Bishop's Message

SERVANT OR SON

May 2009    

THE pathetic figure tried to run along the dusty road, his face a strange mixture of eager anticipation and fearful dread. He attempted to speed up his progress, but he did not have the strength to do it, his hunger and physical weakness having taking their toll on him. He wore the torn and soiled clothes of a vagabond, and his face was caked with dust and dirt, with rivulets of clear skin, cleansed by bouts of repentant tears.

All the way, he rehearsed what he would say to his father: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men” (Luke 15:18-19). Every time he said it aloud in the solitude of the lonely hills, tears rushed down his miserable face. By the time he could see his village in the distance, what he had practised saying had become deeply embedded in his heart.

Years ago, he had done the most unfilial thing – he had demanded from his shocked father his share of the inheritance, left his father’s home and a father whose heart was deeply broken, and went far away to live self-indulgently in wild
living. He squandered a good part of his youthful days and all the money he had. He was reduced to utter poverty and began to think of his father and his father’s house. Thoughts of his father’s kindness overcame his suicidal thoughts and he set
out for home.

As he approached his village with trepidation, he saw a lone figure running towards him. Fear gripped his heart as he recognised the figure – it was his father! As the figure drew near, he could see that his father came not with anger to chase him away, but with forgiving love to embrace and accept him, to welcome him home. He uttered the words that had now been lodged in his heart: “Father, I have sinned … I am no longer worthy to be called your son …” He was interrupted kindly by his father and was never given a chance to say anything about being a hired servant.

He had thought that his father had every right to expel him from the village and his home. The Law prescribed the death penalty for people like him (Dt. 21:18-21). But he knew his father was rich in kindness, and he hoped that his father would, instead, at least take him in as a servant. But his father surprised him greatly. He refused to do any of those things that the son had feared or hoped. He did something far more magnanimous than the son had hoped for. He received the repentant man not as a servant but as a son. To all who were watching this amazing scene, he referred to the pathetic figure as “this son of mine”.

In God’s story of redemption, we who have sinned against Him and broken His heart are invited to return to Him – not as servants, but as sons and daughters. This is made possible by what God’s Son did for us – and when we receive Him and believe in Him, we are given the right to be the children of God (Jn. 1:12). In our worldly way, we think transactionally, as in a business deal. Take me into your home and I will pay you back with service. But God does not function like that. We can’t get in as servants; we enter as children – no matter how far we have strayed or offended God.

JOHN WESLEY had a life-changing experience on May 24, 1738. He was an ordained Anglican priest, and had even gone to America to serve as a missionary. But his heart was restless, for though he knew the Scriptures and Christian doctrines, he did not have the peace and assurance of forgiveness. He struggled for a long time, and though he seriously practised the disciplines, yet he had no peace. Then came that day when he attended a meeting of Christians and heard someone read Martin Luther’s Preface to Romans. While hearing, his heart was “strangely warmed” and he received a deep assurance that his sins were forgiven.

From then on, Wesley was a new man and God used him to spread a revival movement that lit fires in Britain and America, and the rest of the world. Wesley described the significance of that Aldersgate event this way: Before it he had the faith of a servant, after it, he had the faith of a son. Wesley had finally come home as a son and found peace.

What is the difference between the faith of a son and that of a servant? A servant works for wages; he is governed by fear of his master, and he is driven by duty and tries to impress his master to win his favour. A son, on the other hand, has a different perspective. He is not paid, but given blessings and gifts by his father, and this is unconditional.

He is motivated by love and a desire to please his father, not so much to impress him but to honour him. All that the father has belongs to the son and he walks tall in the stature of a son, while a servant knows where he belongs. The servant enters the house through the side door of duty, while the son enters by the main door of undying love.

Wesley, like the prodigal son, discovered that one does not enter God’s house as a servant but as a son. One cannot hope to grow into a son by being a good servant. We cannot earn our salvation and freedom, our dignity and eternal future. These are given to us by our gracious and merciful Father as gifts – to be received with gratitude. Because we become children of God by repenting and believing, we can then learn to serve God, not to save ourselves but as an act of grateful worship.

It is easy to slip into the faith of a servant every now and then, whenever we turn our attention to our own abilities, powers and successes. We must remember that we are not hired servants but adopted children. We are called to be faithful, not as servants, but as sons and daughters (Heb. 2:5-6). It is the difference between coming home gladly to the Father’s house and (like the elder son in the story) remaining ungratefully and angrily in the field outside.

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