Beginning in the late-6th century with Pope Gregory I, every Bishop of Rome has taken on the title of Servant of the Servants of God. As that great theological and historical treasure trove called Wikipedia tells the story, Gregory I took on the title in order to show his humility as being better than the newly appointed Ecumenical Patriarch, the Archbishop of Constantinople, John the Faster. The trouble with humility, however, is that once you know you’ve got it, you’ve lost it, and once you try to show how good you are at it, you’ve failed.
Though there is great irony in the birth narrative of the title, Servant of the Servants of God, it still gets used with regularity, and not only by the man who happens to be sitting in Peter’s Chair. I can’t remember if it was said by the Presiding Bishop or by Bishop Sloan, who preached the event, but I remember hearing that term get used in and around the Ordination of our new Bishop here in the Central Gulf Coast. While I think that every Christian should probably strive for that title, there is a certain sensibility in its use for Bishops, as it is an explicitly stated requirement of apostolic ministry.
In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we hear the story of how Jesus responds to his disciples arguing over who is the greatest among them. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” While it is probably true that no one gets elected bishop without at least a little bit of ego, it is truer to say that one cannot be an effective Christian leader without being humble enough to reach out in loving service.
As time goes by, Jesus will model that behavior. On the night he was betrayed, while he and his disciples were still eating, he got up, took off his cloak and knelt down to wash their feet. Jesus, the Son of God, took on the job of a slave. He who was first, made himself to be last. This is an important reminder for clergy, for lay leaders, and yes, even for bishops. Those who wish to be first, must be last: the servants of the servants of God.