A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 10, 2015 (Easter 6, Year B)
In the old rambling house my family moved into when I was four, there were little doorbells outside all the upstairs bedrooms. They didn’t work but I was fascinated with them. As I stood on my tiptoes to press the buttons, I couldn’t, in my wildest imagination, figure out why you would possibly need to ring a doorbell once you were already inside the house. And not just inside the house but on the second floor! Then there was question of who would actually show up if you did ring the bell. It was pure mystery. Like something out of Narnia.
Eventually my parents explained that these bells were once used to call the servants. And that I could push them to my heart’s content but I still had to go downstairs to eat breakfast — it would not be delivered to my room. I learned early on that I was born in the wrong era. And of the wrong social class.
I was actually talking to Father Robert just last week about these call buttons — I have no idea how we got on the topic — but he lived in the same Baltimore neighborhood I did when he was a boy and his house had them as well. Minus the servants, of course — his father was a priest. And he told me that before the renovation, the rectory used to have those little buttons too. Granted, I’m still trying to find the butler that apparently did not come with the butler’s pantry. And once again, I find that I still have to go downstairs to eat breakfast.
But I think of those little doorbells whenever I hear Jesus tell the disciples at the Last Supper that he no longer calls them servants but friends. There is a major difference between being someone’s servant and being someone’s friend. A servant acts out of duty. A friend acts out of love. You can be a great servant but not care about or even like the person to whom you report. You just have to, regardless of your personal feelings, “Do your job,” as Bill Belichick likes to say (which is as close as I’m getting to a Deflategate reference this morning). A friend, on the other hand, acts purely out of love and devotion. And so the distinction between servant and friend is great.
Of course, not many of us have servants anymore so this is a tougher analogy to conceptualize. If you were living on Beacon Hill a few generations ago, this might be more relatable. But actually, in the Biblical world, the whole notion of a servant didn’t have such a negative or menial connotation. There was honor and identity in serving a master. Jesus’ disciples would have considered themselves servants of Jesus. They learned from him, they took direction from him, they were sent out by him, and they served him. And they did so willingly and with great loyalty and affection. There’s a reason they’re all so shocked when Jesus declares he’s going to wash their feet during the Last Supper. That’s something a master would never do for his servants! So we have to suspend our notion of servants as lowly, cow-towing people who live in cramped “servant’s quarters,” answer the bell 24 hours a day, and do all the jobs no one else wants to do.
And when we take a step back and think about it, we recognize that we are all servants in the sense that our primary aim in life is to serve God — through worship, through the selfless service of others, through seeking justice for all. So when Jesus announces this transition in his relationship with the disciples, it’s not that he’s saying, “Congratulations, you’ve all graduated from servanthood. Now go relax and let people bring you breakfast in bed.”
So this movement from servant to friend changes and transforms the relationship but it’s not an abdication of duty. Instead, it shifts the motivation for service from duty or obligation to love.
One of the other main distinctions between a servant and a friend is the ability to see the big picture. Servants generally focus on a single task. And so the servant asked to prepare the house for visitors, for instance, doesn’t necessarily know who those visitors are. Or if he does, he doesn’t know the visitors’ business with the master. He’s not invited to take part in the conversation once the visitor arrives. Friends, on the other hand, are brought into the conversation. They are able to share in the broad view not just a single contributing piece, as important as it might be.
And so as Jesus prepares to leave his earthly life, he is inviting the disciples into a new, more intimate relationship. Remember this passage is all part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse from John’s gospel. And it is a looooong goodbye. We’re on week three and it goes on for four chapters. But that transition from servant to friend is an important one because it gives us all a new perspective. We are invited to zoom out and see why Jesus’ life and ministry matters. It wasn’t just about healing a few people a couple thousand years ago. It was about the salvation of the world.
Some of this is a natural transition — when Jesus was no longer physically present with the disciples, ready or not, the situation changed. Jesus is preparing to hand over the earthly work of serving God to the disciples. As his time on earth draws to a close, he’s inviting his disciples, who have been in a servant-master relationship with him, into one of inheritance. They are to be stewards of the fledgling community that would become the Church. He is entrusting them with the most precious thing there is — the care of God’s people. He is offering his love — the love of a friend — as he bids them to love one another as he loves them.
Where does this leave us in our own relationship with Jesus? Surely, Jesus isn’t just our buddy. “What a friend we have in Jesus,” yes, but we’re still not exactly peers. There’s that whole Son of God thing. But I think Jesus’ invitation makes us servant-friends. We serve Jesus by serving others even as we are drawn into intimate relationship with the one who loves us unconditionally. In our prayer lives we can have conversations with Jesus that transcend the superficial because we have been brought into a more adult, friend-to-friend way of relating to Jesus. And what an incredible gift! We are offered this intimate relationship with the Son of God, even as we listen for ways to serve him anew.
I know some of you may have actually gotten breakfast in bed this morning. Or remember getting breakfast in bed in years gone by. Or remember providing breakfast in bed to your own mothers. It may not always go so well but it’s a good thing to occasionally be served, especially if it reminds us of the importance of serving others in Jesus’ name.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck