Preached by Becky Ankeny
Ephesians 4:1-6 (NRSV throughout, except as noted)
I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
Back when my children were little, my two-year-old (or maybe three-year-old) daughter came home singing the chorus “Learn To Be the Servant of All” for the benefit and education of her parents. We tenderly and gently explained that it applied to her also, and was not the magic formula to get parents to do whatever the child wants. The other truth is that serving children in God’s economy is not the same thing as giving them what they want or doing everything for them. It’s more about challenging them appropriately to grow and leading them into authentic relationship with Jesus. Teaching them to be “servants of all,” like our Lord. Teaching them, like Paul, to be prisoners in the Lord—engrafted in Christ, united with Him, enclosed in conscious fellowship with Jesus. Paul, who was in a physical prison, embraced with exuberance the idea of being imprisoned in Jesus. This highlights the paradox of gospel freedom—we are most free when we are most enslaved to God. We are least free when we serve ourselves.
One consistent teaching of the Bible is this: “People are slaves to whatever masters them” (2 Peter 2:19 ).
I’m not a Greek scholar, so I use Strong’s Concordance to look up words that interest me. The great thing is that I can then see where else that word is used and how it is variously translated. Another great thing is that Strong’s concordance is on line and is super easy to use.
The words I investigated were prisoner, servant and slave, and I found these three words: desmios—a captive in chains, a prisoner; doulos—a slave, captured, advancing another’s interests above one’s own; and diakonos—one who carries out the commands of another, a runner. Just for good measure I also looked up Lord/Master and discovered it can be more vividly translated “owner.” So right away I can see the flaw in translating Jesus’s parables about our relationship with God into employer/employee relationships. Those are way too flexible and dependent on employee choice. And in the words for prisoner/slave/servant, I discover a sense of urgency (runner) to do what someone else (or some compelling desire) wants done.
And I have to say that this sermon is challenging to me. I have to be reminded by Jesus on nearly a daily basis to check in—Who (or what) am I a slave to? What has mastered me and is calling the shots? Here are some possibilities.
Greatness/Importance: The desire to be the greatest—the most important—what if I am enslaved to this?
Several times, Jesus discovered his disciples arguing about who was the greatest, the most important.
“Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be the last of all and servant of all’” (Mark 9:33-35)
“A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the unbelievers lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves’”(Luke 22:24-27).
The prescription for those of us who want to be important is to become the slave of those we want to boss around: Radical surgery for the ego. In other words, we put the good of others ahead of our own preferences. In this, as in so much else, it is necessary to pay close attention to how Jesus served others and what informed his actions. Jesus first listened to God and did what he saw God doing and what God told him to do. And one of the clear ways God is active in the world is that God gives us what we need, what is good for us. Give us this day our daily bread, we ask.
Celebrity/Recognition: The desire to be recognized as special or to be in a position considered to be special—to be the favorites, in the innermost circle—what if we are enslaved to this?
“James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? ‘They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’ When the ten heard this they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the unbelievers those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you: but 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’” (Mark 10:35-45; see also Matthew 20 where their mother asks for this favor).
C.S. Lewis gave an address to students at the University of London in 1944 called “The Inner Ring.” Among other wise things he says, partly out of knowledge of his own soul, he says: “I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.” I know for a personal fact that the desire to be an insider rather than an outsider has caused me to behave disloyally to true friends and to myself and to bury my own true gifts and truth.
The prescription for those of us who long to be insiders, one of the chosen few, is to follow Jesus to the cross, to drink of the cup he drank of at Gethsemane, and to be baptized with him into being God’s beloved children filled with the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus, we give our lives to inviting other people into their own closeness with God over which we have no control.
Fair Treatment/Reward: The desire to be rewarded for hard work—God owes us something for all we’ve done for the church or for God—what if we are enslaved to this?
In this story, the word for laborers is not the word for slaves, but for day-laborers, people who hired themselves out for a fixed term, negotiating for their wages. These folks were likely in more need than actual household slaves because they lived on daily wages. (We have people in our towns who live the same way. Employers who take advantage of the dire neediness of such people to underpay them or take no care for their safety or well-being are often the subject of prophetic ire in the Old Testament and a cause for God’s judgment,) In the parable that follows, however, God goes looking for day-laborers; how does it work?
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them out into his vineyard. When he went out about one o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came the owner said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last’“(Matthew 20:1-16).
The prescription for those of us who demand to be treated fairly, to get as much reward as others who have worked comparably, and to get more than those who haven’t worked as long or hard is to be grateful for having our needs met and to celebrate God’s generosity to others.
So three queries we can use to check in on our enslavements:
How am I working for the best interests, the true good of those I want to boss around?
How am I giving my energy to clearing away barriers between other people and God?
How am I giving thanks that God’s generosity extends to those who don’t work for it in the same way I do?
Here is a very famous example of how Jesus acted out the principle of service: “After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, slaves are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them’”(John 13:12-19).
Listen also to the advice of Paul: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil… Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 4:25-5:2).
“[Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross [daily, Luke 9:23] and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life (Luke: “forfeit themselves”)? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?’” (Mark 8:34-37).
What Jesus has to offer us for all our desires is himself—companionship with Jesus, working with Jesus, learning from Jesus—Jesus is our master, we are his slaves, and he says, “’From now on, I will not call you slaves, for slaves don’t know what their master is doing; but I will call you my friends, because I’ve told you everything God has told me. . . . You are my friends if you do what I command you . . . This is my command, that you love one another’” (John 15: 14, 15, 17).
“As slaves of God, live as free people.”(1 Peter 2:16).
Jesus says: “’Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’” (Matthew 11:28-30).