Service is often the favourite spiritual discipline for many followers of Jesus, especially in our Reformed tradition. Our Reformed faith works at instilling a lifestyle of gratitude in each person which often leads to a spirit of service. If we’re honest with ourselves, serving is one of the ways we try to make God happy so that he’ll kind of over look some of the bad things we do. We are a church of doers: Circle of Friends, Friendship, Youth ministries, children ministries, Christmas dinner, Mexico mission trip, volunteering at various thrift stores, volunteering at school, various ministry leadership teams, and much more. The youth ministry has also added service to help our youth connect faith and service as part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Serving makes us feel good. When we help someone, they thank us. When we go away to serve, like in Mexico, we meet new people, experience a new culture and it’s warm! When we serve, we often get to see the results right away. When we harvested a lady’s garden in Clive, we could see how much we accomplished and we got cookies and lemonade. When you serve at Circle of Friends, you see the people enjoy the food and fellowship, in Mexico you see a house built.
But we often have a harder time with unseen, un-thanked service, or the yucky jobs. A woman who worked as a janitor in a senior care home mentioned how people often don’t even see her, taking the hard work she does for granted. She felt as if she was considered less because of the kind of work she did. As anyone who has looked for volunteers can vouch for, it’s easier to find someone to serve soup than to clean toilets or wipe up vomit from the carpet. Jesus knows this. It’s meal time; the Passover meal, and Jesus and his disciples are gathered around the table. They all know their feet need to be washed because they stink since their feet are all close to each other’s faces as they recline at the table. Problem was that no one’s willing to take up the towel and basin and starting washing the other guys’ feet, that’s way too nasty and only the lowest servant does that job. Remember that they’ve just been arguing about who’s the greatest, no one’s arguing to be the lowest in the kingdom.
Quietly Jesus gets up and grabs the towel and basin and begins washing his disciples’ feet, turning their world upside down. Jesus knows who he is as he washes their feet; he’s the Son of God, King of kings, saviour of the world, but he as reminds his disciples in Mark 10, he came to serve, not to be served. You may think that washing feet is nasty, but Jesus serves us in an even greater and harder way when he goes to the cross to wash away our sin, bring us new life, and take away our guilt to bring us freedom from sin and death. In bringing us new life, he also brings in a new world order where the last shall be first, the weak are strong, where the one who is the greatest is a humble servant.
The discipline of service is about countering our pride; about cultivating humility; leading us out of our self-centered selfish lives into lives shaped by humble service that blesses others. Serving reminds us that our lives are not our own, but belong to our faithful saviour Jesus Christ and that he has prepared good works for us to do. Serving helps shape us to be more like Jesus. As Paul writes, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility values others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: … taking on the very nature of a servant.” Jesus tells his disciples, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” We’re called to be foot washers; offering our lives, gifts, and resources in service to Jesus.
Service is a way of living. As Richard Foster writes, there’s a difference in “choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant.” When we choose to serve, we’re in charge and we choose when and how we want to serve. Service becomes a discipline when we serve in Jesus’ time instead of our time. A servant’s not in charge, he gives up the right to whom we will serve and when we will serve. It’s easy doing things we’re good at and things we like doing. The harder service is doing things we don’t like or want to do. We’re not always called to easy service; often we’re called to harder service in things we don’t like or with hard people or for hard people. How we do the work reveals our heart’s orientation: towards God or towards ourselves. Do you serve hoping to be noticed, or grudgingly, or do you serve joyfully, thankful that you’re able to help someone else, able to be a blessing in a small or big way?
Service to be service must take form and shape in the world in which we live, according to Foster. Develop eyes that see the opportunities to serve, especially in our community and neighbourhoods. The question is: will we serve or ignore the opportunities; do we wait until it’s convenient? Small acts of service like holding doors, helping someone with a flat tire, picking something up that someone dropped, speaking well of others, shoveling the walkway for your neighbour before you head off to work, and other small acts of service, especially ones that are unseen contribute to “a sense of a deeper love and compassion among people though they cannot account for the feeling,” according to Foster. In one church where I was serving, a man had an embarrassing accident during the service, one that was quickly apparent to everyone there. Another man in the congregation quietly took him to the bathroom and cleaned him up. Most people never knew of his humble service, but it reminded me of Jesus taking on the nasty jobs quietly and calling us to quiet humble service.
We often get blinders on when it comes to serving, often not seeing the opportunities to serve our community and neighbourhoods. Many of you are busy; your days are filled with running here to there; we’ve scheduled our days so full that you believe that you can’t serve more. I’m not asking you to serve more, sometimes I’ll even advise you to serve less because many times our reasons for serving are based on guilt or obligation rather than a desire to serve. Sometimes we’ve scheduled too much in church that we make it almost impossible for you to serve because we want give everyone what they want instead of what they need.
The discipline of service comes in many shapes. In Peter, we see the importance of the service of being served. We cannot save ourselves from our sin, we need Jesus’ service on the cross and in the empty grave to wash us clean. For others to serve, sometimes we need to allow them to serve us. Often, we don’t want to be served because of a sense of veiled pride. While going to seminary, there was Joyce and 5 kids. I hated needing to ask for help and then one wise couple came to us and asked us to let them help us because they felt God desired this. It’s my pride that stood in the way. I needed to learn to serve by allowing them to serve us. There’s the service of hospitality, opening our homes and table to guests and visitors. Peter in his first letter calls us to, “Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another.” Paul also says if you want to be a bishop in the church, you need to practice hospitality. Hospitality connects us to the generous heart of God who pours out his blessings to his people.
There’s the service of common courtesy, the service of kindness and interest in others, taking time with them and for them. Paul tells Titus to “be gentle and show perfect courtesy toward all people.” We can serve by helping each other bearing their burdens, coming alongside each other in difficult times, and then there’s the service of sharing the Word with each other. This actually starts in the church, sharing God’s word with each other, what we’re learning, sharing words of scripture as encouragement, support and building each other up.
Like all spiritual disciplines, service is meant to help us become more like Jesus, in this case by working on humility and focusing on those around us instead of ourselves. In doing so, we also help create healthier, happier communities that look more like the kingdom of heaven.