We have been exploring together Jesus’ formation of His church. A few Sundays ago, we talked about church as being formed of people committed to Christ as deeply and intimately as in a marriage in which the two become one. A couple of Sundays ago, we talked about Jesus’ call that disciples love each other and that that love would be seen by the world as the hallmark of His Church. And last week, we saw that Jesus was not content with the accidental discovery of the church. Instead, Jesus called upon the church to bear witness of Him, to give testimony, by words and deeds throughout all the world. Church is not to be a secret.
Today, I would like us to look at another element of the Church. And that element is serving. The idea of being a servant is hard for many people to grasp because the word servant in our culture has a very negative connotation.
I remember some years ago, we took a family trip to Newport, Rhode Island to tour the magnificent mansions once owned by the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Carnegie families. One of the mansions, I think it had 70 rooms, was built with passageways concealed within its walls. These passageways were for us by the servants. The owner wanted the servants to be able to access the rooms of the mansion to care for the needs of the family, but the owner did not servants to be seen. Being a servant, in that context meant you were not worthy to be seen. That must have been a humiliating experience.
Interestingly enough, Rhode Island, until about one year ago, was officially called State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The word plantations elicit from our American culture a much darker sense of being servant with the enslavement of black people in plantations of the American southern states. The slaves of the south were, of course, not employed on these plantations, they were considered owned as one owns property. Being a servant in this context of an American slave was not just humiliating but also was an intentional effort to degrade the humanity of those entrapped by it.
So, in the American culture, the words servant and slave carry some heavy and painful emotions. Yet, we must confront the words, servant and slave, as both the word servant and slave appear hundreds of times in the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments. And we find that in those uses Jesus called upon his church to be servants and slaves. What did Jesus mean and how are we to do with his words?
Let’s first consider what Jesus faced with his chosen apostles, the nucleus of the Church. One day, Jesus and the Twelve were on a journey to the town of Capernaum. After arriving and settling down for a moment in the house of their host, Jesus asked his disciples, “33b ‘What were you arguing about on the road? 34 But they [The Twelve] kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who [among them] was the greatest. 35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
The Twelve saw the formation of Jesus Church as a place through which they could have standing, status, and power. Jesus said the greatest of church was in being a servant. But… But being a servant in church was not an employment status, like the servants who worked within the walls of a mansion, nor was it a forced status, as a slave who was considered owned property. Being a servant in the church was a voluntary status arrived at by giving up one’s standing, status, and power. This was a hard lesson for the Twelve because Jesus was saying something completely opposite to the teachings and experience of the world. In the world, standing, status, and power is like the food chain. It is a “dog eat dog world,” and people generally perceive that it is better to be the top dog. Jesus was saying that in the kingdom he was called to bring to light, the lower you voluntarily choose to go, the more you become a servant, then the greater you became in the kingdom. The kingdom of God is inverted from the normal expectations of the world. We are not told about the immediate response by the Twelve to what Jesus had said about servanthood but we will soon find out the disciples were set on being at the top.
We see in Chapter 10 of the Gospel of Mark, just some days after Jesus’ teaching, that two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, approached Jesus when he was alone. James and John were brothers. The brothers said to Jesus, “36b ‘Teacher we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ 36 ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked. 37 They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’” James and John appeared to be making a play for standing, power, and status. So much for Jesus’ lesson that, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
We might think, “Perhaps, Jesus’ other disciples understood Jesus’ teaching and it was only James and John who did not get it.” Mark gave us the reaction of the other ten disciples to request by James and John for the two positions in Jesus’ kingdom. “41 When the ten [other disciples of Jesus] heard about this [what James and John asked of Jesus], they [the ten] became indignant with James and John” (Mark 10:41). Well, it looks like the other disciples were upset with the powerplay by James and John believing that the honor of being to Jesus’ left and right should go to one of them. Understanding servanthood was a problem for the Twelve.
“42 Jesus called them [the Twelve] together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 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” (Mark 10:42-45). Jesus again preached to the Twelve on serving one another and that such service in the kingdom of God looks like the behavior of a voluntary servant or slave not that of a ruler or overlord.
