Rev Sam Allberry, a close friend of Tim and Kathy Keller, delivered a moving tribute at Tim Keller’s memorial service on 15th August. Here’s what he said
In a memorial service held at St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City, for the late pastor and Christian apologist Tim Keller, Sam Allberry delivered a moving tribute. His words not only highlighted Keller’s tremendous impact, but also conveyed valuable lessons about the essence of the counter cultural Christian message – service and sacrifice.
Allberry began by acknowledging the outpouring of tributes since Keller’s death in May 2023. Intriguingly, few focused on Keller’s extensive accomplishments or gifts; instead, they celebrated his character:
“Few of these tributes mentioned Tim’s accomplishments, which were many and consequential, or his gifts, which were undeniably colossal. People have most remembered Tim’s character. Not what he did but who he was as a husband and father, as a mentor or pastor, and – for so many of us – as a friend.”
Allberry noted how rare it is for someone to possess such influence, yet remain humble and others-focused. This humility was not because Keller was extraordinary, but because he was following Jesus:
“The very qualities we’ve loved in Tim are all reflections of what can be found so clearly in Christ. What Tim was, imperfectly, Christ has always been, fully and completely. Jesus is, if I can borrow from one of Tim’s most memorable phrases, ‘the true and better’ Keller. So the best way to appreciate and understand Tim is to think about Christ.”
The crux of Allberry’s message revolved around a passage from Mark 10:45, where Jesus says: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This passage encapsulates both the heart of Christianity and the key to a fulfilling life.
Jesus’ mission to serve
Allberry argued that our modern culture’s esteem for service is directly influenced by Jesus’ teachings. He maintained that even though we may be accustomed to service being viewed as a vocation, this mind set is primarily due to Jesus’ influence.
However, Allberry emphasised that Jesus’ service was not ordinary. Jesus referred to himself as “the Son of Man”, a title signifying divine authority from the Old Testament book of Daniel. Rather than wielding his divine power over humankind, Jesus claimed it was for serving humankind:
“Jesus shows us a new kind of power. One that is sacrificial, not predatory. One that exists not to take advantage of those who are weaker but to help them.”
This concept contradicts our typical view of power – in our world, power often equates to self-importance and having others serve you. But Jesus presented a different kind of power: power used for the sake of others and not self-aggrandisement:
“In the mentality of our world, the more power you have, the more people serve you. But not for Jesus. He claimed to be the one with greatest power, the one (by our metrics) who could most expect to be served, yet he says the whole point of his coming as the Son of Man is to serve. He’s the one whose sacrifice is not in spite of his power but the very expression of it.”
Jesus’ sacrifice as a ransom
Allberry said: “Yes, Jesus came to serve. But if that’s the first surprise, the second surprise is how he came to serve.” Jesus came into this world to die for us – a direct contradiction to our expectations that God would demand more from us: “We might expect God to come to this world and tell us to do more for him – to be more religious, more ethical, more moral, more charitable. To be better.” Instead, God came into this world to serve us.
Allberry quoted Jesus, saying his death on the cross would be “a ransom for many”. This claim suggests we are captives in need of liberation – a stark reminder that despite our perceived control over our lives, there are aspects we cannot change or control.
“Jesus’ death is of service because his death is a ransom. This means Jesus doesn’t just make audacious claims about himself; he makes an audacious claim about us. People who need a ransom are those who are held captive. When he said his death for us would be a ransom, Jesus claimed that we’re not free, that we’re not masters of ourselves, that we’re ensnared.”
According to Allberry’s interpretation of Jesus’ teachings, when we turn away from God, our hearts twist inwards resulting in distortions of who we are meant to be. We become hostages in our own lives, unable to free ourselves from these distortions:
“Jesus’ death represents the necessary payment for what we’ve gotten ourselves into. Death is not simply the natural expiration of our lives; it’s a form of spiritual reckoning. Death is more than physical, it’s spiritual. And it’s that deeper spiritual death Jesus has come to free us from by taking death on himself, on our behalf, in our place. By absorbing in himself all the consequences of our own sin and distortedness, by taking on our death, he’s inviting us to come and receive the new life he offers.”
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Echoes in Tim Keller’s life
Allberry concluded by bringing his message back around to Tim Keller’s life – an extraordinary servant because he let Jesus serve him. Keller’s humility and others-focused life were direct results of allowing himself to be served by Christ:
“Tim was an extraordinary servant. But he was an extraordinary servant because he’d let Jesus serve him. It was being served by Christ that enabled him to serve so many of us so beautifully.”
Allberry quoted Jesus saying: “Come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Echoing this sentiment, he encouraged all – believers or non-believers – to come to Jesus, adding: “It’s all we can do.”
In his closing remarks, Allberry posed an important question, which we can all reflect on: ”Will you let Jesus serve you today, this afternoon, this very moment? Will you lay aside your pride, your sense of independence, or maybe even your sense of despair? He stands ready to come into your life, to receive you, and to serve you.”
This article is an adaptation of Sam Allberry’s homily at the memorial service for Tim Keller on 15th August. To watch the whole service, click here.
Sam Allberry is a pastor, apologist, and speaker. He is the author of 7 Myths About Singleness, Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?, and, most recently, What God Has to Say About Our Bodies. He serves as associate pastor at Immanuel Nashville, is a canon theologian for the Anglican Church in North America, and is the co-host (with Ray Ortlund) of The Gospel Coalition’s podcast You’re Not Crazy: Gospel Sanity for Young Pastors.