During the civil holidays of Memorial Day and Veteran's Day we repeatedly hear this phrase: "Thank you for your service." This is usually applied - and rightly so - to those who have served in the military. But this is not the only form of public service. We would be remiss if, when we recognize military service, we failed to recognize the various other forms of service that surround and sustain us. When we thank others for their service we must not forget teachers, farmers, cashiers, retail workers, fast-food workers, doctors, preachers, construction workers, sanitation workers, and volunteers of every stripe and variety. (The list could go on indefinitely, but I have to stop somewhere!)
We express our gratitude to those who serve because to serve is godlike. If Jesus is our window to God, then we are never more like God than when we serve others. Our chief identity is that of children of God, but the best means by which we reveal our identity to the world is through service to others.
More than any other description, the great apostle Paul called himself "the servant of Christ and of God." Paul understood himself to be following in the way of the Master - that of self-giving service to others. He remembered his Lord's teaching that our greatest goal in life should be to hear these words of approval from God: "Well done, good and faithful servant." Sadly, this is something Jesus' own disciples often forgot.
Who is the Greatest? (Luke 22:24-27)
During Jesus' final meal with his disciples, an argument broke out among them concerning, of all things, who was the greatest. Instead of directly rebuking his disciples for their lack of tact and humility, Jesus took advantage of this teachable moment by reminding them about what true greatness is in the eyes of God:
He said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." (Luke 22:25-27)
With this teaching, Jesus forced his disciples to fundamentally reassess all they knew about leadership. He demanded that they critically examine human conventions and view themselves in light of his own example. Consequently, he revealed that Christian leadership is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.
From a human perspective, rulers "lord it over" others. In other words, as the saying goes, "might makes right." Because of our human tendency to take advantage of positions of power, power is often wielded for one's own advantage, in the service of one's own self-interests, one's own agenda. But, Jesus redefines the purpose of power. He taught that power, in order to conform to God's kingdom, must be yielded in service to love. That is, it must be yielded for the good of others.
From a human perspective, "the great exercise authority over the weak." The one with the most authority is more important than others. Those who are "lorded over" serve the one in authority. In contrast, Jesus teaches that those with the most power have the greatest responsibility to seek the welfare of all others - especially the weak.
Jesus effectively levels the playing field, declaring all to be equal. He removes the prominence, rank, and higher status often assigned to the position of leadership. He declares that no one is more important than anyone else - the Christian leader holds no exalted place over those he or she serves. By doing this, Jesus throws cold water over the dreams of those who expect leadership to include "superstar" status. Christian leaders are to be like "the youngest," like children, who in Jesus' culture, possessed no special status, position, prominence, or rank.
Jesus as Model
Like everything that Jesus taught, his instruction was not just abstract theory. He embodied what he taught. Paul understood this and applied it to the life of a church in Philippians 2. The principle that drives his teaching is stated both negatively and positively: "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better [or more important] than yourself" (Phil. 2:3). In practice, this means that we "must not look out for our own interests, but also be concerned with the interests of others" (Phil. 2:4).
It is easy to become preoccupied with our own self-interests, our own concerns and agendas. What we desire and value often seems more important than anything else. But we must not be so preoccupied with our own concerns that we forget others and their needs. Those who follow Christ cannot make self the highest good. If we are constantly thinking about ourselves, we will never care for others. Ultimately, a life ruled by self-interest is devilish, demonic, and inhuman. James states this bluntly in his short letter to the church:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. (James 3:13-16)
James challenges our tendency to demand everything revolve around ourselves. Sometimes, this is manifest by an "I am here for what I can get out of it" mentality. But, as Bob Dylan put it, "we all gotta serve somebody." And the "somebody" we serve must not be ourselves. It must be something, or better, someone greater than ourselves. Our first priority is to serve God. And we serve God best by serving others, just as Jesus did.
This is particular important for leaders to recognize. Sometimes leaders are the neediest of all. Our ego demands titles, importance, recognition, applause, and approval. David Ford writes, "Many leaders are driven by their own inner needs and anxieties: they must sense applause; they must continually [meet their] needs; they must be recognized."
Because of this danger, we need an attitude adjustment. We need the attitude of Christ - an attitude summarized in the phrase, "humility of mind" (Phil. 2:3a, 5). This is the attitude that allows us not to "think too highly of ourselves" (Romans 12:3) but to "consider others better than ourselves."
Ultimately, humility has to do with self-knowledge. And, as usual in the Christian tradition, the perfect example is Jesus' self-knowledge. Paul offers us a unique insight into Jesus' self-knowledge. He invites us to enter into the very mind of Christ and make it our own mindset - our own attitude: "Let the same mind [or attitude] be in you that was in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:5). Or, as another translation puts it: "Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself."