The lesson of serving through the church is a difficult one. The Twelve struggled to see what voluntary servanthood looked like and the impact it could have on the development of the church. Then, in John’s testimony, we read that, “1 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own [the men and women who followed him] who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his [Jesus’] power, and that he [Jesus] had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he [Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he [Jesus] poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him…12 When he [Jesus] had finished washing their feet [the Twelve], he [Jesus] put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he [Jesus] asked them [the Twelve]. 13 ‘You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them’” (John 13:1-5, 12-16).
I think that at this point the light might have come on in the minds of the Twelve. In Jesus washing the feet of the Twelve, the disciples experienced an intimate encounter with Christ. Their leader and friend chose to sooth their tired and dirty feet. Jesus used the love language of touch to express his feelings toward each disciple, even Judas.
In Jesus washing the feet of the Twelve, the disciples came to learn some important lessons about servicing. First, serving in God’s kingdom must be voluntary. Jesus, the leader, teacher, and Lord could not be commanded by anyone in that group to serve. Instead, Jesus humbled himself and voluntarily served those who were before him. Jesus was still Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus was still the leader of the group, but he was also the servant doing the most menial of tasks by washing the dirty feet of the Twelve. Servanthood in the kingdom is always voluntary.
Second, Jesus showed that service in the church begins by serving those in the church. Did you notice that? Service in church of Jesus Christ began by serving those in the church. Jesus did not interrupt dinner to go into the street and grab twelve people at random and wash their feet and tell the disciples to do likewise. Not at all. Instead, Jesus served those in the church and said to the Twelve do likewise. It might surprise us that as Christians the primary example of being a servant offered to us by Jesus is to serve other Christians, not those outside the church.
Jesus’ example played out in the early church this way. After Jesus returned to heaven, a church under his disciples formed in Jerusalem. We are told that, “44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47). The church, the people, voluntarily served and saw its primary responsibility was to serve other believers.
Again from the Book of Acts we would find, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1). The issue here was the distribution of food by the church for church members was unequal and needed to be fixed. The church saw its primary responsibility as serving other believers.
What does this mean to us? There are a couple of things. First, we ought to desire to volunteer to be in the service of the church. Regardless of the task, voluntarily serving the church whether in worship or teaching or life assistance is one of the highest forms of service to the kingdom of God. Why is that true? First, it is true first because that is what Jesus did. And second, service within and to other members of the church encourages and strengthens the church to present itself as a bright light to the world.
We should be happy to serve the church and to do so in such a way as those within it are encouraged and the church, in all ways, looks as inviting as practical. But as in anything that is good there is a risk that if we take that good too far it becomes its own problem. We cannot simply serve only the church.
Jesus taught his disciples to be warry of serving only themselves using a story found in Luke’s collection of witness statements we call the Gospel of Luke. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest [a religious leader] happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, [another religious leader] when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ 36 ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ 37 The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Luke 10:30-37). And so, Jesus tells us to be careful not to be so focused on our kind that we do not see the needs of others regardless of their association to our lives. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a United States Supreme Court Justice is credited with saying that we must be careful to avoid the criticism that, “Some people are so heavenly minded they are no earthly good.”
Service in the church means there are two types of service that must exist. We must be active in the church body itself serving the members of the church itself. This is a voluntary expression of servanthood born out of love for one another and our desire to imitate Jesus as his faithful disciples. It does not mean that we must necessarily wash one another’s feet, but it means we serve on all the ministries of the church for the church to include the Trustees and Treasurers, teaching, preparing meals for one another, greeting, leading worship, giving a message, and the list goes on. When we serve the church, we strengthen the body of Christ.
Second, we must also take that strengthened body of Christ and serve our neighbors as ourselves. This is a voluntary expression of servanthood born out of concern for all who are made in the image of God.
I will close today with the words of Apostle Paul who instructed the churches he established this way: “3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
We do not need to humble ourselves into death. Instead, we need to live humbly for the lives of others. Amen and Amen.