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Only Servants

February 13, 2017

“Only Servants” 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 © 2.12.17 Ordinary 6A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The “Brat Pack” was a group of eight young actors from the 1980s that included Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy, among others. Sheedy is most well-known from that period for War Games and The Breakfast Club. In the latter, she played a withdrawn teen who, when asked by another character what horrible things her parents did to her, replied: “They ignore me.” Later she was in St. Elmo’s Fire and Short Circuit. But there is an obscure 1987 film entitled Maid to Order in which Sheedy is a rich young woman with a smart mouth, a lead foot, and a very bad attitude. Busted for speeding and possession of cocaine, Sheedy ends up penniless and alone, thanks to a spell cast by an ‘80s-style fairy godmother. Under the influence of the hex, her father believes he never had a daughter; the chauffeur never heard of her. She’s forced to take a job as a maid in the home of a glitzy, trendy Malibu couple, cleaning their bathrooms and ironing their clothes.

The film is built around the premise that being a maid or some other sort of servant is a punishment, just the sort of demeaning and humiliating employment to teach a rich kid a thing or two. As the fairy godmother says: “Some maids deserve to be princesses. Some princesses deserve to be maids” ( The supposition is that no one would freely choose such a role, that on a list of ten things someone would like to be, “servant” would not be among them. To this way of thinking, the connotations of the term are almost uniformly negative. One is a servant, as in the movie The Help, because mother was a maid and grandma was a house slave. Opportunities to be anything else simply were not available. A servant has little job security. He or she could be on the street in no time for some made-up reason or because the employer is pressured by peers to fire him or her. Again, see the movie The Help. Servants have to drop what they’re doing and go tend to the needs of their charge, whether it’s Lady Mary or Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey or the child in a snooty Southern family whose parents neglect her. When there’s a mess to clean up, a dirty task to be done, it’s not the householder but the servant who risks injury or at the least, gets her or his hands dirty.

Yet Paul designates himself and Apollos without hint of resentment or negativity as merely servants with a job to do. True, he uses the softer word diakonos we translate as “deacon” and not doulos, typically rendered as “slave.” But his meaning is still that he and his fellow worker are not in charge, but are humble field hands, gardeners, brick masons. Skilled, yes, but under another’s authority.

The apostle is talking about a particular role he and Apollos shared as church organizers, planters and cultivators, preachers and evangelists, but there is a sense in which every Christian, whatever the task, is a servant. We are all of us in a position every day or maybe just from time to time to help someone. We follow Jesus, both as individuals and as a gathered body, the One whom the gospels and Paul consistently portray as a servant. He came not to be served by to serve. He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. He washed his disciples’ feet, the job of the lowliest on a household staff. Martin Luther put our calling this way: “A Christian is the perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (John Dillenberger, Martin Luther: 53).

No thanks. If that’s what being a Christian is all about, count us out. Who wants to live a life of servile obsequiousness, fawning submission, keeping his mouth shut, knowing her place, being walked on?

Yet we also know that being a Christian and acting on our faith in the various roles and capacities we have in life will not allow us to be authoritarian, bossy, aggressively self-seeking. That’s the kind of behavior Paul called “infantile” and “unspiritual.” Constantly calling attention to oneself, getting others to meet one’s needs, might be fine for a baby, but it’s not adult behavior. That’s not how Jesus lived, and it’s the exact opposite of what Paul considered a mark of a spiritual person. The Corinthians, including those who showed loyalty to him, seemed to have lived in a different universe than the apostle, since their definition of terms like “spiritual” and “wisdom” differed in the extreme from his. And Paul criticizes even his friends for having such ideas.

One of the things I discovered early on in my ministry is that whether we take the path of submission or self-assertion, we walk down a dead-end street. Right out of seminary a 40 years ago, I was the first associate pastor of Westminster Church in Mobile. It was my intention in that work to operate out of a servant model. What that meant for me was illustrated at an officers’ retreat at our presbytery camp very soon after I came to the congregation. We were using exercises out of some small group manual popular at the time. One was to take a Styrofoam cup and pass it around, doing something to it that would represent our commitment to others. When it came my turn, I tore up the cup and stomped on it, trying to say that I was willing to be crushed in spirit and walked on for the sake of the church and its mission. They took me at my word a couple of years later.

Trying to please everyone turned out to be the way to please no one. I was pulled in so many directions I was on the verge of becoming emotionally dysfunctional, adding to my already considerable difficulties relating to people in the real world. What was I supposed to do? For whom was I supposed to do it? The charismatics wanted one thing, while the progressives insisted on another, and the traditionalists, something else. The result was that the important tasks of ministry I had been called to do were left unfinished. If a servant is a helper, I was a failure.

At the same time, I desperately wanted to be respected as an authority figure. I had the title “Associate Pastor,” but the people called me “that little Assistant Pastor,” which I chafed at not just because I found it demeaning, but because it was not correct according to our polity. By that time, our standards had eliminated the position of assistant pastor from the positions a minister could hold. I felt Presbyterians should know that and use the correct terms. Ed, the senior pastor, told me I had to earn the title of associate, a statement which infuriated me. While part of me said being put on a pedestal was wrong, another longed to be high and lifted up. I hadn’t spent three years in seminary only to be disrespected! So I badgered and blustered and complained, held out for my own agenda, refused to take Ed’s advice. Nobody could tell me what to do! I wasn’t a little boy anymore; I was 25 years old, and I was ordained with a message to proclaim. People had better understand that, and they had better listen! All the while I had no clue what I was doing.

