Gotta Serve Somebody -- A Lectionary Reflection

Gotta Serve Somebody

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
                                                Bob Dylan, 1979

It could be the devil, or it could be the Lord, “but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”  So who is it going to be?  Bob Dylan’s question of thirty years back is reflective of the questions asked by Joshua and Jesus.  Who are you going to serve?   

            Since we’re all freedom-loving people, especially those of us living in the United States,, this kind of question could offend.  If we’re going to serve anyone, then it will be the self and no other, with the exception perhaps of one’s family. Indeed, the philosopher of the moment is Ayn Rand who wrote a book entitled “Virtue of Selfishness.” The question is posed to us nonetheless by Joshua and Jesus:  Who are you going to serve?   The author of Ephesians makes the assumption that we’ve already answered the question and have given allegiance to God, and so gives us guidelines and resources for serving the Lord.

            In Joshua 24, the tribes of Israel have crossed the Jordan and have taken possession of the Land, a land that had been in the possession of the Amorites. The question Joshua poses to the people is simple. Now that you’re in this land, who are you going to serve?  Are you going to serve the gods of the Amorites, the former inhabitants who we’re told God had driven out?  Who are you going to serve?  

As we seek an answer to this question of allegiance, we need to acknowledge that this text, indeed all of Joshua, is problematic. It assumes the value or necessity of divinely-authorized genocide. It’s an issue that we must always keep in front of us, because invasion and genocide have been and continue to be an issue of deep concern.  Even as Joshua assumes God’s mandate for killing Canaanites, Europeans claimed the same right with regard to Native Americans, and the spirit of genocide and displacement continues to this day.  So as we ponder this passage, and hear in it a call to give our allegiance to the LORD alone, let us also remember the context.  Let’s ask ourselves, is this genocide approving god the God we truly see revealed in the biblical story and to whom we give allegiance.

With this question present in our minds we can give heed to Joshua’s command to “Revere the LORD.  Serve him honestly and faithfully.”  In this parallelism reverence for God and service to God are one and the same thing.  You can’t say I love God with your mouth and then live in a way that suggests otherwise (walk the talk).  Having asked the question, Joshua makes a claim for himself and his family that has become part of our own vocabulary – “As for me and my house, we shall serve the LORD.”     And what do the people answer?  Having made it to the land of promise, the generation that knew Egypt having passed away, the people answer:  We’re going to do the same – “the LORD is our God,” not the idols we knew in Egypt or were present in this new land.  Yes, “we too will serve the LORD, because he is our God.”  As you read this passage you get a liturgical feel – there’s a sense of call and response.  Joshua makes his declaration and on cue, the people respond with theirs. As the liturgy continues we’re invited to offer our response:  Who will you serve? And with the people of Israel we are to respond:  “We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God.” In this response, we affirm the premise that it is God who holds together our community.  But in making this response, and affirming our allegiance, we must then discern how this affects the way we live our lives.   

The reading from John 6 is equally difficult to hear, because it starts out with this startling invitation to what appears to be cannibalism.  Eat my flesh, drink my blood.  It’s no wonder people in the first and second centuries were leery of Christians. So, as we read this passage we quickly make the assumption that John is speaking metaphorically and not literally.

With this passage, our lectionary journey through John 6, a passage of scripture that has important implications for the way view the Eucharist and our connection to God through Jesus, comes to an end.  The passage raises questions about the nature of Christ’s presence and what we should expect to encounter when we come to the Table.  John doesn’t include the words of institution in his Last Supper scene, but this discussion in John 6 of the Bread of Life and Bread of Heaven seems to provide a foundation for a Eucharistic theology. Jesus insists that while the manna of the Exodus was temporary, feeding the stomach for a moment, the Living Bread – his body – endures eternally. Manna fills a need for the moment, but it doesn’t sate that deeper hunger and the thirst that resonates from the soul.  But, Jesus says (in John’s version of the story) “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them” (vs. 56 CEB).   By eating and drinking his body and blood, his followers participate in his life, and he in theirs.  Even as Joshua 24 is a litany of allegiance to God, here in John 6 the Eucharist becomes a sign of our allegiance to Jesus and thus to God.  As we partake we are bound to Jesus and to one another – for eternity.    

