When I think of the word servant, the series Downton Abbey comes to mind. From 2010-2015, Julian Fellowes’s epic series followed the lives of the Crawley family as they navigated the great social and political upheavals of early twentieth century Britain. Over the course of seven seasons, the story unfolds about the family fortunes as well as that of their servants, replete with intrigues and obstacles. Much of the series, however, was focused on the lives of the servants: the loyal and proper Mr. Carson, the conniving Barrow and O’Brien, the simple-minded Daisy, and the world-weary survivors Anna and Bates. While each had a reason for coming to serve as a career —necessity, honor, bad life choices —all had chosen this as the means for gainful employment, and for some, survival.
While this makes for a good tale told on the telly, it doesn’t necessarily square with real life. What is interesting is to look at the real-life world of the servant. Lucy Wallis of the BBC writes about this in her article, “Servants: a Life Below Stairs”. Drawing on interviews and historical records, Wallis finds the real story a different world from the Julian Fellowes fantasy. She interviewed a man who spoke of serving Prince Philip.
“It is a form of marriage to a point as you are devoted to that family,” says 78-year-old Rick Fink.
Fink has more than 55 years of experience managing estates and working as a butler. He started off in the Royal Navy in 1953, and one of the first guests he served as a young steward was Prince Phillip.
“I was petrified, but this was the Queen’s husband. He just came aboard and he was tanned with blonde hair and looked fabulous and I had to ask him what he wanted to drink.”
Now Fink runs the Butler-Valet School, training butlers for service in stately homes and private residences. Some aspects of the role are timeless and governed by an unspoken etiquette and code of conduct.
“[A butler] needs to be reliable, discreet, trustworthy, and your life revolves around your employer,” says Fink.
“I would never sit in the drawing room or have dinner at their dining room table. I keep myself the other side of the baize door.”
There are some interesting words that show up in Mr. Fink’s account that I find worthy of revisiting: devoted, reliable, and life revolving around one’s employer. These ideas of devoted and reliable are what I think of when someone mentions the word servant. Devoted, I take to mean one who is fiercely, intensely dedicated to the one served. Reliable, I see as the quality of dependability under any and all circumstances. These two qualities I see as the heart of the servant and especially the servant of God.
In our scripture reading, Philip and Andrew bring word to Jesus of some ‘Greeks’ who are looking for Him. Most likely, these Greeks are proselytes to the Jewish faith who have come to Jerusalem for the upcoming Pesach or Passover celebration. There is no indication of the questions they want to ask or if they need healing or if they simply want to meet with the great prophet of God from Nazareth. Jesus’s response seems to be one of indifference. If this was a story being told, we might think Jesus was ignoring them or dismissing them in some way.
In truth, the writer of John’s Gospel is trying to convey a message and the message is more important than any secondary consideration for connecting the story for readers two millennia in the future. As I have said before, I believe the Gospels were written not to be history books but presentations of the Message of God sent to man through the teaching of Jesus. They are rife with symbolism. Therefore, I think it is the symbolic nature of the story that we should delve into and look for meaning and understanding there.
Symbolically, the presence of Greek Jews is a sign of the universal nature of the message that is being presented, specifically the universal nature and scope of the impending crucifixion. Jesus goes on from there to say that the hour—or the time—has come for the Son of Man to be glorified;, that is, it is time for Jesus to be bestowed with splendor and greatness. And of course, you know that splendor and greatness are best displayed in people who are suffering, preferably to the point of having to give up their life, right? Honor and greatness are reserved for those who are willing to die, right? The issue here is that the writer of John’s Gospel is pointing forward in the gospel and back in time, to the cross and Jesus’s sacrifice on it as an example of what a good servant is. That said, let’s look at a few examples from the passage of things that make up a good servant.
Servants are willing to sacrifice (vv.24-25)
One of my favorite shows on television in recent years is something called The Good Place. It’s a comedy about four people who become a version of what they think is heaven but is actually a slow, excruciating hell of little things that eat away at their souls. Eventually, they figure out that they are actually in hell or a form of it, and try to figure their way out. One of the main characters, Chidi, just happens to be a moral philosopher and through each episode, we find larger and smaller lessons in ethics and moral philosophy. Behind the scenes, a team of actual moral philosophers makes sure the theory checks out and the philosophy is so well explained at times, that university professors are now having their students watch the show to help teach the various philosophies and philosophers.
