March 4, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus . . .
In a world full of words, it’s become an annual tradition to note the dawning and passing of words into and out of our collective vocabulary. In 2009 the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary welcomed words like netbook, birther, and green state—while the neologism of the year was unfriend. In that same year some at Lake Superior State University bemoaned the ubiquitous presence of words like shovel-ready, app (which this author refuses to discard), and chillaxin’.
If words are powerful, their birth and burial raises a question: As words fall out of use, do the things or categories they denote pass with them from our consciousness? Take for instance the word servant. You can’t say it has been eradicated from our discourse, but hearing the word tends to conjure scenes from Gone with the Wind or The Remains of the Day. “Public servants” may be the last bastion of its usage, but our cynical tendency to ascribe self-interest to those so named renders the word essentially meaningless.
Notwithstanding all the heinous associations with the word, there is much salvageable meaning compressed into it. It represents a grateful indebtedness, of belonging to someone. Allegiance, respect, and reverential fear are all evoked. But with the passing of servant from common language, are we the less likely to assume the posture of servanthood?
In the Bible, you can’t read long without encountering the word servant. In the New Testament, Jesus construed himself as one sent not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45). In His parable of the talents, He affirms those who stewarded their resources well with the words, “well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matt. 25:21). Paul opens three of his letters by identifying himself foremost as a servant of Christ, as in Philippians: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus.” It’s pivotal to his self-understanding because it’s so embedded in what it means to belong to God.
Mark reminded us Sunday that you cannot understand yourself unless you understand yourself to be a saint—one chosen, purchased, and set apart from the world yet for the world. To be God’s is to be a saint.
What Paul’s self-identification also tells us is that to be a saint is to be a servant. Sainthood and servanthood are correlates, and our spiritual formation entails apprehending how they correlate.
First, servanthood is a natural response to sainthood. Like agents in a chemical reaction, those who grasp the justice and mercy exhibited to them in Christ are compelled to imitate the same. “For the love of Christ compels us. . .” (2 Cor. 5:4, NIV).
Second, our sainthood is perfected in our servanthood. As Paul will say later in Philippians 3, he owes His righteousness to Christ alone (v. 3); but Christ having made Paul his own, Paul now longs to make the fullness of fellowship with Christ his own (v. 12). As John writes in his epistle, “What we will be has not yet appeared, but when He appears, we will be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 3:2–3) Though our sainthood is achieved by what Christ has done, living as a servant enriches our sense of what it means to be a saint. A man may be married on his wedding day, but he learns what it means to love as a married man engaging in the servanthood marriage enjoins.
Finally, living as a servant compounds the joy of our sainthood. John’s bearing testimony to what he has seen and heard, and touched with his hands “completes his joy” (1 John 1:4). Paul’s labor for the maturing of the saints at Philippi represents an effort to complete his joy (Phil. 2:2). We rejoice when we reflect on how, despite our sinfulness, Christ died for us out of love (Rom. 5:8). But our joy will be full, Jesus says, as we abide in the love which our servanthood is primarily dedicated to (John 15:11).
An officer in Bosnia during the conflict of the 1990s said, “before you are a captain or a cook, you’re a soldier.” Our multilayered self-perception can often obscure its more fundamental levels, and with them our role. The word servant may pass across our lips only when we read a biblical or historical text, but whether you are a mother, a lawyer, a waiter, a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker—do you see yourself foremost as a saint who is a servant?
Some words shape history. In Jesus we find that lives of servanthood speak more audibly.