Ephesians 5:21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
When I was a boy Wales was at war, and yet it was the only world I knew and they were happy years for this child growing up in a loving family. In those 1940s Wales was renowned for its gentle civility among ordinary people. Sixty years later that has totally disintegrated. The culture of saying hello, of thanking others for service, holding open a door or allowing one to pass, has all-but disappeared. We push, shove and snarl. An atmosphere of depression and pessimism reigns. In our currently rudderless society, those willing to fill the vacuum left by the absence of the gospel of Jesus Christ preached in the power of the Spirit have instilled the notion that rudeness is a legitimate manner of expression; the ruder one is, the stronger, the more aggressive, and the more successful.
There are many irritations that strike people in different ways to different degrees of irritation: inappropriate dress for solemn or formal occasions, not replying to invitations or cancelling if something more attractive turns up; how few write, or phone, or Email appreciation for hospitality, let alone returning it. Feminism has nearly obliterated the charming conventions that used to obtain between the sexes. Mobile phones are often used to advertise superiority or self importance, disturbing train journeys in spite of pleas to use them in the corridors, and in countless offensive ways. People crowd onto trains before the passenger gets off; drivers cut you up in city streets; binge drinking takes place at the heart of every town in the hours of darkness. The absence of the ministry of the Holy Spirit from the church has resulted in the light of Jesus Christ flickering and almost extinguished. This has meant the country has become more selfish, self-centred, ambitious and too busy. The dreadful intrusion of the media into people’s private lives has had its influence. Television has made us all more boorish. The moral vacuity of political correctness and post modernism made ordinary words meaningless. The foundation of all good manners is consideration for others and spring from a sense of submission.
Michael Gove relates the following typical incidents describing this unacceptable aspect of life in England in the 21st century: On Friday evening I was driving along a winding country lane in Hampshire in the gloaming. The melancholy beauty of English fields at harvest-time lifted my heart as I scanned the horizon. When my eyes flicked down to the dashboard I was relieved to see I was doing a steady 40 as the light began to fail. And when they flicked up to the rear-view mirror I could see a youngish man in a red car. Just inches from my rear bumper. Flashing and gesticulating. When, after only two or three minutes, I turned off the road we had been travelling down to take an even narrower lane, I could see him in my mirror, pausing only to hit the horn again and stick two fingers up at me, before accelerating off at speed.
Vignette number two. On Sunday I was among the last customers to leave a store in a Home Counties market town. My daughter wanted to walk down the stairs rather than have Daddy bundle her bodily out of the establishment. With every step downwards she was growing in the confidence so precious to a two-year-old. As we made our way down the staircase a shop assistant bounded up. “I’m sorry, sir,” she began, with no note of contrition or entreaty in her voice, but rather the icy menace of the sorely tested, “but you can’t waste any more of our time. We all have homes to go to and the store is now closed. Please leave. Get out now.” This was 5.04 on a Sunday afternoon, 240 seconds since the till had rung its last purchase.
And now, my third vignette. At a dinner party recently I sat across from a new acquaintance who treated the table to an entertaining denunciation of the monarchy. I was challenged to justify my support. I explained that there were three brief reasons, but before I had got halfway through my first sentence, he interrupted, to knock down what he thought was the eventual conclusion I would come to, given the premise with which I started. I clearly didn’t need to finish. He knew where I was coming from. Except he didn’t. Because the points I was going to make were wholly different from those he proceeded to demolish. They may not have amounted to a stronger case. But I’ll never know. Because they never got made.
Three separate situations which might appear to lend themselves to life at its most civilised – Friday evening in a country lane, Sunday teatime in a market town, a relaxed dinner in a welcoming home. And three Britons all displaying one of the terrible vices of our times. A burning, brook no-dissent, get-out-of-my-way, don’t you trouble me any further, impatience. (The Times September 12, 2005)
What is the Christian approach to the problem of the disintegration of manners, and the promotion of the common good? It is, of course, to focus the minds of men and women on the life-changing gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and so let me begin my journey to this theme of mutual submission with a story told by David Feddes, an American minister with the Christian Reformed Church.
