Our New Testament readings this morning offer two very different models of ministry which might, at first sight, be seen as mutually exclusive. I want to suggest that both are essential in understanding the ministry of Jesus and thus of the role of the Church, her ministers and people today.
That reading from Hebrews was about the priesthood that “acts on behalf of mankind in relation to God, to offers sacrifices for sins”. Christ is thus our high priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek, that king of Salem who (Genesis 14) brought forth bread and wine and blessed Abraham.
This first model, that is of a Church acting with priestly authority, representing God to His people and the people to their God, was the dominant model for most of the Church’s history: think of popes wearing the papal crown; Bishops sitting in the House of Lords; or, as we heard on Monday on Radio 4’s “Start the Week”, the power wielded by the Church in Ireland throughout most of the 20th Century.
It was a model that was open to corruption as priestly authority was confused with earthly power. That led, in turn, to terrible abuses such as we were thinking about last week on Safeguarding Sunday. The baby got thrown out with the bathwater and an alternative model had to be found to take its place.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of himself as “coming not to be served, but to serve”. We see this again when, at his Last Supper, he takes the towel and washes his disciples’ feet.
We have this second model, that is of a Church following its master who (Philippians chapter 2) “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant”.
It is a model that is also open to confusion. A servant is only of use of they perform a useful service. The danger of the servant model is that of the useless servant who is no more than a doormat. I fear that is what the Church is perceived to be today. If it was once too heavenly to be of any earthly use, it is now too earthly to be of any heavenly use!
We need only to look back to the beginning of the pandemic. At a time when men and women most needed spiritual support and comfort, the bishops closed our Church doors without being compelled to do so by the Government. We even saw the Archbishop of Canterbury, leading the nation in worship from Lambeth Palace: not from his Chapel there but rather from his kitchen table.
It’s got to be “both/and” not “either/or”. It must not a choice between two models of Church: on the one hand, priestly authority and, on the other, humble service. If we try to stand on just one leg we will eventually fall over. We need both legs to stand on.
How we manage to live both simultaneously is the challenge for the Church as we seek to find our role in the 21st Century.