Paul reminds us, not of how Jesus primarily thought of others, but of how he thought about himself. Paul writes, "Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited" (Phil. 2:6). Translated another way: "He did not regard being equal with God as something to use for his own advantage."
Jesus has an advantage over us. He is God manifest in the flesh. He is undoubtedly greater than us - of higher rank, of greater privilege. But he chose not to use his advantage for himself - for his own advantage. He used it for the welfare of others.
How did Jesus display his attitude? "He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant" (Phil. 2:7). In order to understand this pregnant phrase, we must not ask the question, "Of what did Jesus empty himself?" Jesus did not abandon his divinity. He did empty himself of divine attributes and glory. The better question is, "Into what did he empty himself?" He emptied himself into servanthood. He took the lowest place. He used his power for the good of others. As a human, he became inferior to God in substance. As a servant, he became inferior to other humans in rank. As a criminal, he became inferior to even servant (cf. Phil. 2:7-8).
Jesus forsook his divine prerogatives for the good of others. "He had highest rank, greatest prominence, ultimate superiority, supreme position... and yet he did no cling to these things for the exaltation of his own self--he considered others better than himself." The Message puts it like this: "He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what."
In Jesus, the sovereign Master of all became the Servant of all. "The only person in the world who had the right to assert his rights waived them." And by doing this, "he humbled himself." He gave up everything - including life itself - for the sake of others. In his incarnation, the Son refused to exercise the privileges due him because of his exalted status, but instead, he willingly took the lowest place in order to benefit all those who would follow him. He "willingly suffered." He expressed love at all costs, claiming no "special privilege." He did this in order to serve humanity at its greatest point of need.
Jesus served, not in spite of being God, but because he is God. The point is clear: God is most clearly seen in servanthood. If we allow Jesus to be our chief window to God, we discover that servanthood is the most accurate reflection of God.
We are never more like God than when we serve others. When we serve, our actions are godly, worshipful, holy. Christ's leadership was not revealed in a raw display of superiority and power but in humility, weakness, self-giving, self-emptying service--things viewed by world as signs of weakness rather than strength. His power was at the service of love. Jesus revealed that service to others is the truest and best expression of divine love.
We follow Jesus by welcoming a life of service, by serving others without regard to cost, by placing ourselves in the vulnerable position of giving our lives for the good of others.
There is much talk about spirituality in our day. And yet, rarely do we connect servanthood with spirituality. But service is not in conflict with spirituality. Indeed, service to others is worship. We reflect this together in our liturgy - the work or service of the people. Our liturgy is the means by which we demonstrate to God, ourselves, and one another that we serve God alone. We reveal this to the world when we make our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is our reasonable service of worship (Romans 12:1-2). Because God serves us, we serve others. We are most like God when we follow Jesus in the way of self-giving service for the welfare of others.
Our chief identity is that of children of God. But we reveal the truth of this when we reflect God's service to others - when we ourselves are servants of God. Our goal in life is not to self-actualize or spend our life pursuing our own self-interests without regard for others. Our goal is life is not even to be considered deeply spiritual by others - unless by this we mean that we seek to express our spirituality in service. Our goal in life, the thing we long for more than all else, is to hear God say to us, "Well done, good and faithful servant." And the only way we will hear this is if we reflect Christ's self-giving humility in a life of active service.
This leads us to reflect upon the question: Where are you serving? Even better: Who are you serving?
Perhaps this simple story will illustrate the beauty and holiness of service best:
A holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day and said, "Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like."
The Lord led the holy man to two doors.
He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew, which smelled delicious and made the holy man's mouth water.
The people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles that were strapped to their arms and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful. But because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.
The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering.
The Lord said, "You have seen Hell."
They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man's mouth water. The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The holy man said, "I don't understand."
"It is simple," said the Lord. "It requires but one skill. You see they have learned to feed each other, while the greedy think only of themselves."
The difference between heaven and hell - both now and in the future - boils down to this: People of heaven serve others. People of hell serve only themselves.
Serving others is good for all. Serving one's self leads only to misery, despair, and loneliness. It is not good for others, and it is not good for the self. It shrinks the soul and makes us less than human. It fails to reflect God's glory - the glory revealed in Christ through his humble, self-giving service.
 Leighton Ford, Transforming Leadership: Jesus' Way of Creating Vision, Shaping Values & Empowering Change (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 127.
 Kenneth Wuest.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2009