Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples: Service
“As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our service.” Today as we continue in our series on the seven habits of highly effective disciples, we’re looking at the vow we make to participate in the ministries of the church by our service. We started by looking at our purpose, our reason for being as ourselves and as a congregation. And then we moved to talking about each supporting area – prayers, presences, gifts, and now service. Service can be tricky – how is it different than gifts, exactly? Of course, as Laurel shared with us last week, gifts certainly connects to our financial giving in particular, our stewardship, our generosity, and Laurel helped us think about a life that we share freely with others, as we share everything that we have, remembering that what we have is just entrusted to us by God. Isn’t service the same thing? Using our spiritual gifts, perhaps? Sharing our gifts of time or using our talents and abilities in giving time and energy in the life of the church?
I think, though, that service can mean so much more. My first district superintendent, when I was pastor in Oneida in the Mohawk District, was Rev. Carl Johnson, and I really admired his deep wisdom. I remember in particular how much one word irritated him – volunteer. He hated it when people referred to participants in ministries of the church as volunteers. There’s no such thing as volunteers in our journey to follow Jesus, he would say. There’s disciples. Students of Jesus who have committed to learning more about him, learning how better to live like Jesus. But there’s no volunteering in discipleship, as if we elect to bestow an hour here or an hour there in the journey with Christ. I certainly think service has a deeper meaning than volunteering. Volunteering is so – optional – isn’t it? Something we can choose to do or not to do. But I don’t think that’s what service is all about.
I’m continuing to chug away at writing my Doctor of Ministry paper. The main theme of my Doctor of Ministry research is how to help us think about our Outreach ministry more as the work of justice, less as acts of charity. In our research sessions, I explained one of the key differences between charity and justice like this: charity is optional, and justice is required. When it comes to charity, those of us with financial means are the ones in control. We can choose to give, or choose not to. When we do give, then, because it is optional, a choice, we, the giver, are considered benevolent and generous. But although the scriptures mention individual acts of charitable goodwill, what God demands for the downtrodden, the oppressed in the scriptures is not charity, but justice. Justice, as we’ve talked about, is when what happens in the world is set right, set in line with God’s vision for the world. And things are not set right when people are poor and hungry and abused and alone and hurting. And God’s justice isn’t optional or up to us to control. Certainly, sometimes justice is slow to unfold, as sinful humankind acts unjustly toward one another. But justice is God’s and it is required, because God’s vision for our world is inevitable. And that’s a vision we want to be a part of, so we’re trying to teach ourselves to long for and work for justice, rather than settling only for charity and patting ourselves on the back for it. When I think about charity versus justice, I think about volunteering versus servanthood. Volunteering is something we can add on in our spare time as we see fit. But servanthood is a way of life.
Our gospel lesson today comes from the gospel of Mark. Just before this, a man approached Jesus asking what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus talked to him about the commandments, which the man said he kept, and then Jesus told him he should sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. And the men went away grieving, since he was very wealthy. Jesus then talked about how difficult it was to enter God’s kingdom, and the disciples wonder how anyone could enter the kingdom. Jesus tells them that with God, nothing is impossible, but that the last will be first and the first will be last.
Somehow, just after this, apparently not absorbing the previous conversation, we encounter James and John saying to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus presses them, asking if they could really handle all that is implied – if they could face what Jesus will face in order to claim those honored seats – and they insist that they can. Naturally, their claim to seats of honor causes a fight among the twelve, who are mad at James and John. But Jesus says to them, ““You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” Well over half of the times that you read the word “servant” in our modern Bible translations, the actual Greek word means slave, not servant. The word servant conjures up for me a maid or a butler, someone lower class serving someone upper class, but still, a person who receives a wage, who is working maybe not as their dream job, but still an option that could be chosen, even if the other choices were not as good as choosing to be a servant. But slave implies something different, doesn’t it? A slave is not getting a paycheck, or time off they can spend with their family. A slave belongs to the master. In Jesus’ day, both slaves and servants – those who might fill one specific task – had less freedom than the maids in a good Jane Austen novel. They were not in charge of the course of their own lives. What happened to them was up to the master of the household.
I can understand why translators opt for “servant” instead of “slave” in many cases in the scripture. It sounds better, doesn’t it? Does God want us to be slaves? With our own country’s horrifically abusive system of slavery as part of our history, with the ways that the horrors of slavery still leaves its mark, its pain on our society today, we’re right to hesitate, at least, when we encounter the word slave, to question what exactly is meant. So let me be clear, that when we encounter slavery in the Bible, I do not believe in any way that God intended for us to practice such a degrading, dehumanizing system of refusing to see others as created in the very precious image of God. There’s a history of people using the Bible to condone the system of slavery, and I believe God weeps when the gospel is used in such harmful ways. So that’s what I don’t mean by drawing our attention to this language of slave and servant that weaves through the New Testament.
The most common prayer of our faith is the Lord’s Prayer. We pray it in worship on Sunday, and many of us probably pray this prayer in other places and settings throughout the week as well. It was certainly part of my prayer routine from childhood. How many times have you prayed that prayer? Every time we pray it, we say these words: “You kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray, over and over, for God’s will to be done. Do we mean what we say? Of course, I hope and pray that sometimes, many times, our will and God’s will are one in the same. That, I think, is the goal we aim for in our Christian life. But sometimes, our will, what we want, is different from what God wants for us. Sometimes this isn’t just because we want something that’s wrong or bad or evil, but because God has something in mind for us we haven’t even imagined yet. When we claim the title of disciple, when we say that we’re servants, when we pray for God’s will to be done, I want us to be fully aware that what we’re saying is that God’s will is more important to us than our own. We’d rather see God’s plans carried out than ours. It is in fact the very prayer that Jesus prayed in the garden before he was arrested – if it be your will God. But not as I will, but your will be done. God’s will be done. We pray it over and over. I hope, I seek for myself and for you that we learn to live it, to embody it more fully. We are servants not because God is a tyrant over us, but because we follow this Jesus who shows us that strength and power come from humble service, and deep relationship with God is born of learning to let God’s ways be our ways.
The difference is choice. God never forces us to be obedient, to choose to place our will below God’s will for us. But God does ask us to do so. God asks us to choose to let God’s will be the guide of our life. God asks for our servanthood. And God doesn’t ask something that Jesus doesn’t model himself. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus lives as a servant, placing our lives before his own life, obedient to God even to the point of death on a cross. Jesus chooses. He chooses servanthood. He chooses God. He chooses us.
When we promise to support the ministries of the church by our service, we’re promising so much more than donating a few hours of our time like we might rack up community service hours for a school project. Not community service, not volunteering, but servanthood, a way of life where we continually seek to follow God’s will instead of our own and where we place others first and ourselves last. Imagine if, instead of a congregation of members, attenders, participants, volunteers, we cultivate a congregation full of servants, disciples, letting God’s will shape our direction.
O God, holy is your name. May your kingdom come! May your will be done! Amen.