“So let us learn how to serve” was the title of our launch of the theme of Service in the Holy Habits programme, and ““Stop the Traffik” was the focus. Different ways to give service to such an issue were developed: preaching, group discussions, events, publicity, petitioning, encountering, being aware.
1. Learning to serve
I find this a very moving part of Jesus’ story, from John’s Gospel. Providing water to allow someone to wash their own feet was seen as a mark of hospitality: in Holy Habits terms, a mark of “Fellowship”, being “openly welcoming”. Then the guests would be in a fit state to eat. But actually washing another’s feet does not feature much in the Old Testament. Here is an offer to do so, given by Abigail to David:
Then David sent a proposal of marriage to Abigail. His servants went to her at Carmel and said to her, “David sent us to take you to him to be his wife.”
Abigail bowed down to the ground and said, “I am his servant, ready to wash the feet of his servants.”
1 Samuel, 25:39-41(NIV)
Abigail offers to do so to show a deep, very lowly servanthood, but we are not told that she actually did so. Hence this is a very shocking event for the disciples, that in a real sense, Jesus is doing something that David’s intended offered to do to show service in the uttermost.
Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
John 13:14-15 (NIV)
This deep humility that Jesus shows is instituted as part of the path of eternal life. And there is good evidence that the early Church did so. Up to the time of Constantine’s conversion, at the least, one of its characteristics was exceptional service for those in need in the community.
Justin Welby uses this passage in John as the basis of one of the chapters, called “What we receive, we treat as ours”, in his book, “Dethroning Mammon“. The chapter title implies that we are recipients of service, and consider it as a right that others give resources to us. Welby uses this story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet to turn this approach of greed on its head.
One of the most beautiful things we have to understand about the love of God is that in what we receive there is freedom to serve others, to ensure a world without extremes of deprivation. To see what we own as being for others is to experience freedom.
Justin Welby: Dethroning Mammon, Bloomsbury, London, 2016
Rowan Williams also offers us contemporary insights into the calling for humble service.
The community that most perfectly represents what God wants to see in the human world is one where the resources of each person are offered for every other, whether those resources are financial or spiritual or intellectual or administrative.
Rowan Williams: Being Disciples, SPCK, London, 2016
These show to us that the general calling is for us to take this pathway of life of eternal value, but this can be enacted in many different ways.
Slavery was endemic in the ancient world. There was a slippery slope. If you had land, and were in debt, you lost the land. You might become an artisan then, such as a carpenter. If you were in debt, then slavery awaited. Zedekiah was installed as king of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC, the leaders allowed freedom for the Hebrew (at least) slaves, which Jeremiah praised. But they reneged:
But now you have turned around and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again.
Jeremiah 34:16 (NIV)
Jeremiah could see that the writing was on the wall for the Kingdom of Judah .
I think Jeremiah would have approved of “Stop the Traffik“. So too John Wesley. Here is what he wrote to those involved with slavery.
Are you a man? Then you should have a human heart…. Do you never feel another’s pain? Have you no sympathy… no sense of human woe, no pity for the miserable?…..Whatever you lose, lose not your soul: Nothing can countervail that loss. Immediately quit this horrid trade: At all event, be an honest man.
2. Learning to be served
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
This is a challenging exchange between Jesus and Peter. Peter is understandably unwilling to accept Jesus’ offer of deeply humble service. Perhaps, in Welby’s terms, he is imprisoned by Mammon’s classifications of hierarchy. There is a humility required to accept service as well as to give it. This is a barrier on the pathway of eternal life, and Jesus tells Peter he must overcome it. It’s a message to us coming down the ages: to be close enough to those in need to be served. Here is John Wesley again.
One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers……..
“Indeed, Sir,” said person of large substance, “I am a very compassionate man. But, to tell you the truth, I do not know anybody in the world that is in want.” How did this come to pass? Why, he took good care to keep out of their way.
John Wesley, On visiting the sick, Sermon 98.
One of the criticisms of aid agencies in the recent days has been the remoteness of UK offices from people on the ground where people need aid. And we as a church have adopted an aid agency as our international charity: All We Can. How do they stand up to such a critique?
All We Can helps find solutions to poverty by engaging with local people and organisations in some of the world’s poorest communities to end the suffering caused by inequality and injustice.
All We Can wants to work with local communities so that they can become stronger through our collaboration with them, ensuring that projects are sustainable and that local capabilities are increased.
We do this by working alongside talented local organisations and individuals. Their commitment and compassion means that, more than anyone else, they are best placed to unlock the potential in their communities.
There is humility here, learning how to be served as well as to serve. That is how we need to address modern slavery, both to be alongside those at the source of trafficking, and those near to us at their destinations.