A few times every year in our church we have ‘welcome suppers’ for people who are new to our church. During those times we talk about the things that define us and invite people to come on board. On each occasion we open up various passages of Scripture to talk about different aspects of church life and one passage we always look at is Mark 10:42-45:
“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Of course you can see why I read it on these occasions. It’s a wonderful passage to use as a proof text for challenging people to think about how they will serve in their new church, “Oh Jesus says I should serve – where’s a roster and I’ll sign up?”
However, I wonder if using it in such a way actually domesticates the real challenge of what Jesus is saying? This is the most radical agenda that has ever been taught. Greatness in the Kingdom of God is totally different to greatness in the world. The great one, in God’s eyes, is the voluntary servant. The one who does not look for other people to tell them what a servant they are, who doesn’t ask what other people can do for them, the one who doesn’t look to see who’s watching. The great one in God’s eyes is the one who quietly, for an audience of one, just gets on with serving others.
Of course, another word for it is love. Humble, self-sacrificial and loving service. That’s what is great in God’s eyes. That’s what Jesus wants to see in his followers. That’s what he wants to see in his church – servants, serving one another and serving the world, in love.
Of course, Jesus doesn’t just say, “The mark of my followers is that they serve”. Jesus says – “Do as I do”. Our service is only ever a response to and reflection of the great act of service, our Lord serving us by dying in our place to set us free from sin. That of course is the most radical act of service ever undertaken.
More than that, when we domesticate a passage like this and use it to encourage people to join a roster to hand out outlines at the door, we also potentially unwittingly mislead people about the very centre of the Gospel. I wonder if at times I have turned people from focussing on what Jesus has done for them, and turned it into a message of what we can do for Jesus? There is always a danger that we make it sound like the essence of being a Christian is about what you do for Jesus.
However, the essence of Christianity is not that we serve Jesus. The essence is that he has served us. We are the served before we are the servants.
I remember talking to a person who suffers from depression and had stopped coming to church. I must admit I was a little judgmental. I assumed there was a problem with his faith; that his suffering was weighing him down and leading him not to trust in Christ. However, when I actually took the time to listen he said that the problem was that he felt guilty every Sunday, because the Gospel he heard was a Gospel of, “What can you do to repay Jesus?”
I don’t think that was the Gospel that was preached or intended, but it was the message that was heard.
He asked: “What if I can’t serve on all those rosters – in all those ministries?”
“What if I can’t even get out of bed?”
“What does that mean about me as a Christian?”
But of course, if we understand the Gospel of grace, it means nothing! Because Jesus did not come to be served, he came to serve; most fundamentally by dying for our sins.
Jesus did not say, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you more to carry.” He said, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you…. rest.”
Our worth before God is not judged by how much we serve Jesus or by what we can do. That is a false Gospel – a Gospel of works – and it only leads to guilt and despair and joyless obligation in the Christian life. Our standing before God is on the basis of accepting Jesus’ service of us.
When we understand that, we then can grasp that the call on us to be servants like our Lord is not a burden. It is not a call to devote ourselves to busyness in order to win God’s favor. It is actually liberating. We do not serve out of obligation. We do not serve to impress God. We do not serve to repay Jesus a debt we owe him. Instead, we simply serve, as we are able, with joy, because we love Jesus who serves us so incredibly.