1. THE HISTORY OF TWO KINGS.
Once upon a time there was a king who lived in luxury. This king had comforts and conveniences that even other kings would envy. His palace didn’t get too hot or too cold like many other palaces. The temperature was always kept at the exact level the king wanted. His palace had a system of pipes that gave him cool drinking water or hot bath water any time he wanted. A system of lamps made the palace as bright at midnight as it was at noon. A system for rapidly sending and receiving messages kept him in touch with people and events. A system of smooth roads and speedy chariots made it possible for him to travel widely.
The king was healthy and wealthy and secure. He had doctors and nurses who knew a great deal about the human body and about how to cure various diseases. He had people to show him various exercises to stay fit. He had money to spend on luxuries that others could only dream of. He also had money stored away for the future, to insure continuing security and a comfortable old age.
The king had every kind of pleasure he wanted. For food he could eat any kind of meat or fresh fruit, not to mention a splendid selection of delicious desserts. For drink he could choose from milk, juices, beers, wines, and various exotic drinks, all kept ice-cold by a special cooling system.
For entertainment all he had to do was twitch a finger, and the funniest jester in the land would enter his room and start performing. With another twitch of his finger he could dismiss the jester and bring in a group of performers who would offer him a show filled with excitement and violence and blood. With still another twitch of his finger, he could dismiss the gladiator show, and in would parade some of the best-looking people in the kingdom, who would then strip naked and perform for him to watch.
Being a ruler, the king bowed to no authority but himself. He could say whatever he wanted and do whatever he pleased. His philosophy was, “If I say something, then it is true for me. If I do something, then it is right for me. I am my own person.”
How would you like to live like that king? You’re probably already doing so in more ways than you know. “Once upon a time” is right now. The average person today has many things that in the past only kings had, and other things that no king enjoyed. Our plumbing and electric lighting surpass anything of the ancient kings. Our phones, faxes, and computers surpass the most elaborate system of carrying messages. Our cars are the fastest chariots in history. Our doctors, hospitals, medicines, investment programs, and retirement accounts offer health and wealth and security far past the age most ancient kings could expect to live. Our stores and supermarkets, refrigerators and freezers, offer a selection of foods and drinks surpassing the kitchen of any ancient monarch. For entertainment a twitch of the finger on the TV remote control gives us an array of jesters, gladiators, and sexual performers beyond what any ancient palace could boast.
Our comforts and conveniences and entertainment mean that most of us are living like kings, whether we realize it or not. And, sad to say, many of us are also falling into the trap that kings tend to fall into. We are corrupted by power. We become proud and self-sufficient. We answer to no one but ourselves. As kings and queens, we can do what we want without regard for others. Many a king has figured that anything in his kingdom was his for the taking. He could confiscate other people’s wealth and land. He could enslave people and even kill them, if he thought it would strengthen his position, increase his wealth, or advance some pet project of his. It’s a fact of human nature that if we see no power higher than ourselves, we tend to be heartless and ruthless. As more and more of us live like kings, we’re more concerned with increasing our own wealth and security than with who might get hurt in the process. Other people matter only to the degree that they can do something for me.
This kingly mindset doesn’t just affect the way we treat strangers or people in the workplace. It can even corrupt the way we treat the people closest to us, our own family members. Many ancient rulers had a lot of wives, and some had extra mistresses as well. They saw no need to stick with just one woman. That narrow morality was for lesser mortals. A king could have any woman he wanted! If the law said no, then the king will just change the law. Nobody could tell him otherwise.
Like kings, we don’t let anybody tell us what to do. If we get sick of our spouse and want someone else, who can stop us? There was a time when divorce laws got in the way, but so many people were wanting to switch spouses that they simply changed the law and created no-fault divorce. Isn’t democracy great? We have no king but ourselves, no law except the laws we want, and that means we can change the law and engage in serial polygamy to our heart’s content. We can be just like Henry VIII. He made up his own laws and set up his own church, with himself as the head, so that he could get divorced and have any woman he wanted.
When we hear about adultery and divorce in the royal family or about movie stars breaking up, we may act shocked, but it’s really no surprise. It’s nothing new for the rich, famous and powerful not to be faithful to just one spouse. Rulers in the past have often tended to place themselves beyond the morality of ordinary people. What’s new these days isn’t that royals betray their family commitments, but that so many other people who don’t have any royal title or superstar status are indulging in the same behaviours that were once more common among royals but less common among ordinary working people.
