“But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant…” Matthew 20:25-26 NRSV
Be careful what you ask Jesus! A mother inquired, the sons made a declaration, and the rest of the disciples got mad. That is the Reader’s Digest version of what took place to set the stage for the aforementioned words of Jesus. Can we really blame the mother of James and John for at least asking? Afterall, like any proud mama, she wanted the very best for her boys. It was worth a shot: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” You get the idea! The V.I.P. treatment complete with reserved seating. While the request did not sit well with the other ten disciples, it did create an opportunity for Jesus to shed a bit of light upon an ongoing conversation amongst his followers. It was the type of talk characteristic amongst youth arguing over athletic prowess characterized by discussions on greatness and ability. The shameful truth is that such conversations continued even as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem for his crucifixion. The time had arrived. Enough was enough. Jesus knew that some way, somehow, they just did not understand and now he must set the record straight. Rather than “letting ‘em have it,” he paused like a parent or teacher and offered insight into the true nature of leadership, finishing first, and being the best in God’s Kingdom. I imagine for the twelve it was like having a power lunch with Warren Buffett related to the keys to successful investing. However, Jesus’ response was no plan for financial security and did not include a litany of principles or book to be read. Jesus answer to greatness was…service.
Most likely that was not the answer sought after by the disciples, but it was the answer they received pure and simple…in both word and deed. Embarrassed, perhaps disappointed by Jesus’ reply, this was not exactly what anyone expected. Service was not exactly one of the highest virtues pursued within the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day and honestly has not gained much ground some 2,000 years later. Like the disciples of long ago, we continue to advance our causes, jockey for position, and seek to make a name during our limited time in this life. The very word seems…well…ordinary, common, devoid of glitz and glamour, etc. We equate service with humility and humility with caring for others rather than ourselves, and…well…we just do not care for that. Yet again, we find Jesus shaking up human expectations and running against the grain of accepted societal norms. It was true then and perhaps even more so today. The very thing we do not wish to hear is the ongoing word that Jesus has for his people today: serve, love one another, give your life away. Jesus’ answer to the question of prominence must return to being one of the core values of Christianity and a visible marker to our world of the credibility of our faith. Service sets us apart in this “dog eat dog world” in which everyone is only looking out for what is best for self. The self may characterize the kingdom of this world, a kingdom which is but fleeting, but service encapsulates our practice of the Gospel.
In John 13, following the washing of his disciples’ feet, Jesus emphasized a new commandment: “Love one another.” It was this very act which would prove to the world that one was truly a follower of Jesus. He said nothing about doctrine, styles of worship, or carpet color. Jesus’ answer to his followers was and still is to love one another. In order to follow Jesus’ command, we must serve one another. Service is the means by which we express our love for Christ and desire to follow his example toward humanity. The Church Covenant found within the Articles of Faith for our denomination opens with the statement: “Having given ourselves to God, by faith in Christ, and adopted the word of God as our rule of faith and practice, we now give ourselves to one another by the will of God…” To be “given to another” is to serve someone else in the name of the One who served and gave himself for us. By encouraging us to love one another through service, Jesus was not requesting anything of us that he himself was unwilling to do. Rather than offering a great suggestion to the disciples, he was willing to put into practice the giving of himself for the sake of others. For Jesus this meant healing the sick, being present with the broken, and ultimately offering his life as the sacrifice for the sins of humanity.
Service is not an optional part to being a follower of Christ. It is not an “add-on” when we feel like doing so. As Thom Rainer has pointed out in his work, I Am A Church Member, inactivity and being a Christian do not fit in the same sentence. To be Christian is to do something with our faith. More than just sharing about Jesus with others, our service shows Jesus to others. In the early 2000s, Christian artists Casting Crowns penned a song related to this focus on service. The lyrics raise questions about being the Body of Christ and doing the work of God’s Kingdom. The chorus asks:
“But if we are the body
Why aren’t His arms reaching?
Why aren’t His hands healing?
Why aren’t His words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t His feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way?”
No doubt these are very thought-provoking questions with which we must wrestle as followers of Christ. If we are what we claim to be in Christ, then service must naturally flow from our lives not because we have to, but because we want to.
The Rev. Kelley Smart