The show tackles many famous problems that philosophers have posed through the ages but none quite so famous as the Trolley Problem. Invented in 1905 by the German legal scholar Hans Welzel, the problem was first posed to students on a questionnaire. The original version of the problem looks something like this,
…the driver of a runaway tram…can only steer from one narrow track onto another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed.
Do you choose the five or the one? For the purpose of the experiment many variants have been introduced, from the one being a child, your child, a villain, and various others. The point is someone will be sacrificed. On The Good Place, one of the characters, Michael, comes up with a novel solution to the problem, “The Trolley Problem forces you to choose between versions where other people die. The actual solution is very simple. Sacrifice yourself.”
In the scripture reading today, Jesus spoke of planting seeds. Anyone who has ever planted a garden or farmed a piece of land knows that the seed that goes into the ground must undergo a transformation, a death that leads to another life. It sacrifices itself to be opened, reshaped, refashioned, and from that, something fruitful comes. We are seeds, a sign of promise, that what we were and are does not have to be what we remain. Growth, though painful, is possible and called for as we follow Jesus. Consider the words of Paul to the church at Rome,
So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.
We sacrifice—give up something—as an act of worship and service, not because we have a masochistic bent toward self-harm, but because we wish to be transformed into something that God sees as good, pleasing, and mature.
Servants are willing to follow (v.26a)
We have said quite a bit about the idea of following already, but that is the second of the themes Jesus discussed in the passage. Simply put, whoever seeks to truly serve Jesus, follows Jesus. By that, we mean that they go as Jesus went, did as Jesus did and does, and more importantly, adopt the mindset, the perspective of the world and humanity that Jesus had as he looked out on those around him.
N.T. Wright spoke of themes about King, Temple, and Torah in the book of Isaiah where it talks about the Suffering Servant. He wrote, “the King turns into a servant, YHWH’s servant; and the servant must act out the fate of Israel, must be Israel on behalf of the Israel that can no longer be obedient to its vocation.” In essence, we act this out—this obedience to vocation, this following of the symbolic path which represents the salvation of man—in our daily lives as we follow in Jesus’s Way. We choose to follow Jesus into his model of ministry, sharing, teaching, and sacrifice, with a willingness toward the work of the Kingdom and the Gospel.
This call to follow Jesus into the dying is central to New Testament theology. All four evangelists repeat the notion that those who save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for Jesus’s sake will find them (John 12:25; Mark 8:35; Matt. 16:25; Luke 9:24). In the same Synoptic context, those who would be Jesus’ disciples are to take up their crosses and follow him. Paul had his way of saying it: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
This following leads to change in us, which creates an example of change, pointing others to the Way of Jesus.
Servants are honored by the Father (v.26b)
The final passage here notes that those who serve Jesus— sacrificing for the Kingdom, following in the Way—will be honored. This word honored means that we will be seen as being valued, esteemed in the eyes of God. This is something we see throughout the life of Jesus, as God steps onto the scene at various places to acknowledge Jesus—baptism, Transfiguration—declaring that Jesus is an example of worthiness and honor. Notice the attitude of Jesus that Paul records in this hymn sent to the Philippian church,
Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
As Christians, we are most honorable and honored in the hour of obedience, pain, and servanthood. According to Meister Eckhart, “…the most exalted exaltedness of exultation lies in the very depths of humility.”
When we put this all together, what are we looking at? I see a life that is lived following the ways and attitudes of Jesus, that at times, calls for sacrifice, and is considered by God to be honorable when we live into those things. That is our call, our choice, and our reward.
Bauer, Walter, F. Wilbur Gingrich, William F. Arndt, and Frederick William Danker. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. 3. Edited by Frederick William Danker. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Eckhart, Meister. Meister Eckhart: Selections from his Essential Writings. New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 1981.
Green, Joel B, and William H. Willimon, . The Wesley Study Bible – NRSV. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009.
Jeske, Richard L. “John 12:20-36.” Interpretation 43, no. 3 (1989): 292-295.
Sloyan, Gerard. John: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. Lousiville: Westminster/John Knox, 1988, 2009.
Wallis, Lucy. BBC News Magazine – Servants: A life below stairs. September 22, 2012. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19544309 (accessed March 14, 2018).
Wright, N.T. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. New York: HarperOne Publishing, 2006.
 (Wallis 2012)
 (Green and Willimon 2009, p. 1307)
 (Bauer, et al. 2000, p. 258)
 Romans 12:1-2
 (Wright 2006, p. 86)
 (Jeske 1989, p. 294)
 Philippians 2:5-11
 (Sloyan 1988, 2009, p. 156)
 (Eckhart 1981, p. 54)