Readings Isaiah 42:1-5, James 1: 17-21, and Matthew 8:14-17
At the end of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, having banished Satan from his midst, Matthew includes this detail:
Then the devil left him and suddenly the angels came and waited on him.
The angels serve Jesus following his battle with Sin and Evil, restoring his strength before he goes to Galilee and begins his ministry.
Following the calling of the disciples and the sermon on the mount, Matthew details Jesus performing a number of healings: the cleansing of a leper, the healing of the Centurion’s servant, and the mother-in law of Peter. Immediately following her miraculous healing, the woman got up and began to serve Jesus. Having been tended to and restored through such care, Jesus continues his confrontation of Sin and Evil by casting out demons and healing the sick.
This ministry of service to Christ, initiated by the angels in the wilderness and taken up by the mother-in-law of Peter in Capernaum will later be formalised and transformed by the early church into the ministry and service of the diaconate. Deacons, we read in the early chapters of Acts, were elected to serve the community, to wait on tables, ensuring the material need of the community was met and that those set aside for the ministry of the word, would not need to neglect their calling.
Now it is always helpful to point out, that there isn’t a clear-cut split between the ministry of service and teaching, or witness and word. These aren’t compartmentalised. Right away, Stephen, one of those chosen to serve, performs great wonders and signs among the people before delivering a 52-verse sermon, a proclamation that results in his martyrdom. Those called to serve also teach and witness, those called to the study and proclamation of the word, also serve and take up the ministry of mercy.
Whatever the specifics of one’s calling (be it ordained or lay, ministry of word or deacon) and whatever the specifics of giftings (be they teaching, prophecy, healing), to be a disciple is to be known by our love for others. A disciple is ready to serve, willing to take up their cross and fold others to their heart. To be a disciple is to be one who follows after Christ, seeking to live in imitation of Christ – and Christ is known by his love, his service, by taking up the cross so that sin and death would at once be overcome, and all of creation folded into his heart.
Both the readings from Isaiah and James direct our attention to the character of a servant of God. A character exemplified in Christ, and rightly aspired to by the Christian. One who faithfully brings forth justice without lifting their voice or breaking a bruised reed. One who is quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.
This doesn’t imply that anger is somehow unchristian, that demonstrative displays of rage toward injustice or unfairness are unsuitable for a disciple, that conflict is unbefitting of the churchly: for Jesus turned tables, Paul wished that those who insisted on circumcision would castrate themselves, and James wrote to the rich in his churches telling them to weep and wail for the miseries that were coming to them.
Rather than precluding the potency, and at times necessity of holy anger and righteous protest, the centrality of gentleness and service in the life of the Christian serves as a check. A check against bombast, against cajoling, against intimidation, regardless of the apparent righteousness of one’s cause. The centrality of service also serves as a check against the importation of worldly hierarchies into Christian communities. The church points toward the kingdom where the last are first and first are last, where worldly wisdom is a folly, where to be great one must serve, where to come to Jesus one must come like a child, where to find one’s life one must lose it.
No one should be exempted from the ministry of service, from tending to tables, from meeting the material and spiritual needs of those in our midst because they or others figure their particular ministry, gift, call too important for such lowly matters. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples to set an example of service, to remind them (and us) that we (as Christ’s servants) are not greater than Christ (our master). Ours too is a life of service.
And so we return to the mother-in-law of Peter. She experiences the power and presence of Jesus bring healing to her life, and responds, immediately and without prompt, with service. Ministering to Jesus, as the angels did before her, pointing toward the ministry of service that not only marks Christ’s life but forms the church from its infancy. We give thanks for her witness, and imitate her as she imitated Christ. For we too, as those who have experienced the presence and power of Christ in our lives, as those who stand in freedom because Jesus overcame the powers of Sin and Death, as those who are the body of Christ, are called each day to rise, to rise out from the ways of the world which glorify influence and insulate us from service. We are called to rise to true greatness, found through the service of others, the faithful pursuit of justice, and the generous act of giving of ourselves to the righteousness of God.
Image: Rembrandt, The Healing of Peter's Mother-in-Law (1658)
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