Everyone has heard the stereotypical expression "I live to serve." Though intended to mean that the speaker genuinely enjoys providing the needs of others, it is generally muttered under the breath with a tone of irony, indicating that the speaker would rather be doing anything else. The truth is that most people do not live to serve others, but live to serve themselves. Occasionally you may meet the rare waiter or nurse who truly enjoys taking care of other people's menial tasks, but these people are few and far between. We would much rather be served than serve. Who of us would not prefer to go to a restaurant and be waited on, than don an apron ourselves and refill someone else's coffee? Yet Jesus teaches the radical virtue of service. Luke 22.24-27* records:
A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.
As a pastor, I've seen this same situation played out numerous times in the congregations that I've served. Becky is new to the congregation, and is welcomed because she has plenty of money to give. Consequently, she expects that she can purchase the right to sway opinions in business meetings. Samantha, on the other hand, has been in the church all her life and is descended from one of the church's founding families. Although she doesn't have much money, she feels that her pedigree gives her importance in the church. Then there's Robert, who is influential in local politics, and expects that same influence to extend to the congregation. Each one expects the church to follow their leadership, and feels entitled to that position by virtue of their unique gifts to the church. But Jesus has a different definition of leadership.
Jesus said, "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all (Mark 9.35b).” He commanded His disciples not to take the place of honor at banquets, but to sit at the foot of the table instead of at the head (Luke 14.7-11). The apostle Paul echoes this sentiment in Philippians 2.3-4: "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." The Lord modeled this kind of humility in John 13.3-9:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
If I may take a little license with the words of Jesus in Luke 22.27, let me point out that when the Master says, "I am among you as one who serves," He speaks the holy name of God, and indeed gives God a new name. We might read this statement as, "I AM is among you, as The One Who Serves." Yes, God is among us. This is the incarnation—that God took on human flesh and not only dwelt among us, and came not to be served, but to serve (John 1.14; Matthew 20.28). And He calls us to follow His lead.
For the Christian, incarnational living means being like Jesus—taking up the towel and serving. It means considering others as more significant than ourselves. It means not flaunting your donations to the church or trusting in your ancestry or your political strength in order to gain influence in the church. It means putting yourself at the foot of the table instead of the head. When you can say, "I live to serve," and mean it, then you embody the person of Christ. Then, I AM is indeed among you, as one who serves--because He serves through you.
I wonder—how will you behave at the next church banquet or business meeting? Will you be like Immanuel—God With Us? Will you bring I AM into that gathering, as you take up the towel?
*All scriptures are taken from the ESV.