Fifth Sunday of the Year, 7th February 2021
I was quite a bossy child. I won’t ask if you’re surprised or not! And after I’d issued a series of commands and requests to my mother, she would sometimes reply, “What did your slave die of?” just to indicate her frustration.
We are slaves of God. We might not think of ourselves as such though. We might be more comfortable with the concept of us being servants. When we think of servants, we might think of Downtown Abbey or other such TV series and books with Victorians or Edwardians in large houses and a little community of servants. They say Yes Sir, No Sir, ladle out the soup, clean the shoes and iron the newspapers and then carry on with their lives below stairs with all the usual human dramas and emotions. This isn’t a helpful analogy when thinking about our relationship with God.
Sometimes the New Testament uses the word “servant” to describe duties carried out within Christ’s Church but quite often the word “slave” is actually used. Translators unfortunately are a little reticent to use it. Thankfully they get it right in our second reading when Paul talks about making himself a slave of everyone for the sake of the Gospel. Job also reflects in the midst of his sufferings in our first reading that life is “hired drudgery, pressed service.”
We’ll have got our images of what slavery looks like from different sources: Samuel L Jackson did a documentary on the BBC about the transatlantic slave trade and when we did a Parish Study Group on Zoom about slavery a couple of months ago this was one of the resources we were pointed to. The conditions were awful as thousands were crammed in to boats in appalling conditions with huge loss of life. The Church finds slavery despicable because it denies the dignity God wants all human beings to know.
In the United Kingdom, the slave trade was abolished in 1807 in no small part because of men and women committed to the cause who were driven by the Christian Faith, chief among them William Wilberforce. Sadly in other parts of the world it continued and even continued illegally in parts of the British Empire. One person who suffered as a result of this illegal activity is the saint the Church celebrates tomorrow, St Josephine Bakhita. I’d love to find a statue of her for our church. She was born in what is now Western Sudan around the year 1869: she was never sure when exactly. She was seized by traders and sold in to slavery and then from master to master multiple times.
Eventually, when St Josephine was about 20 years old she ended up with an Italian family. They treated her a bit better and for a period she stayed with the Canossian sisters in Venice. Here she discovered Jesus Christ and put her faith in God, eventually being baptised. She was set free by an Italian court because she’d initially been enslaved in British territory at a time when it was illegal to do so, so should’t have been a slave in the first place. Within a few years St Josephine had entered the convent, where she stayed until her death in 1947.
As with so many of the saints, St Josephine had a wonderful charity towards those who had been unkind to her in the past. She once said, “If I was to meet those slave traiders that abducted me and those who tortured me, I’d kneel down to them to kiss their hands, because, if it had not have been for them, I would not have become a Christian and religious woman.” Pope Benedict XVI found inspiration in her life and observed that in the first half of her life, “she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she had heard that there is a master above all masters, the Lord of all lords. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that He had created her - that He actually loved her. … What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her at the Fathers right hand. Now she had hope,” (Encyclical “In Hope we were saved” Spe Salvi, 2007).
It’s interesting that Pope Benedict draws a link between the sort of slavery we rightly detest and abhor on the one hand and on the other hand the sort of slavery we are to treasure, our following of Christ. Paul similar draws the link between the two in Romans 6: “Now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification” (Romans 6:22). Think of the hymn we sometimes sing, “All to Jesus, I surrender.” This is where our understanding of being slaves to God comes in. It’s an imperfect analogy because we have to follow God freely, unlike slaves who have power and choice stripped from them but having heard His call we are to be enraptured by Him and give ourselves entirely to His service, leaving all else behind.
Jesus makes a brief reference (Luke 17:32) to Lot’s unnamed wife who, as they fled the city of Sodom, turns round and looks back despite being given multiple warnings not to do so. The image of what we’ll be look at comes up again when He says, “No one who puts a hand to plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” (Luke 9:62). The Psalmist has an image I always find a powerful expression of what our life as a Christian is to look like. He writes that “as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master … so our eyes look to the Lord our God until He has mercy upon us” (Psalm 123). The image of the hand might be communicated to show subtly a request and a slave will need to respond. Equally the hand might be wanting to give something and the slave needs to receive it whatever it is. This is to be our relationship with the Lord our God.
In later life St Josephine was wheelchair bound and could have found yet further things about which to complain. Whenever she was asked how she was she replied, “As the Master desires.” There was a deep, abiding trust. We see this in the crowds coming to Jesus in our Gospel this evening. They came after sunset in the evening because they were afraid of being spotted and condemned for going to the Lord, this outsider, and for seeking healing on the sabbath. Christ takes them, as He took Peter’s mother-in-law, by the hand and raised them up to fullness of life. This is the life we discover when we’ve laid it down in service of God.
The Church is now committed to ending slavery and one good way, I believe, that both the Church and the British Government are trying to do this is through checking the supply chains of large corporations with whom they trade so that they are not unintentionally supporting human traffickers. The repulsion with which we view such inhumane treatment of others must also inform how we view apathy, selfishness, greed and a mindset that places me and mine as being more significant than the other. As Paul put it in our second reading, we are not to insist on our rights, rather we must seek to share the blessings of the Good News of Jesus Christ with all those imprisoned in whatever darkness life has thrown at them. Amen.