Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
May 6, 2018 8:30 AM
οὐκέτι λέγω ὑμᾶς δούλους, ὅτι ὁ δοῦλος οὐκ οἶδεν τί ποιεῖ αὐτοῦ ὁ κύριος·ὑμᾶς δὲ εἴρηκα φίλους, ὅτι πάντα ἃ ἤκουσα παρὰ τοῦ πατρός μου ἐγνώρισα ὑμῖν.
I no longer call you servants because the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends because everything I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15)
I don’t know what runs though your mind when you hear the word “servant.” For some reason, my mind conjures up the image of Mr. French in the CBS television classic Family Affair, the English butler/valet of a successful American engineer, who had no intention of becoming a nanny to three orphaned children and whose attempts to manage the Americans’ household and the children make for some wonderful comedy. And if you and I bring an image of that kind of dignified, well-compensated household servant to our reading of this morning’s Gospel, we shall surely misunderstand it, for then Jesus’s declaration to his disciples that he will no longer call them “servants” but “friends” sounds more like a social nicety than a life-changing proclamation. Or it can even sound bogus as when the president of a well-known university announced to his faculty that they were his “friends and comrades” as part of an announcement that their salaries would be frozen for the upcoming year.
Unlike English, none of the languages of the Bible has a separate word for hired household servants. All three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, simply call them “slaves,” exactly the same word those languages use to designate chattel laborers in the fields, factories, shops, ships, and barnyards. It’s really not a very nice word; and knowing that it’s not a nice word helps us understand the contrast between Jesus calling us slaves and calling us friends.
Because English does distinguish between slaves and servants, our Bible translators have tended to use the less-loaded word servant when the Bible talks about somebody serving God or serving Christ. We don’t even notice it when St. Paul, for instance, introduces himself to the Romans (1:1), to the Galatians (1:10) and to the Philippians (1:1) as a δοῦλος of Christ, because we read “servant.” Of course, Paul’s a “servant of Christ.” His work is to do the Lord’s bidding, and he does not think of himself as greater than Christ. Mr. French could say the same of his boss, Mr. Davis; but those ancient Philippians and Romans who first read Paul’s letters understood that Paul was introducing himself as a slave of Christ. Did the freeborn Paul, who acquired his Romans citizenship at a high cost really think of himself as somebody’s slave?
The ancient Babylonian creation story, called simply by its two first words, Enuma Elish, came into being long before any of our books in the Bible; but its ideas profoundly influenced the biblical writers. According to the Enuma Elish, the god Marduk created the human race for one purpose and one purpose only: to serve the gods. The Babylonians understood that literally. Their temples were the places where the “black-headed people,” as the Babylonians called themselves, served the gods: served them breakfast, lunch, supper, and midnight snacks. Serving the gods meant to save the gods from the hard work, not to say embarrassment of feeding themselves. Accordingly, the Babylonians understood themselves to be the slaves of the gods. All of the gods’ good gifts came to the black-headed people to enhance their service to the gods. Bountiful crops might produce extra income for Babylon’s farmers, but it also increased the tithes those farmers paid to the temple in the form of foodstuffs to sacrifice to the divinities. The gods might grant them good health, but good health benefitted the gods in the form of increased earnings and ever more fulsome service to the temple storehouses. The gift of children increased the number of slaves to serve the gods.
But the Hebrews weren’t Babylonians. No Babylonian could imagine their god Marduk making a speech like this one in Psalm 50:
Hear, O my people, and I will speak:
"O Israel, I will bear witness against you; *
….for I am God, your God.
I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; *
….your offerings are always before me.
I will take no bull-calf from your stalls, *
nor he-goats out of your pens;
For all the beasts of the forest are mine, *
….the herds in their thousands upon the hills.
I know every bird in the sky, *
….and the creatures of the fields are in my sight.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you, *
….for the whole world is mine and all that is in it.
Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, *….or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and make good your vows to the Most High.
(Psalm 50:7-10, BCP 654-655)
God delights in the sweet odors of the sacrifices, in the sound of his children in his courts. God doesn’t need temple slaves or slaves of any kind for that matter. When the Lord GOD goes hunting for the man and the woman in the Garden, the Lord is not looking for lackeys to do some work but for companions with whom to converse and to share the late afternoon breezes.
And our Lord Jesus, on the night before he suffered for us, told his disciples that he wasn’t interested in unpaid labor either. They are not his slaves, God’s beloved Son Jesus doesn’t need slaves and has no desire for slaves. Instead, he calls his students “friends,” or “beloved,” an equally reasonable translation. And to continue as our Lord’s “friends,” the need not bring him gifts or feed him or butter him up with pious platitudes. Indeed, they don’t have to do anything at all for him. They need only be friends with one another: “Love one another, he instructs, “just as I have loved you.”
If God does not need slaves, then you and I don’t need them either. We do not need to hire our brothers and sisters at poverty-level wages to clean our houses and mow our lawns. We do not need to continue the chattel slavery of our nation’s blighted history by making it difficult for women and men to escape the grinding, hopeless poverty that evil system bequeathed to us. People who love as Jesus loved do not need to incarcerate their neighbors in overwhelming numbers or condemn their neighbors’ children to ignorance by refusing to fund public schools adequately.
I suppose there exist many differences between slaves and friends, but the one difference our Lord picked out for special mention to his friends was the fact that slaves don’t know and don’t need to know the mind of their master. Their job is to do the work the master assigns them without question and to do so without understanding why they are doing it. A friend, on the other hand, knows the mind and heart of the beloved. For the author of the last Gospel, there is no secret at all about the master’s intention. We have already tasted and understood the mind of the master in the master’s careless, selfless passion for us. And our loving Lord’s intention for the rest of the world is for that we love each other, love our neighbors, love our worst enemies, and love the children of God with that same passion.
“This is my commandment that you love each other as I have loved you.” We do that here through the Staples program, though the Medical Loan Closet, through the discretionary fund; but we also do it when we challenge our community to house the homeless, to have compassion for offenders as well as their victims, to refuse to abet the growing racism and hatred of minorities in our town, our state, and our nation. Christ does not want us to be his slaves or servants. Even less does he want our neighbors to be slaves of bigotry, hate, or mean-spiritedness. Slavery in all its forms, especially slavery to the soul-robbing sins of this present age amounts to the very opposite of that rich and joyful life God intended for God’s two-legged creatures. Our Lord calls us friends and wants us to know his friendship by learning friendship for people we would never volunteer to befriend or desire to embrace.
 ריח ניחח. See Leviticus 1:17 et pass.