Jesus said unto them:
The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. I am among you as he that serveth.”
There is a book about what it was like to live during the times and in the midst of World War 2, which was a war in which The Philippines was heavily involved and was seriously affected by fighting and conquest.
The book about World War 2 is called: ‘The World Turned Upside Down’.
There is also a 20th century hymn titled: ‘Turning the World Upside Down’.
How big this difference is – between a state of war in a nation under occupation having turned it upside down; and how such a state of affairs might compare with Jesus the Christ having come into the world and turned our lives, and also the prognosis for the world utterly upside-down!
There are things however which both these different worlds turned upside-down do share in common.
For instance in the gospels Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven being ‘stormed by violent men’.
Jesus also says:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household
Jesus then is no milksop; no pushover nor are the ways into his Kingdom always via peace and love. The Person who made a whip of cords and drove out the money changers from the Temple; the Person who pronounced that great series of woes upon the Pharisees; the Person whom Nicodemus met by night and discovered him to be able to be sharp and terse in his teaching of ‘a Master of Israel’; this Person comes across to us as being one who is robust, able to be razor-sharp, and who admits a use of hard and harsh means, as well as caring and tender means, to perform his Father’s loving ends.
His turning the world upside down was not achieved wholly and solely by way of milk and water added to his own suffering in the course of his Passion.
Yes Jesus was, and is, and will always be, Revolutionary. And his Revolutionary means at times admitted of violence and rigor. In fact the word ‘Revolutionary’ means a turning around; a turning of a wheel upside down and then turning some more and thus setting itself newly aright: Therefore a complete turn around; a renewal; a fresh start; a clean slate; all these things.
In regard to ‘clean slates’ Jesus we are told by St John did his first miracle at Cana in Galilee; and it is a miracle of note because it is one of two (I believe) in which no healing occurs. The beauty of this initial miracle is that it is for our benefits and so wholly gratuitous towards us; Jesus turns the water into wine at the wedding. This miracle is telling us that here and now is happening not a mere change or a mere healer or holy man come forth; no, here was happening a transformation, of the world of its peoples of creation as a whole.
If the old testament dispensation was water; then this new dispensation, heralded by John Baptist and in its fact and deed Incarnate in the Person of Jesus the Christ, was surely the wine.
This initial miracle of turning water into wine, St John tells us in his carefully chosen words,
“This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory”
The key here is the tagged-on phrase at the end which says that Jesus: “ manifested forth his glory” in his doing of this miracle. Thus it was a miracle which was to be a prelude, a preface, and introduction, to the wedding guests; to the Galileans; to all Israel; to the Empire; to the world; to all Creation; that here and now begins a new era, and a change has happened which has no like to it in space or time or in history or in days to come. The advent of Emmanuel – God with us.
The Lord Jesus takes up this wine symbolism himself in some of his discourses, he explains to us that his message represents new wine; and since new wine needs new wineskins, otherwise old skins burst and the wine is lost; so too his message to us, telling us to take hold of his new wine, his new teaching, he tells us needs to be received by a New Man and a New Woman; by way of the Lord’s power through Baptism, Repentance and Forgiveness.
The figure of the New Person in Christ whom each of us is called to become is possibly one of the most frequent images to be found in the writings which The New Testament comprises. Jesus uses it quite liberally. St Paul uses it very often. The writer to The Hebrews, and the writers of the General Epistles many of them use the image. It is another way of expressing how revolutionary Jesus and his Incarnation is and how singularly and life-changingly it affects us. As the subjects of this revolutionary change in ourselves occurring, and especially at our first early encounters with Jesus as Christ, when we first believed, often the wrench, the great storm and upheaval in us, in the course of us being hauled headlong into new-personhood, can be experienced by us as a violent and tumultuous time of our lives. Jesus, after all, is asking us, we begin to realise, for ‘not less than everything’.
Jesus’ earliest recorded teaching, you may remember, is told to us like this:
‘Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee; And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum,
From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’
Yes from straight after the bothersome and weary time of his temptations by Satan in the wilderness, Jesus comes preaching forcefully and saying, (in the gospels it is expressed with some fierce vigour);
‘Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’
So there is no lack of turmoil and violence connected with the Incarnation and earthly mission of Jesus, nor with his message, his teaching, nor else with the coming of His Kingdom. It is a Kingdom which is ‘now at hand’ – or as it is expressed elsewhere in the gospels The Kingdom has ‘come near to you’ or has ‘come upon you’.
This commotion and violence comprises the motive power for our desire, and it is the engine for our need, to endure and to enjoy a personal redemptive Revolution in Christ within us; by which we see that our world is being and has been visibly and literally turned upside down.
‘Visibly and literally’ I say. not as hype or exaggeration; I say these things because indeed once turned around as persons, we see differently and we receive Jesus’ teaching differently; utterly differently, from how we saw and considered his word offered to us at that time before we came to him; and now that our outlooks have been revolved and renewed and regenerated by that same Word and Person.