Why is this? Well, here’s one possible explanation: With democracy and free markets, many of us now have the prosperity and independence and freedom that once belonged only to kings and nobles. And, unfortunately, we imitate the lifestyles of the rich and famous, right down to the ruthless treatment of the weak and the betrayal of our family members. We are living like kings.
Once upon a time there was another king. He was so powerful that there was literally nothing he couldn’t do. He was so rich that there was literally nothing he didn’t own. He was so comfortable that there was literally no happiness he didn’t enjoy. But this king did something very strange. He left his power and riches and comforts behind, because he loved his subjects so much. He went to share their darkness and poverty. He befriended lepers, despised outsiders and outcasts. Eventually he got on the wrong side of some local power brokers. When he told them who he really was, that he was their king, they wouldn’t believe him. Instead, they tortured him and killed him. The king could have stopped them and rescued himself, but he didn’t. He chose to die instead.
But although this king was willing to die, he wasn’t willing to stay dead. He came to life again. He went to some of his poor friends and told them to spread the word about him. Then he returned to his palace to reign. This king’s name is Jesus. The Son of God was willing to leave his heavenly throne for a time, but he wasn’t willing to give his throne to anyone else or to stay away from his throne forever. He humbled himself to poverty and even to death, but God exalted him again to the highest place and gave Jesus a title above every other title, so that at the name of Jesus every knee must bow.
I’ve spoken about two kings. Now let me ask you: Which do you prefer? Do you follow the path of King Self or follow in the steps of King Jesus? Do you use your prosperity and freedom to be like a wealthy tyrant who ignores God and pursues your own pleasure and uses people to your own advantage? Or do you use your freedom and blessings to honour the Lord and to help the people around you? If you want to live like a king, you’d better know which king is the best model. And you’d better know, too, that he’s not just your model – he’s your God and King and Judge. He is your supreme ruler, whether you want him to be or not. He is the one who gave you and all men life. You live and move and have your being in him. He sustains you and knows everything you have ever done. One day he is going to judge you. You and I are literally going to come before him and literally give an account of our lives to him, trying to explain what we did to him and what we did to one another, and justify it all. He is going to listen to us, and take every fact into consideration especially what we have done to him and for him. He had been so good to us; what had we done for him? Had we kept his commandments; had we lived like him? What will it be like in that great day when you meet the Lord? Which king will you have been serving, self or God? How will it be when he measures your life by this commandment? “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v.21). Do you know what you are being asked? Let me explain it to you now.
2. SUMITTING TO ONE ANOTHER OUT OF REVERENCE FOR CHRIST.
Paul is writing this letter to the entire congregation in Ephesus, a first generation of Christians who had all professed to be saved from a life of complete paganism and idol worship and self-service. When they became followers of Christ they did not move out of the city to a lonely valley fifty miles away and set up a Christian commune, they continued to live in Ephesus a city dominated by a huge temple where the goddess Diana was worshipped. Greek and Roman culture was totally macho; it despised the idea that the best life consisted of submitting to other people. This was an utterly revolutionary idea, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”? It was a deplorable concept. “Choose what feels right for you and do it! Walk tall and straight! Give as good as you get! Stand up to people! Show them who’s boss!” That’s how Greek and Roman boys were taught to live. That was the spirit of Ephesus and Asia Minor and the whole ancient world. The idea of them submitting to everyone else was deplorable; it was contemptible; it was laughable.
