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Thursday, 2 April 2015

Servant and scapegoat

Here is the sermon which I preached at St Stephen Walbrook in today's Eucharist for Maundy Thursday. It will shortly be added to the London Internet Church website as an audio file.

In Philippians 2 we read that Christ Jesus, although “... he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

This passage speaks of Jesus as slave and sacrifice or servant and scapegoat. We read of Jesus letting go – stripping himself – of everything which made him equal with God in order to become a human being like us in order to serve us. On Maundy Thursday, in particular, we celebrate Jesus’ decision to become a servant to those he had created when we remember his washing of the disciples’ feet and his words that ‘You call me Teacher and Lord, and it is right that you do so, because that is what I am. I, your Lord and Teacher have just washed your feet’ (John 13. 13 - 14). Jesus, our Lord and King, is also a servant. In fact, service of others is the true vocation and measure of Kingship.

More than this, his service of others, as their King, leads all the way to his death on the cross – the laying down of his own life for the sake of others. As Philippians 2 puts it, ‘He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death – his death on the cross.’ The true King lays down his own life for the love of his people (all people). Jesus is that true King who turns the meaning of Kingship upside down. No longer is Kingship to be understood in terms of garnering wealth and power for oneself in other to defend oneself from others. Now it is understood to be about service; giving your life that others might live. Jesus, as the servant King, says to us, ‘I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you’ (John 13. 13 - 14).

Robert K. Greenleaf, drawing no doubt on the teaching and example of Jesus, has written of the difference between those who aspire to leadership to satisfy their own personal ends and those who aspire to leadership in order to serve others. “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first [leader] to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test … is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world. Caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Jesus would have said it is the rock on which the kingdom of God is built.

As well as becoming a servant, Philippians 2 tells us that Jesus also becomes a sacrifice or scapegoat. RenĂ© Girard writes that “Jesus’ ‘strategy’ as the ambassador from a loving, non-violent Father is to expose and render ineffective the scapegoat process so that the true face of God may be known … in the scapegoat, or Lamb of God, not the face of a persecuting deity.”

The scapegoat process is based on a kind of jealousy, but with a twist: we learn what is desirable by observing what others find desirable. Having ‘caught’ our desires from others, in a context of scarcity, everyone wants what only some can have (i.e. survival of the fittest). This results in a struggle to obtain what we want - which in turn produces a generalised antagonism towards the individual or group that seems to be responsible for this disappointment. Those people become our scapegoats and we seek to get rid of them in order to get what we want.

Girard writes that: “The desire that lives through imitation almost always leads to conflict, and this conflict frequently leads to violence. The Bible unveils this process of imitative desire leading to conflict, and its distinctive narratives reveal at the same time that God takes the part of victims. In the Gospels the process of unveiling or revelation is radicalized: God himself, the Word become flesh in Jesus, becomes the victim …” Christ is the ultimate scapegoat because, in him, God himself is scapegoated.

As a result, “The New Testament Gospels are the starting point for a new science or knowledge of humanity. This new knowledge begins with faith in Christ the innocent victim, and it becomes the leaven that will work itself out and expand to the point that the concern for victims becomes the absolute value in all societies molded or affected by the spread of Christianity.”

At the Last Supper Christ calls us to follow him in serving others, while his Crucifixion reveals the foolishness of scapegoating others and the necessity of concern for all who are victims.


Leigh Nash - The Power Of The Cross.

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