Saturday, July 01, 2006

You Gotta Serve Somebody

Bob Dylan, who got saved a number of years ago, and then subsequently got unsaved, wrote a song (this was during his saved period) in which he rightly insisted that no matter who you are, you gotta serve somebody. You might as well serve the Lord, because if you don’t you’re going to end up serving yourself or even the devil, which in the long run amounts to the same thing. (When he got unsaved, he started singing things like “I’m Sick of Love,” but we won’t go into that here!)

We hear a lot about serving in the readings for this Sunday on the Byzantine liturgical calendar (Rom. 6:18-23 and Mt. 8:5-13), and it’s all in the context of faith. Let’s look first at the reading from Romans. St Paul says we are servants (or slaves) of whatever we obey. We serve either sin, which leads to eternal death, or we serve the law of obedience, which leads to righteousness and eternal life. He says that once we are set free from sin, we begin to serve righteousness, that is, we seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, as Jesus says. So Dylan was right; we gotta serve somebody—or something. If we’re set free from sin, we’ll serve righteousness; if we refuse to obey righteousness, we’ll become enslaved to sin. There’s no middle ground.

Thus Paul exhorts us: as you once yielded yourself to impurity—this yielding results in greater and greater iniquity—now yield yourself to righteousness, for this yielding results in sanctification. And sanctification results in eternal life. “What good did you get out of those things of which you are now ashamed?” he asks. Sure, you had your “freedom,” but all it really was, was freedom from goodness and holiness—you thought you were free but you were actually a slave to sin. Now, however, your eyes have been opened to the reality of your former bondage, and so you freely bind yourself to God and his will, serving Him instead. And guess what? You now can receive from God the free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In the Gospel, we see different kinds of service. First of all, we see the basic master/servant relationship. A centurion, which was a fairly high rank in the Roman army (commander of 100), had a servant. The centurion was the one the servant had to serve. Fortunately for this servant, his master treated him well and cared very much for him. But at this moment, the servant was serving the law of disintegration and death. His body was about to die and return to the dust from which it came. The centurion was distressed enough over his servant’s mortal illness that he humbled himself by approaching an itinerant Jewish wonder-worker and imploring him to heal his servant. It really was a humiliation for him, because he knew how much Jews despised Gentiles, especially those who had conquered their nation and were ruling them by force. He knew that a Jew would consider himself defiled simply by entering the house of one of those gentile dogs (as they called them). Honoring their low opinion of his kind, he said to Jesus—who despised no one and who had just said that He would indeed enter his house and heal his servant—“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word and my servant will be healed.”

It becomes clear as the story progresses that it was not only because as a gentile he was not worthy that a Jew should enter his house, but rather as a mere man he was not worthy that the Son of God should enter his house. Did he really believe at that moment that Jesus was divine? There’s no way to prove that, but he did attribute to Jesus powers that could only be of God.

You see, the centurion also had to serve. I said he was a fairly high-ranking officer, but there were still others above him. So he knew about service. He said, “I am a man under authority.” Yet he also admitted that there were those under his authority: “I say to one ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes.” The marvelous thing here is what he is getting at. He’s saying that He believes that if Jesus says, “Go,” to a deadly disease, it will simply go, as if He were ordering a servant. Perhaps the centurion was a “God-fearer,” someone who believed in the God of Israel, even if not officially a Jew. Perhaps he had read in the psalms this prayer of praise to God: “By your appointment, [the earth and all generations] stand to this day; for all things are your servants” (118/119: 90-91). All things serve the Lord; nothing can withstand his word when He commands, but everything must obey.

The Lord marveled at this. It’s not often that the Lord marveled (as far as we can tell from the Gospels), but this faith of the centurion was so marvelous that even the Son of God marveled. He said, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Not even those who knew the patriarchs and Moses and the prophets had the faith of a humble gentile soldier. We see the power of mustard-seed faith at work here.

So Jesus said to the centurion—who now accepted to be Jesus’ servant—“Go.” Just like the centurion says to his servants! So he went, but not before he heard the words which were the reward of his service and his faith: “Be it done for you as you have believed.” Then the lethal paralysis obeyed Jesus (for it too was his servant) and left the boy, who was healed at that very moment. The centurion served Jesus by believing in Him, in his divine power to heal. And Jesus blessed his new servant’s faith by granting what he asked.

Getting back to Dylan and St Paul: we all gotta serve somebody. To serve Christ in faith means to serve righteousness, which brings the benefit not only of answered prayers but, more importantly, of sanctification unto eternal life. To serve one’s own will and passions is to serve sin and hence to serve satan unto eternal death. So let us pray for both the faith and the humility of the centurion, approaching Jesus as we are, with all our sins and everything within us that is still an obstacle to growing in his grace. Believe that when Jesus decides to say “Go,” it will go. And may it be done for you as you have believed.