But you notice that the command isn’t the bare “Submit!” Paul once again does what he always does when he asks Christians for a change of life, he appeals to the great doctrinal truths that Christians believe. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” “Remember Jesus Christ,” he says to them. “Where is your reverence for him? Your new life must flow from him, and fearing him.” What does Paul mean by this? His mind is gripped by his consideration of the surpassing grandeur of Jesus Christ. Paul is thinking of the extraordinary submission of the Son of God to his Father when he left the glories of heaven and came into this world. If there was ever someone to whom the whole universe should submit it was Christ. He was in the beginning with God and he was God. He made the universe. He was adored by billions of angelic being who daily served him. He was the joy of heaven. It was not robbery for him to call himself God. Yet God the Son came into our world born of Mary, living in a modest and obscure place, coming as the servant of the Lord and the friend of sinners. He chose as his companions ordinary young men, and he lived in their company for three years showing them exemplary patience. He preached to them the Sermon on the Mount – “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God . . . Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth . . .” Jesus made himself available to people; he wasn’t surrounded by a gang of heavies who pushed people away. He was approachable and gentle, full of pity and compassion. He washed his disciples’ feet; he turned the other cheek when he was struck. When they nailed him to a cross he prayed for his persecutors, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” This Almighty King came to live among his subjects, to be one of them, to submit to them, and call them back to himself. The King’s supreme act of submission was to allow himself to be killed by his own subjects, taking to himself the very guilt of their sin and its condemnation. In an act of sacrifice, Jesus paid the price for all our pride and rebellion. He did all this so that we could be forgiven and might benefit from his exaltation instead of being crushed by it.
That is Paul’s argument here, if the King who saved you did so by submitting to the price of your redemption, and if that price was the death of the cross, if the great King of glory did that, submitting himself to save a nobody like you, how can you refuse to submit to fellow believers? Do you have any idea how insulting and offensive it is to God for you to strut around like a king expecting people to submit to you when Christ submitted himself to Golgotha? Don’t tell me that you have an ounce of reverence for Jesus Christ when you act like you’re in charge and pretend that your real place is on the throne.
Let me remind you of how you came to Christ. You heard from a preacher a shocking statement that all your righteous acts were like filthy rags in the sight of God. At first you found that horribly offensive. You thought of your love for your families and the ways you’d served and helped them and others, your generosity and many kindnesses. The preacher agreed, but then he pointed out to you that pride and inconsistency and irritableness touched everything you’ve done. He asked you how many of these fine acts of yours had been done to the glory of God? None. How many of these things had been done out of submission to the Lord? None. When the best of these actions was placed in the sight of God – the God who is light in whom is no darkness at all, Jehovah before whom the cherubim cover their eyes as they cry, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” – then the very best works of yours, the preacher insisted, are in God’s estimation like that rag you keep under the kitchen sink, your stinking floor cloth.
You see, in the last analysis it all comes down to this, who is your king? If you don’t worship God and acknowledge him as your Saviour and King, then you are putting yourself on the throne. And everything you’ve done from your own throne is an offence to God. Everything you do from your own throne, no matter how good it might seem, is an act of defiance and treason. Realising that was the beginning of your journey into Jesus Christ. You saw what the Bible was saying, and you accepted that. That was the beginning of grace. You acknowledged there was no salvation in yourself and you submitted to the salvation that is found in Jesus Christ alone. Salvation is submission to Christ. “Believe upon the LORD – Jesus Christ – and you will be saved.”
In ancient times, one way to show submission to a king was to kiss his feet. Psalm 2 says, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed.” That is what you’ve done. You had been running your own life and occupying your own throne, but then you got real. The love of the crucified Jesus melted your heart; reverence for the sheer majesty of the ascended Jesus broke your spirit. You gave up on yourself. You gave thanks that the Lord cared about you enough to warn you before it was too late. He saved you from your pride. You submitted to your one true King. You repented of your sins. You trusted that Christ’s life and death and resurrection were more than enough to undo your sin. You handed your entire self over to him to do with as he pleased. You acknowledged, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” That is salvation.
Your whole life is now one of submission to the great and glorious Son of God. He is the one who says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). All authority! When Jesus’ disciples heard him say this, and then saw him taken up from the earth, they realized that God had given the highest position in the entire universe to his Son, the very Jesus of Nazareth they had known so well.
This filled those first Christians with awe: the submissive one, the lowly carpenter, the wandering teacher, the warm hearted friend, the crucified outcast, was now reigning on the throne of heaven. And through God’s Holy Spirit, those believers had a deep sense of the power and majesty of the exalted Christ. How they reverenced him! The most common statement of faith among the early Christians wasn’t, “Jesus is my pal.” It was “Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God!” When the apostle John, Jesus’ closest friend on earth, had a vision of the exalted Christ, he didn’t say, “Hey, old buddy, how’s it going?” He “fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).