            Now the words of Jesus offend.  Is that surprising?  Do you find that his words offend you (even if we assume that John put these words into Jesus’ mouth, do we not find times and places in even the most “authentic” words of Jesus something that offends, that drives away and challenges our willingness to give our allegiance to him?  So some grumble and begin to leave.  Jesus isn’t surprised – he assumed that unless someone was called of God they wouldn’t follow.  The task was too difficult.  But some remain – that is the Twelve stay behind, and when Jesus asks them – well, are you going to leave me too?  Peter answers on their behalf:  “Lord where would we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  As with the tribes of Israel who are asked by Joshua – will you serve the LORD – Peter answers:  “We believe and know that you are God’s holy one.”  It’s the same kind of statement we find in Matthew 16, where Peter answers Jesus’ question of identity – “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”    So who is this Jesus and what does he mean for you and for me and for our communities?  In what way are we one and how does this oneness exist when we’re often not of one mind?  So who are you going to serve?

            I chose to close this reflection with the Ephesians text.  This meditation on the armor of God is a familiar text.  The presumed author is Paul, though that authorship has long been in dispute.  Authorship aside, we’re encouraged to remain strong as we face the “tricks of the devil.”  This passage also has its difficult moments, what with the military imagery and the overt supernaturalism. Indeed there is this sense of a dualism that exists between God and Satan, who seem to be at war and we seem to be the soldiers in this war. But, as Walter Wink has made so clear in his books, there is a battle at hand.  There is a spiritual dimension to reality and we do face powers and principalities – that is systems – that are oppressive and unjust.  These are systems that can easily co-opt us.  I just finished reading The Color of Christ, a book by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, which looks at the way the image of a white Jesus has been used to sustain white supremacy. So, we face a battle within and without ourselves.  But we’re not defenseless. 

            Our attention is directed to the Roman legionnaire, who is armed with the belt of truth, a breastplate of justice, shoes of peace, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit – the word of God.  These pieces of armor and weapons have both defensive and offense implications.  God, we’re told, provides us with what we need to fulfill our calling.  We have our protection, but we also have the tools to face down the powers and the principalities.  And we do so in the company of those who pray in the Spirit.  It’s important to remember that Roman soldiers didn’t go into battle alone.  The Romans were successful not just because of their arms, but also due to their tactics – the unit cohesion that enabled them to work together to achieve their purpose. The same is true for us.  We have the tools – the armor of God – but the tools aren’t enough.  If we go to battle on our own we’ll fail, but when we move as a unit then the tools/armor can be used effectively.

            The passages from Joshua and John ask – who are you going to serve?  In Ephesians, we’re asked the next question – how are you going to serve?  The letter writer – let’s say, Paul – tells the people I’m in the thick of things.  I’m in battle – spiritual battle – but he’s not alone.  He may be an “ambassador in chains for the sake of the gospel,” but their prayers gave him confidence.  He knew he wasn’t alone, even if he was in prison.  With that confidence that’s rooted in these prayers, he knows that when the time comes he’ll have the confidence to say what needs to be said.

            So, if you gotta serve someone – who are you going to serve?  And how will you serve?  


John said…
Nice reflection.

These days I find myself rejecting the "armor of god" imagery. When Jesus ascended the cross he was stripped naked, even truth was in doubt - and death stepped in. And only then, when all was surrendered and all was lost, only then was salvation/resurrection possible.

When we engage in spiritual battles, we cannot do so armed with the confidence of victory. The war we wage is not a military one, where there are winners and losers and the victors and the vanquished. The war is within, the one against the self, against pride and entitlement, against the ever insistent ego, claiming the right to the attention of the Creator of the universe. The successful aftermath of spiritual warfare is not one of victory but of submission and surrender, it comes only when we have stripped ourselves of pride and truly humbled ourselves in the presence of God. Only then can we listen, and only then can we begin to learn to trust - not in our will, nor our expectation, but in the providence of God. God will provide what is necessary in the moment. God's grace will be sufficient.

The spirtual warfare engaged in by many Christians today is not against the demons within, but truly on behalf of those demons. The attacks directed at 'believers' these days are not against their faith, but against their idolatry, their arrogance; they proclaim a martial Christ, coming to defeat the human opponents of their Neo-Christian claims to worldly power. But Jesus did not come riding a warhorse; he came on a donkey. And he did not come to lead armies, not even armies of believers, but to proclaim the love of God and to die for it on the cross. Armor is not what we need today, but faith, and the humility to discern and accept the love of God and the trust required to live in to the grace with which it is offered, and to let go of the power which is sought after.

I learned recently that the term 'obedience' comes from a root meaning 'to listen'. And all this time I thought obedience had to do with action, doing the right thing, abiding by the will of God. In fact it begins with listening. When we are told that God's grace will be sufficient, we need to listen to this, we need to hear this, we need to take this in, and we need to trust this. Obedience begins with humility and ends with trust.

The 'sufficient grace' of God is neither armor, nor sword. It is the love of God, and the humility and trust to embrace that love. Only when we accept it can we serve.

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