FAITH: “My name is Jesus and I am your server today”

Published 4:40 pm Thursday, March 30, 2023

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By Alan Neale

On January 1st 1988, Wendy and I set foot on American soil for the first time; well, it wasn’t so much soil as the hard floor of Logan Airport in Boston. From there we flew to Detroit, and from there we were driven to Kalamazoo in Michigan.

The next few weeks were a whirlwind of travel around Western Michigan, Upstate New York (Rochester) and Brookings, South Dakota.

We were awash with new experiences, new scenes, new accents. It was exhausting but also exhilarating.

One aspect of American life, rarely then experienced in Britain, was the warm friendliness and ready helpfulness of those we encountered in shops, bars and restaurants. For some sad, pathetic reason in the 1980s Britain seemed to have lost some of its heart and soul, and so people in service industries were generally unhappy. But not so with the bright and attentive attitude expressed in “My name is Caleb, and I’ll be your server tonight” – we heard this only yesterday in a Washington restaurant.

I think that in Britain the word ‘service’ had become confused with the word ‘servile’. In the United States, we enjoyed meeting people from all walks of life, all professions, who were serving in shops, bars and restaurants because they needed some extra cash and they enjoyed meeting people. In fact, to our joy and amazement, some of the servers would sometimes draw up a chair and join us for a while; this never happened in Britain.

Thursday, April 6, churches throughout the world will be remembering the Last Supper that Jesus enjoyed with his disciples before the horrendous events of Good Friday. Prior to that poignant meal, Jesus “took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciple’s feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:4-5). By such an act, Jesus brought dignity to those who serve and established that service is a divine vocation. And, by such an act, Jesus strongly urges us all to treat with dignity and respect those who serve – and that is not always their choice.

Jesus inverts the worldly way of greatness into the divine way of service: (Matthew 20:26) “It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”

Later in that Gospel story, Peter resists being served by Jesus; and then, quintessential Peter, moves from awkwardly hesitant to enthusiastically embracing. Like Peter, many of us find it difficult to ask for help, to receive service from others – maybe we think we are unworthy, maybe we are suspicious of motives, maybe in the past we have been abandoned by those who promised to help and assist us? Our Servant Lord Jesus gently brushes aside all our hesitations, for whatever reasons, and states clearly and unequivocally, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve… and to give His life as a ransom for many”.

Some churches on April 6 will rehearse the old practice of washing feet; at Zion Episcopal we will try something not so usual but far more inclusive. As church members come forward to receive Communion, so each one will be invited to have water poured over their hands and then dried by senior members of the church. Clergy and Eucharistic ministers will receive this ministry first, and then they will serve others who, in turn, will serve the congregation. I believe this is an eloquent and beautiful reminder of that first primal act of service, about which Jesus commented, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).

When I engage in our Maundy Thursday worship, I think I will have these words somewhere in my mind,

“My Name Is Jesus, and I am your server today and throughout your life and even into eternity”.

Alan Neale is the Rector at Zion Episcopal Church in Washington.