It is to these people that Paul is writing, to folk whose God was the Lord who submitted himself to his own Father, who submitted himself to incarnation, who honoured his earthly father and mother for many years, who prayed for his enemies, who forgave people seventy times seven. Their God was now highly exalted and had a name above every name. So they deeply reverenced him for what he was and what he is now. They were overwhelmed by a Lord so mighty and majestic. It is these people to whom Paul is saying, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
3. THE PRACTICAL CONSEQUENCES OF SUBMITTING TO ONE ANOTHER.
The words of our text are not unique sentiments in the New Testament. Remember similar words of Paul to the Philippian church: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phiils. 2:3). Or again in his letter to the Romans we find the following, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves . . . Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (Roms. 12:10, 16&17). Let us be concerned about other people, how we serve them and what they think of us
What does all that mean? What are the practical consequences of looking out for the interests of others and submitting to others, honouring them above yourself? There are a number of ways we can answer this question.
i] Submission may mean times will come when you allow yourself to be taken advantage of.
There are occasions when you will query the bill. Does the work done merit so high a charge? Has the job been done adequately? You will not be put off by secretaries who say you cannot see the man in charge – he may be the man who is going to perform a major operation on you and you will insist on seeing him. But there are other times when you will say to yourself, am I going to start a family schism over the terms of the will and run to a lawyer? Am I going to fight over every clause in the divorce settlement and call a solicitor? Am I going to ‘clear my name’ when I’ve been disciplined by a church? Am I going to bombard church members and other congregations with letters? I read this week of a Korean Christian named Kim who had a problem. “A year or two ago,” he explained, “I received a letter from a friend. This friend was a young dentist. He wanted to move to our city and start a dental practice here. Since I’m a businessman who knows the city, he asked me to find him a place that he could use as a home and office combined. Now as we all know, there’s been a great housing shortage. But I did all I could to help him. Finally I found a place and wrote him about it. I told him the house was in bad condition. There was a hole in the wall, and the roof leaked. The house was in a very bad neighbourhood. On top of all that, the price was much more than the house was worth. Although I told him all these problems, my friend sent me a telegram telling me to buy the house.
“A day or so later, I got a cheque from him to cover the down payment, so I signed the papers to buy the house. The owner agreed to vacate the house in three days, but when the time was up, the owner asked for a few more days to find another house. I granted him this period of grace. But after a week he was still there. Two weeks, three weeks, a month, three months, six months have passed. The man who sold the house has bought fancy clothes for himself and his family, and they are eating expensive food. He knows that I am a Christian and that in Korea we Christians never go to court against other Christians, and we try not to go to court against unbelievers. He laughs at me when I come.”
Mr. Kim was saying all this at a gathering of church elders in the Korean city where he lived, and he had been asked to lead their morning devotions. But instead of saying something inspirational about God, he was telling them this odd story and asking their advice. Who ever heard of someone selling his house for a big price and then not letting the new owner move in? “What am I to do?” Kim asked his fellow elders. After a discussion, they all agreed that Kim had the right to go to the authorities and have the man evicted and to take charge of the property. Kim was not sure; it is a solemn thing to go to Caesar when you have taken your concern to the God in whose hands is Caesar’s heart. This is what Kim said:
“Thank you, fathers and brethren,” said Kim, “for considering my problem. Have you thought of this, that long ago the Lord Jesus Christ came down from heaven to purchase for himself a dwelling place.” Pointing to himself Kim continued, “He bought this old shack. It was in rundown condition. It was in a bad neighbourhood. Jesus bought me because he wanted to take possession of me and dwell in my heart. He gave himself for me, and he gave me the Holy Spirit as a down payment, bringing me countless blessings. But I cling to my dwelling and leave him outside. Now if you say that I have the right to seek the help of the authorities to evict the man who is occupying my friend’s house, what shall you and I say of ourselves when we deny the Lord Jesus Christ the full possession of that for which he gave his own life?” (Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans). Like every case history into which the church is drawn it quickly becomes a parable; lessons are drawn from a particular individual response which apply to all of us. If one man says, “My conscience is so sacred I have to part company and say good-bye to my family and my friends and my church when they do something that I’m unhappy with,” then the question is raised what if everyone took that course of action? If you don’t get your way in the church are you going to be resigning and terminating the fellowship? What if Jesus did that to us every time we behaved in a way that was disagreeable to him? What if he packed up and left? How long would we be in communion with Christ? How different he is from us, how loving, wise, patient forgiving. The apostle speaks with the authentic voice of Christianity when he says, “Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (I Jn. 1:3). We now have that fellowship today with Christ – “our fellowship is with Christ.” The congregation is the fellowship of Christ. The land is full of loners who have parted company from one church after the other because their conscience is so inviolable it will not allow them to remain in fellowship with people with whom they disagree. I am saying that there are occasions when submission to other people means you let yourself be taken advantage of. That takes a lot of courage, and a lot of trust in God, and if you reverence the Christ who saved you at such a price you will be given wisdom and power to do that.