And the text from St Luke which I have used to head-up this radio talk is one which goes right to the heart of our sense of having, in the course of our induction into Jesus, suffered a commotion of revolution in our lives. The text I used says clearly that, were we to want to be great persons amongst those who are entering into The Kingdom, then we are to be Servants; if we want to be the greatest then, we are to become the lowliest of the low, and so be the least esteemed and least rewarded; to become mean objects of no account in the eyes of men and women of the world; and in the consideration of persons who, as yet, are to be redeemed, and so who are enamoured still of the things of the world.
And indeed one sees in this regard this hard disbelief in worldly people who fail to understand that great power hidden in Jesus, even when it is displayed openly in the fact of the revolutionary changes it effects on persons whom he confronts in their lives. In such instances it becomes clear to view that Jesus and his hidden power becomes the great stumbling block for persons of the world. The seemingly hard recommendation by Our Lord for his people to become servants of all and so be among the least, appears to the world mere perverse folly. Our Lord says even of himself that:
“I am among you as he that serveth”
That impetuous and over-enthusiastic disciple Peter (Cephas- a rock), you will recall, insisted, when Jesus, as doing this service of a servant, offered to wash his feet, that his ‘Lord and God’ should not stoop so low as to do such a humble, and humiliating, act as wash his feet for him. Jesus points out to Peter that Peter will be expected, at a later time, to do likewise for his own disciples; that the washing of the feet of those who are yet to become Christ’s followers is to be the great example of examples which shows a humbling of oneself, of oneself not assuming, presuming, a grand high place, and so of oneself taking on the low status and duties of a servant.
Not just ‘taking on’ like a person wears a coat or a shirt or blouse, and then a few hours later takes it off and wears another item of dress; but to ‘take on’ servanthood permanently as one takes on a vocation or a profession. Jesus makes very clear that:
“No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
Notice that in this saying of his, Jesus tells us again and emphatically that The Kingdom of Heaven is about the doing of service; about us doing service consistently, continuously and with a generous good will.
It is in situations like this one concerning Peter that we can see best this characterful, and most characteristic, stabilising and settling, settled, assured and considered, manner of Jesus; whenever he is encountering situations and/or persons who are out to destabilise him or to mar the events going on around, and so sometimes trying to ‘catch him in his words’, and so dishonour him; and especially trying to shame him, belittle him, when he is in front of those crowds whom he is teaching and bringing into The Kingdom. It is on these occasions that Jesus makes good-use of his sober, gentle, firm, and absolutely appropriate judgement of situations. This to recommend to his hearers, including you and me me, so forcefully, that here, is the definitive teaching, of The True Teacher Messias.
Truly to have been in the presence of The Lord Jesus during his Incarnation must have been something one might hardly understand, who was not there at the time! That he could have had such effects, as those we read of, quite frequently in the Gospels, upon those who came into contact with him, stultifies us ourselves, who are in the here and now and confronted with our own sense of wonder and astonishment at him. The marvellously faithful Centurion who took Jesus on his word alone; the woman with the discharge upwards of 18 years who touched his garment; the henchmen sent by The Sanhedrin to trap Jesus with shrewd questions, who return saying no man spoke like this man; the troop of armed men at Gethsemane who step back and fall to the ground upon them being answered by Jesus that, yes, he is the one whom they have been sent to find and so arrest; the experience of Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus whose ‘hearts burned within them’ as Christ Risen taught them, in disguise, and on the road, as they walked, and so opened to them the law and the prophets on the topic of Himself. These are just a few of the greatly astounded responses to Jesus which are recorded in the four gospels.
Let’s get back to servanthood now. Jesus then, when he tells us, when he is also telling his listeners in the crowds around him, that we are to be the servants of all; and to be so with a lowly and generous spirit; Jesus has no need for use of any formulaic wording like those which the New Testament letter writers like to use; Jesus has no need for prefacing his teachings with:
“This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly”
This is because Jesus plainly says fully assuredly in himself:
“I am the way and the truth and the life”
Jesus has no need of testimonials; nor for others’ recommendations. He is that Person for whom the crowds whom he taught at Capernaum felt wonder:
“The people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
Let us end with a word from The prophet Isaiah, who says, of God, that ‘ a bruised reed he will not break’ and that God accepts ‘a broken and a contrite heart’. The emphasis of Jesus on lowliness and humility, of service and obedience to God, are all themes which are repeated and echoed throughout the Bible in regard to how we are called to approach and to present ourselves before God. The life of Jesus Incarnate was that epitome which sets the definitive way of life for us. St Paul tells us in Philippians:
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
And so we, as a people, are glad to place ourselves at the feet of Jesus; and when we are thereabouts to heed what he recommends to us, which is for us to be and to do the work of servants. We have no hesitation in believing and in taking to heart and so performing freely his word, by which tells us that we are not to be ‘like the Rulers’ nor like the seekers after secular power, fame, wealth, influence, reputation, ambition, advancement, and so on. We are not to be like people enamoured of the world, and who are thus captives to the world; but yet instead we shall desire to humble ourselves before The Lord, so to do his service in and for the world and for the coming of The Kingdom.
Like the Teacher of the Law in the gospels who would wish to justify himself by asking The Lord Jesus: ‘Teacher, what is the first and the greatest commandment?” we ourselves might also like to be insolent and ask: “And what is this service?”
Of course the reply to both of these impudent questions is the same: Jesus tells us:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”