the needs of another before their own, and for most of human history this role has carried a low social status, or none at all if the servant is compelled to perform duties for others because they have debts that cannot be repaid no matter how much they work to pay them off. Or, they have been sold into slavery, like Joseph:
“Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. Then some Midianite traders passed by, so they pulled him up and lifted Joseph out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. Thus they brought Joseph into Egypt. " (Gen 37:27)
Joseph earned his liberty through his wise insight and planning ability. Like many others he came to a valued position of trust. Slaves and servants could become part of an extended family or clan, and weren't always traded on by their masters. They may have had material security, but could be without rights over their own bodies. Abraham's son Ishmael was born to a surrogate mother.
"Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar. So Sarai said to Abram, “Now behold, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai." (Gen 16:1-2)
They could even inherit a portion of family wealth, and take on the clan identity as happened when all the males in Abraham's clan were circumcised
"Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who the were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s household, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day" (Gen 17:23)
Slavery and bonded labour were so commonplace that the Torah sets some guidelines for the humane treatment of those who are not free, on the oft repeated precept 'Remember you once were slaves'. The New Testament writings presume slavery and bonded servanthood to be unavoidable aspects of the social status quo. The moral obligations of master-slave relationships are expressed by St Paul, in the understanding that there are higher things at stake than social status.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. (Col 3:22)
"Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him." (Eph 6:5-9)
"Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord's freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ's slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men." (1 Cor 7:21-23)
Paul works with the image of slavery to show the difference that the grace of God can make to transform a human being.
"Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification." (Rom 6:16-19)
The Greek word 'doulos' equally applies to a hired servant as it does to slave. The term 'servant' is used to refer to those who help those in authority. All who dedicate their lives to their King, or to God as King, are regarded as servants, out of devotion or obligation. There are also many instances of people voluntarily dedicating themselves to the servant role for the benefit of others.
"Truly I am your servant, Lord; I serve you just as my mother did; you have freed me from my chains." (Ps 116:6)
I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes. (Ps 119:25)
This usage passes into the Gospels, notably
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour, for he has looked with favour on his lowly servant, from this day forward, all generations will call me blessed." (Luke 1:46)
"Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in in peace, according to thy word."(Luke 2:29)
Several of Jesus' parables refer to relationships between master and slaves, but it's the way that Jesus identifies with the image of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah's poetry that is the foundation of the Good News as preached by his apostles. The strongest indication of this is here, where Jesus is responding to a dispute about status among his disciples.
"Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
"For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." (Luke 22:27)
And here in dispute with the scribes and pharisees
"Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. 11"But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted." (Matt 23:10-12)
Servant is a title attributed to Jesus in a prayer by the disciples
"Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." (Acts 4:30)
Acts 8:32 directly quotes Isaiah 53:7-8 showing that the Servant Song was a key part of the earliest apostolic preaching.
Paul speaks of Jesus emptying himself of divine characteristics in order to identify with humanity in his suffering from sin, who
"made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" (Phil 4:7)
The most eloquent metaphorical image of Jesus taking upon himself the form of a servant is when he washes his disciples' feet at the Last Supper (John 13:1-15)
But this action declares the equality of of all in the fellowship of God's kingdom, but in a way that challenges every person of faith to take responsibility for freely offering themselves in service to others.
"If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him." (John 13:14-16)
We live no longer for ourselves but for the sake of him who died and rose again for us. We live to point the world to Christ, saviour of us all.