ii] Submission will give you an evangelistic concern for others.
You remember when the apostle Peter is telling us to be ready always to give a reason for the hope that is in us, that he tells us to do so with meekness and reverence. In other words to consider these people to whom we are speaking better people than ourselves. A feeling of superiority will destroy any possibility of helping them. They are creatures made by God just like ourselves, and God will take no joy in their destruction. There but for the grace of God are we. That attitude to them can be to their salvation. Let me tell you about a South African named Hamilton Naki who died a couple of months ago. He was born in 1926 in a village in the Transkei, to a poor family and was educated until he was 14. Then because there was no work there, he hitchhiked to Cape Town. He remained there for the rest of his life, sending most of his wages home to support an extended family of 11 people. He submitted to them.
Hamilton Naki joined Cape Town University and Groote Schuur Hospital as a gardener, and one day he was rolling the grass tennis courts when, in the 1950s, the professor of surgery, Robert Goetz, called him to step into the laboratory and hold a giraffe on which he was operating. Goetz was trying to discover why giraffes did not faint when they lowered their heads to drink. He was so impressed with Naki that he invited him to work in the lab. Naki soon became skilled in a wide range of surgical procedures he learned from Goetz, ranging from catheterisation and suturing to intubation and anaesthesia. He took over postoperative care of the animals. Before long, he could perform a liver transplant in a pig virtually single handed. There was little that the surgeons could do that he couldn’t. Naki credits Goetz with being his most important teacher. Goetz, who had fled Nazi Germany, may have empathised with Naki’s situation.
When Goetz went to America, Christiaan Barnard arrived. Barnard recognised Naki’s abilities and used him firstly as his anaesthetist and later as his principal surgical assistant. In the 1950s Naki worked with Barnard while he was developing open heart surgical techniques experimentally He was prodigiously intelligent, had a formidable memory, and learnt by watching others. When Barnard developed arthritis in his hands, Naki’s contribution became even more important. He was involved in the first transplants Barnard did.
All his life he lived in a tiny room in quarters for migrant workers in Langa, a black township on the Cape flats. He had no electricity or running water. Every morning he set out for work wearing a Homberg hat, suit, shirt, and tie, and with polished shoes. His family Joyce and his four children stayed in the village where he was born, and he supported them on his wages and later his pension, worth £70 or $120 a month. He couldn’t afford to educate his children to follow in his footsteps.
If you walked behind the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town to the old cemetery any lunch time in the 1970s and 80s you would come across a fascinating gathering. A group of poor unemployed Africans, some of them alcoholics, and other HIV positive, were listening intently to Hamilton Naki reading to them from the Bible and then gently exhorting them about turning from their sinning to trust in Almighty God through his Son, Jesus Christ. Hamilton Naki the leading surgeon at the Groote Schuur Hospital submitted himself to these people in their need. He used his lunch hours to say a word for his Saviour.