Of course, all my infantile arrogance and showing off alienated a great many people and in the process betrayed the very values I was seeking to model, my deepest convictions about ministry. But I was raised and educated to believe that there was no middle ground, and my personality only reinforced what I had been taught. It seemed the words “servant” and “authority” were mutually exclusive.

The problem at the root of such thinking is the way “service” and “authority” are typically defined and distinguished. The Jews, including Jesus and Paul, saw things differently from their Greek and Roman contemporaries. If for the latter, being a servant was demeaning, not a fit description of a leader, then for the former, the Jews, “servant” was a noble, paradoxically exalted title. A prophet or even a Messiah could be called a servant. When the Torah called on Jews to love their neighbors as themselves, it was recommending a life of unconditional service.

For the apostle, the service to be rendered is first of all to God. Help rendered to people grows out of that fundamental commitment, that loyalty to the One who gives the miraculous growth after servants have planted and watered, the One who is everything while the servant is nothing by comparison. How foolish it is for the servant to seek glory or to build a cult of personality, and how unspiritual it is for followers to argue over who is better, to be jealous of connections of a neighbor with this or that famous teacher! Spiritual people care nothing for such backhanded ways of gaining attention for oneself. And the leader who seeks such adulation is no leader, at least not in the mold of Jesus. Paul is not better than Apollos and vice-versa; they and others are co-workers, pulling together on one team, carrying out their respective tasks.

Paul doesn’t matter. Nor does Apollos or any other big name. God’s glory, God’s mission is all that matters. It’s he who holds the servant accountable, who gives the word to speak, the gifts to share. There’s no shame in being a servant of the Most High God, under his command, carrying out his assignments. The butler Carson on Downton Abbey sought to maintain the dignity of and bring fame to the great house, and saw that as a noble calling, and one that gives meaning. Just so with Paul and any other servant of the greatest house in the cosmos, the house of God.

But that doesn’t mean the servant is unimportant. The designation as “nothing” is a relative one. Paul can rightly take credit and give credit for work done. And so can we, in whatever helping roles we have. We might think of a group of people working on a project with a deadline fast approaching. What if one doesn’t pull her weight or he does a sloppy job on a critical detail? Exactly. The project doesn’t get done on time or else it’s of poor quality. There may be only one supervisor, but everyone is expected to work and is regarded as essential. The service rendered is for the good of the whole.

Our authority as servants is of just that sort. We exercise it for the good of the community of faith, for the benefit of those we’re seeking to help. It’s not power to build up ourselves, to surround ourselves with a cadre of fawning admirers and sycophants. Instead, the authority we’re granted by God is to build up the church or the society or the family, to teach our children right from wrong and enable them to be loving, responsible, and confident. We’re instruments, tools, powerful in the hands of the Master Gardener, the Head Contractor. Worth remembering is what theologian Karl Barth once wrote of disciples of Christ in every age: “….it is not they who build his community, but he who builds it as he makes use of them” (Church Dogmatics, 4/1: 718-719).

Paul pleads for a sense of perspective. He wants us to put things in order of importance. Compared to God in the divine grandeur and holiness, yes, we are as nothing. Put up against his power, we are powerless. Measured against his infinite creativity, we are hacks and amateurs. Yet he calls us his people and names us his own. He imbues us with the power of his Spirit. He makes us in his image and confirms the work of our hands. God has given us a ministry, and he trusts us with it.

We well know that people will rise to the level of expectations, the labels applied. A child constantly told he or she is worthless and stupid will live out that narrative. One encouraged and affirmed will be motivated to achieve even more. We’re servants of God as we seek to help others, but God doesn’t regard us as people to be stepped on, criticized, punished, always told what to think, expected to obey without question. We are enabled and empowered under the authority of God who calls us to work in his field, to build his house.

Servanthood is thus an ambiguous, tension-filled role. Hopefully creative tension, but tension nonetheless. I mean we walk a tightrope between servility and authoritarianism. The question is: How can we best help? How do we serve? Sometimes it’s by letting people make their own mistakes and choices or insisting that they do, but at the same time gently guiding and mentoring. We create a safe space of permission and freedom for exploration and failure. Other times, being a servant means giving answers, taking the lead, being the expert. A servant can in fact be a firm lawgiver, a traditional authority figure. What kind of help would it be to someone struggling with a decision to say “Just do whatever you want; I don’t care” when he or she has asked for substantive assistance? An authority sets boundaries, outlines parameters. So can a servant. It’s all a matter of wisdom, of discerning what is right and best for a given situation.

The manner of our service is a choice each of us makes over and over, as circumstances change. It’s not a role thrust on us nor is it something we do because society or our family says there is no other path open to us. Service is intentional ministry, a commitment of the heart and will to provide help wherever and however we can. We’ll make mistakes in judgment from time to time, but when we fall from the high wire, there’s the safety net of grace to catch us. God doesn’t expect perfection or success, only faithfulness. We trust God to give the growth.

Many years ago, at a campus ministry conference, the worship leader from Clemson taught a wonderful song that has now made it into hymnals like Glory to God, the most recent book of our denomination. As we contemplate what it means to be a servant, it provides guidance on how we carry out our ministry in community with each other. Humbly the singer asks of his or her fellow believer: “Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too. We are pilgrims on a journey, we’re together on the road. We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load. I will hold the Christ-light for you in the nighttime of your fear. I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear. I will weep when you are weeping; when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you. I will share my joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through. When we sing to God in heaven, we shall find such harmony, born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony. Will you let me be your servant….?” (“The Servant Song,” Richard Gillard, 1977, alt; in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal).

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