Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all.” That makes me think of a bunch of wannabe saints competing with one another to see who can be the most humble. Back when I was a camper at Alpine Camp for Boys, the oldest campers had dinner as a group on Saturday night—a privilege to get away from the younger boys. The first week, we all lined up in a hurry to be first in line for hamburgers and hotdogs. Then, the head counselor asked us all to turn around, and then he led us in a circular procession that resulted in a reversed order. The one at the very back found himself first in line. The next week, we all fought to get at the end of the line, expecting the counselor to repeat his instruction: “The first shall be last…” But this time we went in without reversing the order. Frustrating, isn’t it, when you’re trying your hardest to be the least? It makes me think of the bizzaro world of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, where you’re only crazy if you don’t think you’re crazy, and, if you don’t think you’re crazy, you’re sane enough to fly in combat.
Not long ago, I visited with a parishioner who is fairly well stuck at home. Most of our home-bound parishioners (the term “shut-ins” has always sounded so negative to me) are unable to leave home because of their age. Sure, there are plenty of 90+-year-olds out there who still drive all over the place, but advanced age often comes with less mobility. But this parishioner is home-bound because of illness. There seems something particularly crippling about being young (relatively speaking), in the so-called “prime” of one’s life, and unable to embrace life.
“How long has it been since you were able to just get up and leave the house without thinking about it—without planning ahead, without needing help or someone to go with you? How long has it been since you’ve just stood up and grabbed your keys and hopped in the car?” For almost two years, now, this man has had to plan his life around his illness. Can he drive? Yes. But what happens if he is suddenly stricken unwell—a distinct possibility with his condition? What if he’s away from home and all of the sudden needs help? For two years, even when he’s felt up to it, he’s had to think twice before walking out the front door. And that’s hard.
Coming to church is difficult. Going out socially is nearly impossible. “So how do you sustain yourself?” I asked. “Not just physically but also spiritually and emotionally.” We talked about reading the bible and saying our prayers. And then he said something that really got my attention. “I try to treat other people the way I would want to be treated. That sounds pretty simple, but it’s what I do. I think it’s what Christ was all about.”
Hmmm. At first, I bristled. That sounds a lot more like works-based righteousness than the radical grace I’m accustomed to. A lot of “spiritual but not religious” people—including most Christians—think Jesus came to show the world that we’re supposed to be nicer to each other. But that’s not the gospel. That’s not grace. I believe that Jesus came to the world to show us that God loves us even when we’re miserable schmucks—“schmucks” being a highly technical theological word for sinners. Our faith isn’t built upon the premise that the Golden Rule precedes our justification. Instead, our justification precedes the Golden Rule. We do unto others not so that God will love us more but because God loves us first—whether we love other people or simply love our selfish selves. But that’s not what he meant.
Without wanting to seem theologically combative (I can get that way when we’re talking about grace & law), I asked him about that belief. Quickly, I realized that his do-unto-others lifestyle isn’t an attempt to seek affirmation from God but to adopt a spiritual practice that draws him closer to God. That might sound like I’m splitting hairs, but it was, for me, a huge and profound theological insight. We love others not so that God will love us. We love others because, in so doing, we learn to appreciate just how much God loves us.
In the gospel lesson for the Feast of Gregory the Great (Mark 10:42-45), Jesus said, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus—in his preaching, in his miracles, in his sinful company, in his death and resurrection—shows us that being great is about being the least of all—about giving oneself in service to others. No, we don’t have to be like Jesus to earn God’s love. But we are called to imitate Jesus so that we might know what love is.
If you want to be great, you must be servant of all. The only world in which that statement makes sense—other than in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22—is a world of grace. We love others—we serve others even to the point of giving our lives for them—in order to internalize the truth that God loves us freely.