Sunday 17 October 2021 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Sunday 17 October 2021

Sermon by the Revd Charlotte Bradley.

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of ‘service’ recently in relation to the prison population. I’ve been working in two different prisons recently, one running a wellbeing course with inmates at a women’s prison in Surrey and one assisting families coming to visit inmates at a men’s prison in Hertfordshire.

So when I read this morning’s Gospel and Jesus’ well known saying ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve’, it was the prison population who came to my mind. Why is it that we talk about people ‘serving’ their sentence in prison or the community? It certainly suggests a degree of willingness on the part of the inmate. Well, if it’s a sentence that they feel is just, or deserved, it makes sense. They are ‘serving’ the community through the loss of their freedom in order to pay the community back for the crime they’ve committed.

Some of you might have watched ‘Time’ on the BBC a couple of months ago, which was a very compelling depiction of life inside a men’s prison. It followed the arrival and subsequent time spent in prison of a character played by Sean Bean, who had been found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving after being well over the limit. He was hugely remorseful, desperate for redemption and for forgiveness from the family and especially the wife of the man he had killed, and he therefore saw his sentence – and the violence he was subject to inside prison – as being entirely just; he welcomed it, almost. The writer obviously had a few – very salient, I thought – points to make about the purpose of prison, the unsuitability of prison for a lot of the people in there and the possibility – or impossibility – of redemption following a crime. I thought the most telling line was that spoken by Sue Johnson, who played his mother, who was aghast at the violence and bullying he was being subject to, and even more his acceptance of it. “You’re in here AS punishment, not FOR punishment”, she told him. That’s what prison should be in a civilised society; the loss of one’s liberty. That is the service a prisoner does.

That kind of service – a loss of liberty and status – is probably not what James and John had in mind when they put their request to Jesus that we heard in today’s Gospel. It’s worth remembering that this passage comes soon after these two sons of Zebedee went up the mountain with Peter and Jesus where they witnessed the transfiguration; they had seen his clothes become dazzling white and had seen Moses and Elijah appear alongside him. So when they ask to sit at his right and left hand when he comes into his glory, perhaps appearing alongside him in that kind of a scenario is what they had in mind. It’s safe to assume that they do not realise that if they were granted their request, it would not be thrones that they would be sitting on, but instruments of torture and death they would be nailed to; that Christ would receive a crown of thorns, not of jewels, at this great moment of triumph. And of course, who is it, who in the end, does take these coveted places? Two criminals; two prisoners, released from jail in order to be nailed to crosses. After the disciples – James and John among them – had fled in fear, it is those who have been serving sentences who serve Christ in the end as his companions to his final crowning in glory.

The seventeenth century Christian writer William Secker wrote that God has three sorts of servants in the world:

1)    Some are ‘slaves’ and serve him from a principle of fear

2)    Others are ‘hirelings’ and serve him for the sake of wages

3)    And the last are ‘sons’ (and daughters, I shall add) and serve him under the influence of love.

Three kinds of Christian discipleship: slaves; hirelings; friends. I think we see examples of all three in the Gospels and you can see them by the way Jesus responds to them:

1)    Slaves – We often who encounter Jesus in discussion with the Pharisees who are slaves to the law, serving not through love but because they are too afraid of the repercussions if they break any of the rules.

2)    Hirelings – those who serve God in order to be paid – not necessarily with cold hard cash, but perhaps paid with status or power. We might put the Scribes into this category, who enjoy the public attention and status that comes with their role. On occasion the disciples fall into this category – a good example being the request made by James and John, thinking that sitting at Jesus’ right and left hand would bring them glory and adoration.

3)    And finally sons/daughters – those who serve God through love. There are plenty of examples of these in the Gospels. The sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with her hair, even whilst Simon the Pharisee sneers at her and criticises her. Jesus’ Mother, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalen and the beloved disciple, who stood at the foot of the cross and stayed with Jesus until his dying breath. And again, when the 12 disciples get it right, they serve through love too – leaving their homes and livelihoods to follow Christ; Peter, after initially being horrified at the thought of Jesus washing his feet, wants to share in his servant ministry and asks Jesus to wash not just his feet but his head and his hands.

Which kind of servant are you? Is your faith and discipleship motivated by fear; by the potential for praise and glory; or by love for Jesus Christ? I suspect that most of us will experience all three at some stage in our Christian journey.

So, if we’re in the first or second category – how do we move from serving through fear or for payment, into serving from love? I was reminded by a colleague a while ago of some words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; we were discussing how it is that people come to faith, and how we might encourage people who want to have faith but can’t seem to get there. My colleague reminded me of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said, “Don’t say, ‘I wish I had the faith to do that.’ Do it, and the faith will come!” – So we might say to a person who wants to have faith, start coming and living the life of faith, and the faith will come. Or to the person who wants to do the good works they see Christians doing in their community – Start serving your community alongside those of faith, and the faith will come. Or to the person who has faith, but has it through fear or because of the status it might bring – follow Jesus Christ, and the faith – and love for him – will come.

I expect all of us can think of examples of people who have been drawn into the community, and subsequently the life of faith, through acts of service to the community. I’m sure we can all think of someone who started helping run the weekday toddler group because a church-going friend roped them into it, then came to the family service and then started coming every week and became a disciple of Christ – or someone who saw a notice outside a church about a homeless shelter, offered to volunteer at it, became intrigued by the church building and what went on there on a Sunday so came along and gradually came to faith. It’s not just that those who have faith are motivated by that faith to do acts of service (though of course that’s a good thing), but it can so often work the other way round. I know you’re thinking here at All Saints at the moment about ways in which you can engage with and serve the community, and acts of service in the community are a wonderful way to serve the people around you, but they’re also a way of drawing those outside into the life of faith. Do it, and the faith – and I might add, the faithful, will come!

 

And when we are God’s servants who are sons and daughters who are serving because we love, that is when we are most aligned with the kind of servanthood that Jesus displays. When we serve because we love, we won’t make requests or even harbour desires for glory or status. In a famous passage from John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I do not call you servants any longer… I have called you friends.” When we serve because we love we do so because we know that we are not a slave or a hireling but a friend of Jesus Christ, a beloved son or daughter of God; whose endless love and mercy will overflow from us into the beloved sons and daughters of God, drawing them into that endless mercy and love. Do it, and the faith will come.