Erika F. Puni, Director, General Conference Stewardship

Summary: Jesus’ disciples did not comprehend the centrality of service to the kingdom of God. Their attitudes were influenced by the secular agenda of their day—position, self, and the desire to be served. When the topic of leadership emerges within the twelve, Jesus confronts their selfish craving and shows them the real meaning of service.

Good morning, Sir. This is a courtesy call from your Ford dealer, checking to see if you are happy with the car service you received from us a couple of days ago?” Indeed, I was happy and impressed to hear from my local dealer, knowing that they care about me—the customer. In a hotel where we stayed recently, there was no microwave to sterilize Janae-Grace’s bottles and no electric kettle for her hot water, but room service was willing to deliver us boiled water daily, for a fee. The hotel support staff was definitely willing to help, but it cost three dollars to deliver hot water to our room!

In Australia, where we had lived for some time, and in our new country of residence, the United States of America, I am encouraged to learn of the growing number of individuals and organizations that are involved in local and international volunteering—a special kind of service commitment. As followers of Jesus in 2006, I wonder if we would be willing to serve Him in the refugee camps of Darfur (Sudan), in the crime infested favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), or in the under-serviced areas of New Orleans. This is the question.

Serving, bottom up

As humans with carnal natures, the disciples of Jesus did not understand, nor did they comprehend, the centrality of “service” to the kingdom or rule of God. Their thoughts and attitudes were influenced by the secular agenda of their time—position, self, and the desire to be served by others. And when the issue of leadership surfaced within the circle of the twelve, Jesus had to confront this selfish craving for the “number one” position by saying:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:25-28).

For Jesus, His kingdom’s manifesto is service, and this emphasis is contrary to the philosophical position of the world. On this occasion, Christ made it explicitly clear that for anyone to be part of His community—His people—they must live by this service principle. But the test of discipleship is not simple, because it calls for the emptying of self and for one to take on the role of a slave, a position that society accepts as lower than a hired servant. Slaves have no legal rights; no special privileges, no defense when abused by their masters, and no future but to work and serve at the mercy of their owners. But to be sure the disciples now understand His purpose and mission in the world, Jesus illustrates the point with His own life. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.”

With basin and towel

It was the celebration of Passover and their last supper together before the cross, and Jesus wanted to spend this time alone with His disciples (Jn 13). But the place for this evening meal did not belong to anyone in the group, so there was no host and, consequently, there were no servants or slaves around to do the menial task of washing the guests’ feet before entering and eating. Given the uniqueness of the situation, who should be serving in this incidence? Culturally, it cannot be Jesus. He is the master and leader and He holds the place of respect among the group. But no one offers, and not one of the twelve is willing to initiate the custom of foot washing.

Again, Jesus, Lord of the universe, has to demonstrate once more that living under the rule of God means serving even as a servant. But there is more to serving! For Jesus, service is a mark of true discipleship (Jn 13:14, 15). Furthermore, the person who serves with the basin and towel will be blessed by God (Jn 13:17).

A serving attitude

Service as an outward behavior—what is seen by people—is an expression of an attitude of mind and heart. The apostle Paul makes this point when writing to the Galatian Christians: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross!” (Php 2:5-8).

Christ substitutionary death was the ultimate example of service and sacrifice. But while human service is a manifestation of the stewardship of Christian discipleship, such an act of love must spring forth from a heart that is connected to the heart of God Himself. In this way, our service is an extension of Christ’s life of service in us and through us. It is not motivated by false humility or prompted by the promise of rewards and personal gains, but a genuine outcome of a life that is ruled by Christ. Service is a Christian lifestyle, an authentic sign of being a disciple of Jesus in the twenty-first century. And so, when our relationship with God is right, then the question about service is no longer “whether to serve or not to serve” but “where and when can I serve?”

The Church—A serving community

As members of the body of Christ on earth, where do we start? Let me make a suggestion. I believe that, as Christians, we are called to make a difference for God in the world, but we are to start with our families and friends—those that are near to us and whom we meet regularly. Service is not necessarily a matter of going to faraway places, nor is it determined by how much we give in terms of our resources and time, but rather, it is our willing-ness to make life better for someone in need today.