After his retirement he raised money so that a mobile clinic could visit his birth place in the Transkei, which was 50 miles from the nearest doctor or hospital. Every year he visited the surgeons who were his former trainees to raise money from them to maintain a rural school in the Eastern Cape. All this came from his submission to other Christians. In later life he received official recognition and he is now one of South Africa’s heroes. Cape Town University conferred an honorary MSc in surgery on him in 2002. In 2003 President Thabo Mbeki presented him with the order of Mapungubwe, one of South African’s most prestigious awards. Two years later, when Mbeki delivered his presidential address to the South African parliament, Naki was one of the ‘senior civil guard of honour’ who welcomed him. Naki’s submission to others showed itself in evangelistic concern and a ministry of mercy. “These are men with never dying souls; they are my fellow creatures whom God has bid me love as I love myself. I shall spend and be spent for them. No service is too menial; no weariness too demanding to prevent me submitting myself to them.”
iii] Submitting to others will give you the loving heart of a servant.
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. The Son of Man told us that the greatest amongst us would be the one who serves. This is where true greatness is found. Consider the incident when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Think of how he virtually dramatized his entire life and work in this one action. The meal began with Jesus sitting at the table in the place of honour where he belonged. After all, he was the Lord and Teacher, but he got up from his seat, left the place of honour, and laid aside his outer clothing. Then he wrapped a towel around his waist and prepared to do the work of a slave. This was a picture of what Jesus did when he left his position as God and Lord of all things to become a humble human. When Jesus went from the best seat at the banquet to become their servant, he pictured how he went from heaven’s throne to become part of a poor human family in order to serve us and make us clean.
Taking the role of a slave, Jesus poured water into the basin and washed his disciples’ feet. This pictured what he would do the next day. On Thursday night he poured water and washed feet. On Good Friday he poured blood and washed away the sin of his people, and as water cleanses dirt, so “the blood of Jesus…purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
But the drama didn’t end with washing. After Jesus finished his task, he put on his robe and returned to his original place of honour. In the same way, when Jesus completed his suffering to wash away sin, he shouted, “It is finished!” and died. A few days later, he took up his life again, left the tomb, and appeared to his disciples. Then he returned to his original place of honour in heaven, as the Bible puts it, “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3).
What motivated Jesus to do all this? The answer can be stated in one word: it was love. John 13:1 says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.” He showed his love by doing the work of a slave and washing feet, and he showed his love even more fully by dying to wash away sin. Jesus did all this, not because he accidentally came across it, not because anyone forced him to do it, not because his followers earned it or deserved it, but simply because he “loved his own.” As the Bible says in another place, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Jesus is turning the world upside down. The God of the universe becomes the lowliest slave. The Lord of life bleeds and dies. If God gave an order to submit to one another but did nothing himself, it might strike us as empty words. But by washing feet and dying on a cross, Jesus practiced what he preached, and he energized his people for service in a way that mere words could never do. His example set before us and his Holy Spirit working within us move us to start thinking and acting like Jesus.
There is a typical Christian woman who has been energized by Christ, her Master. This lady knew an increasingly frail elderly couple who enjoyed living in their own apartment, but they were becoming less capable. They needed some extra help to continue living on their own, or they would have to enter a nursing home. So every week this Christian woman would come and hoover the floor, scrub the toilet, and help with their baths. Someone found out what she was doing and whispered to her, “Is your family having money problems?” “No,” replied the woman, “our business is doing just fine.” “Well,” said the other person doubtfully, “I can’t see why anyone would do what you do unless they needed the money.” Why scrub toilets and bathe old people without regard for financial gain? The answer is to follow Jesus’ example and obey his orders. Here they are: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
We are called to “serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). We can serve like Jesus only when we reverence Jesus. This love is more than a warm, fuzzy feeling. It is placing others’ wellbeing above our own comfort, and valuing service more than status. And just as Jesus’ act of service was a sign of forgiveness and cleansing, so his call to wash each other’s feet includes both service and forgiveness. Love eagerly serves those who need help, and it forgives those who need cleansing. Christ washes us daily of our sins against him, so let us daily forgive each other’s wrongs, wash off whatever has dirtied our relationship, and start each day with a clean slate. If you belong to Jesus and follow him, then no task is too lowly to do, no person is too loathsome to love. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” By living like that the church becomes the salt of the earth; it saves a culture from putrefaction. One per cent salt can save a piece of fish or meat from decay. The church silently and powerfully exerts a moral pressure by enfleshing the submissive life of Christ, finding its strength to do so by the powerful Word which is the climax of its worship week by week, reinforced by the shared attitude of fellow believers.
4 September 2005 GEOFF THOMAS