Servant or slave?


Downton Abbey, Season 4 - The Servants, artwork

Scripture: Romans 1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of …Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name…

Observation: Two things get my attention this morning.

1) I’m struck this morning by Paul’s clarity in the opening verses of the letter to the Romans. He knows exactly who he is (a “servant of Jesus Christ”, an “apostle”) and what he’s called to do (“bring about obedience of faith among all the Gentiles”). That kind of clarity of purpose/action, based in clarity of  one’s identity is invaluable. First comes identity, then behavior. Being, then doing. There’s much more I could say about this, but that’s not what I want to write about today.

2) Paul describes himself as a “servant” of Jesus Christ (from NRSV), the word is “δοῦλος” in Greek. One could argue a better translation would be “slave” (as is found in other English translations). Here is a note from the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary:

Paul announces himself with the word that, above all others in his world, carried overtones of social degradation. Slaves had no rights, no property, and no prospects; they were simply there to do what they were told.

A servant sounds like someone with a part-time job who could quit at any time – like a maid or butler or cook on the show Downton Abbey (Don’t tell anyone I like that show. I could lose my man-card.) Such a person voluntarily submits to the master’s authority. Slaves, on the other hand, had no liberty whatsoever. They were completely owned by the master, sometimes even in chains. They could not quit.

Application: I often think of myself as a servant of the Lord, having chosen a vocation in the church. But Paul’s description of himself challenges me to go even further. A slave doesn’t only serve the master when he/she feels like it, when it’s not too much of a hassle or too inconvenient. A slave obeys the master no matter what. If I’m honest, that’s not me. There are times when the Lord challenges me to do things, or say things, or write things, and I say “no”. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

I’ve known for years that I need to keep the Sabbath as the Lord commands. But I’ve told myself it’s impractical, if not impossible. I mean, in ancient Israel the entire nation of people kept the Sabbath together. There was massive accountability in that. There were also plenty of people to imitate, to demonstrate what keeping Sabbath looks like. I’m not even sure Sabbath was intended outside of a communal experience – which I do not have living in the US. So I’ve blown off keeping the Sabbath for years. And when I say “Sabbath” I’m not talking about a day off. My days off generally involve work, just not at my office but elsewhere – or perhaps running errands and such. There is often little rest on a day off. Sabbath is an intentional offering to God of one day in seven. There is a focus that extends far beyond inactivity.

But this year I’m hearing the call to Sabbath differently. The invitation of the Lord is not offered as a burden, something else to add to my “to-do” list, but as an invitation to blessing. So I’ve been giving this a go for a few weeks on Fridays – and it has confirmed something I already know. I’m terrible at this. I’m not sure what I’m doing. Conscious incompetence is staring me in the face.

That said, I have been blessed even in my weakness and shortcomings. I may stumble around in my feeble attempts at Sabbath, but the Lord is meeting me there anyway. And I begin to wonder why it took me so long. Well, I guess I know why… because I’ve understood myself as a “servant”, not a “slave”. Big difference.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, too often we resist you, reject you, ignore you. We submit to your will only when it suits us. This is surely our sinful nature at work. Give us grace to overcome our hardness or heart and submit more fully to your commands. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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