Humble Service

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Amen, amen I say to you, servants are not greater than their master; nor are the ones sent greater than the one who sent them. I am not speaking of you all; I know whom I have chosen; it is that the scripture may be fulfilled, “The one who ate my bread has lifted the heel against me.” I tell you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am.

John 13: 16-19

Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel passage: “I know whom I have chosen. . . .” We are always appropriating and re-appropriating the gospel in ways that domesticates its mystery and power. Jesus tells his disciples, and us, that he knows whom he has chosen, including Judas who will betray him and Peter who will deny him. Even in what appears to be unmitigated failure and evil, God’s work is being carried out. Jesus has just washed the feet of his “friends” knowing full well that in the hours ahead these friends will betray, deny, and abandon him.

This night the works of God’s love will be accomplished in acts of light and of darkness. Jesus tells his disciples that this will happen so that when it does they may believe in him, that is, that they may not fail, as Judas does, to recognize that God’s love is mysteriously present and active even in what appears to be consummate failure and sin.

Jesus tells his disciples: “I love you; I serve you by washing your feet; I choose you and commission you knowing full-well who you are and what you will do this night.” Jesus speaks the same message to us. This truth has implications for both our inner and relational lives.

First of all, it calls us to recognize that we are called to be disciples not because of our moral superiority but in all that we are. We are summoned to act, to dare to love as best we can, even though to do so will also reveal our own sinfulness and limits. Our attempts to love and serve will inevitably, at times, hurt more than help. But that is no excuse for not trying because, as Jesus tells us, when these things take place we may come to even more fully believe in him – rather than in ourselves. We love as we are with the risks that involves, not because we have attained a virtue and purity that will make our love totally altruistic and perfect, but because by generously giving of our limited selves we offer ourselves as instruments of the love and power of God.

Secondly, today’s passage calls us to realize that what is true of us is true of all. It is a summons to respect the broken efforts of others and to recognize the love of God in the halting and even failing efforts of those around us. In the communities in which we live (families, churches, religious communities), we become acutely aware of each other’s failings and sinfulness. Such awareness, especially with those closest to us, can lead to a cynicism concerning the motives of others, and even of the possibilities of God’s work being carried out through them. Jesus tells us today, however, that when “these things take place you may believe that I am.” It is an enormous challenge to faith to realize that we servants are not greater than our Master.

The “accomplishment” of God’s will is not dependent on our success and goodness. What God would do through us, however, does depend on our willingness and generosity. We at times withhold our efforts for fear of our own weakness and potential failure, and we at times impede the possibilities of service of those around us because of our depreciation of their potential. In communities of every sort, it is often the passive-aggressive personalities that control their life and activity.

Perfectionism in all its forms is but an expression of “inverted pride.” We stop trying to express love in speech and action because we fear being seen as the imperfect servants that we are. Jesus tells us: “When you have done all that you have been commanded to do, say ‘We are useless servants, we have done no more than our duty.’” (Luke 17:10) The love and power of God is seen precisely in our halting efforts to serve it. May we abandon our striving for perfection, with all the distance from each other that it brings, and offer generously the little and the flawed that we have to give.

A mature contemplative practice places us squarely before the wound of the human condition, and we learn to meet our wounds in a new way. At first this is difficult, and there is great resistance. But gradually we learn something very precious under the tutelage of these wounds. We learn a compassion for others that replaces judging, self-loathing, and the compulsion to find someone to blame. We learn a reverent joy before our wounds that replaces the condemnation of and comparison of ourselves with others that used to fuel our anxiety. We learn that the consummation of self-esteem is self-forgetful abandonment to the Silence of God that gives birth to loving service of all who struggle.

Martin Laird, OSA, Into the Silent Land,pp. 131-2

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