This past Sunday marks the beginning of a new year at my church. Newly selected teachers, deacons, and officers will assume their roles—some of them for the first time ever. In their newness, novices will learn from the veterans. But some might wonder who’s greater, the novices or the veterans?
Speaking of newness, also this past Sunday our church hosted a reception for folks who are new to the church. People had an opportunity to ask questions, get a grand tour, and learn where they can fit into Sunday School. Many of these have never participated in the various ministries and jobs in this or any. Who do you suppose, those who are young to the church or those old-time members?
As much as we hate to admit it, there are those who measure the value of their membership by the number of years since they joined, the number of committees they’ve helped, or the number of people they supervise. It reminds me of Luke 22.24, where a dispute arises among Jesus’ disciples as to who is the greatest. Jesus had twelve disciples, yet Jesus frequently spent special time with Simon, James, and John. These were the only three that John had given nicknames to—James and John were the “Sons of Thunder,” and Simon was called “Peter—The Rock.” Naturally, they wanted to know which one was the greatest. They wanted to understand their pecking order.
The term “pecking order” was coined in the 1920s by biologists who recognized that among chickens, one establishes dominance over another by pecking. The dominated one then turns and establishes superiority over another in the same way—on down the line until the lowliest chicken that has nobody to peck. People are no different. Just like the disciples, folks at church often wonder who’s the greatest. Is it the pastor, the deacon chairman, the Sunday school director, the church clerk or secretary? What’s the pecking order? Is it the oldest member, or the person who’s been a member of the church the longest? Is it the newest people with the freshest ideas? Because we’re human, we all want to know who’s the greatest.
Jesus contrasted the world’s system with the way things ought to work among believers. Heathen kings lord it over their subjects. People in authority call themselves benefactors. Certainly we have all known leaders like this: managers, teachers, leaders who govern in an authoritarian style that makes you feel small and weak, helpless, and beholden. This is not the way of Christ. Instead, Jesus says that “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves (Luke 22.26b[i]).” In God’s estimation, it’s not the chicken who’s at the top of the pecking order who’s the greatest. Instead, it’s the least, last, and lowliest servant who ranks at the top. In verse 27, Jesus says, “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.” In other words, for the Christian, service and not smugness is the sign of significance.
Today I want to encourage you to be like Jesus—to take His example and become a servant to those around you. Instead of trying to establish yourself in the pecking order, put yourself last and serve. This week, many churches in the area where I live are promoting Operation Inasmuch[ii] Week—a time to commit random acts of kindness in the community. Not all these good deeds will be completely random. In fact, some of them will be very well planned. Some of our area churches are planning free community car washes, river cleanups, or canned food drives. If you want to, you could clean a house for someone who needs assistance, do yard work or cut wood for an elderly person, write cards and letters of encouragement to people who are struggling, donate blood, take a meal to a shut-in or a bird feeder to a nursing home resident, or help a struggling student that you’re not related to with their homework. You don’t have to join Operation Inasmuch or get on any other bandwagon in order to serve—all you have to do is model your life after Jesus.
As you serve, keep in mind that the Christian’s purpose of serving isn’t to try to be great. For the Christian, service and not smugness is the sign of significance. It’s not like you’re saying, “Because I want to be great, I’m going to serve the people who can gain me influence.” Instead, it’s about giving of yourself to the people who could never pay you back—not so that you’ll be great but just so you can demonstrate God’s love. Love should be your motivation—not the laurels you get from service.
It’s no coincidence that right after Jesus said these things about humility and exaltation, He says, “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22.31-32).” The NRSV points out that it’s not just Simon (The Rock no longer) who will be sifted like wheat—but all the disciples who will be tested. So every Christian who serves will also be tested, to determine their motivations and their dependence on God. Recently I spoke with someone who has agreed to a position of service in our church. I told him to be careful, because a time of sifting will come. Yet, we need not fear the sifting. God doesn’t allow struggles to come so that we’ll fail. In fact, Jesus’ prayer is that we will not fail, but that we will use our times of trial to strengthen ourselves and yet remain humble, so we can turn and strengthen others. I join in Jesus’ prayer that you may not fail in your testing, in your service, or in your love. I pray that God will strengthen you so you can be a blessing—and then, that you may truly be great.