“Seeing Christ in the Humble One Who Serves” (John 13: 16-20).
In this section of John, Jesus is talking to his disciples, and therefore to us. And he’s saying two things which in one way of looking at it can seem almost contradictory. That is, in just a few verses, he speaks about a temptation of a minister of His Gospel, as well as a glory of this same minister. On first bounce, these could seem to run against one another.
On the one hand, Jesus is s driving home the point that the Christian disciple/minister must always act as a servant – or put more graphically, as the bottom rung slave in the household whose lowly job is to wash the dirty feet of all the residents. Far from seeing herself or acting as the person up on the dais, she is to regard herself as that attendant who’s main concern is the welfare and comfort and good of the rest of the folks at that table, no matter what form that might take.
This is a repeated warning Jesus gives over and over in different images, graphics and case studies: that the ego is to move to the back when doing Gospel ministry, that self-aggrandizement is always a temptation in Christian service and especially leadership, and is to be kept at bay. It’s a message of humility –a warning St. Vincent can sometimes almost go over the top about when he writes on it.
But on the other, Jesus is laying out the extraordinary status and privilege of this minister. And he’s doing it by doing a kind of reversal of that injunction so hallowed in our Vincentian legacy; i.e., encountering Christ in the person of the poor, seeing the person of Jesus in the least of brothers and sisters. Rather than saying “you’re welcoming me in that poor person,” here Jesus is saying “when that other person welcomes you, he’s welcoming me.” As the gospel puts it, “Whoever receives the one I send, receives me – as well as the one who sent me.” Again, “when they receive you, they are receiving Me in you.” Or in Vincentian language, “they are seeing Christ in your person.”
The scriptural commentator N.T. Wright follows up on this Christ-welcoming as a given disciple might experience it.
“You probably won’t realize this [Christ-welcoming] at the time. You’ll be too busy thinking of the people you’re working for and with. But, as you look back, you may be startled by the joy of realizing that as you walked into that house, that hospital, that place of pain or love or sorrow or hope, Jesus was walking in, wearing your skin, speaking in your tone of voice.” (John for Everyone, Part 2, p 49.)
So we sense these two opposing streams: be humble; be in your very self a manifestation of God’s glory. While some might be able to integrate them easily enough, in real life many struggle some to hold them together; i.e., the privilege of Christian ministry, and the need to give the glory of that ministry to God and not predominantly my own self. Perhaps it’s not a contradiction, but in the course of giving service to the poor, it can be one of those hard-to-hold paradoxes that in its own way turns out to be saving.