Make Me a Servant

This morning, we have some very special guests with us.  As many of you know, we have a Girl Scout troop that meets here in our church building a couple of Sunday afternoons a month.  They are the ones responsible for supplying several of you with Girl Scout cookies a couple of weeks ago. 

            For your benefit, I thought I would share this meme with you – “Are they still selling Girl Scout cookies?  The year’s supply I bought 2 weeks ago is gone.”

            Last Sunday was Girl Scout Sunday and several from the troop had planned to join us for worship, but due to an injury, they had to put it off a week, so this morning, we welcome several of you who are representing the Girl Scouts who meet here.

            Because of that, I’ve decided to take a break from our current study through the book of I Corinthians.  Next week, we’ll pick back up with that study but this morning, I thought I would share with you something a little more appropriate for the occasion.

            This past week, I’ve had an opportunity to think back over my own scouting experiences as a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout.  And I don’t think I realized that the Girl Scout Promise is very similar to the Boy Scout promise that I grew up with.

            The Girl Scout Promise begins, “On my honor, I will try: To serve God and my country, and to help people at all times.”

            The commitment of Girl Scouts to help others, to serve others, is the very foundation of what Jesus has called us to do as Christians.  And so, this morning, I want us to explore the topic of serving one another.

            Our text this morning is found in Galatians 5 where the apostle Paul wrote “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:13)

            One of the key themes throughout the book of Galatians is our freedom in Christ.  In Galatians 5:1, Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free..”  But that raises the question, “What are we going to do with our freedom?”  Because with freedom comes the responsibility of choosing.

            Here in this country, we take great pride in our freedom.  For example, we have the freedom of religion.  And because of that, we all have to make a choice.  We have to choose what religion we want to be part of, or we can choose not to be a part of any religion at all. 

            We have the freedom of speech in this country.  Which means that we all have to make a choice about what we do with our speech.  We can choose to say things that will encourage others, or we can choose to say things that will tear others down.  We can choose to say a lot or we can choose to say nothing at all.  With freedom comes choice.

            And so, when Paul says that God has made us free in Christ, we’ve all got to decide, “What are we going to do with that freedom?”  And Paul’s answer is this – as Christians, we need to use our freedom to serve one another in love.

            The story is told that, during the American Revolution, there was a man in civilian clothes who came upon a group of soldiers who were trying to lift a heavy beam.  Their leader was shouting instructions, but he was making no attempt to help them.  When the rider asked why he wasn’t helping, he replied with great dignity, “Sir, I am a corporal!”

            The stranger apologized and proceeded to help the soldiers.  After the job was done, he turned back to the corporal and said to him, “The next time you have a job like this and you don’t have enough men to do it, go to your commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you again.”  The man in civilian clothes was George Washington.

            Now, I don’t know if that story is true or if it’s just a legend like that some of the other stories about George Washington.  But I do know that we are drawn to leaders who haven’t been corrupted by their power or their position.   Men and women who have learned the true meaning of servant leadership.

            And as we strive as Christians to be conformed to the image of the Son of God, we see that Jesus described his own life this way: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

            And Paul said in Philippians 2, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 2:3-5, NIV)

             Because humility wasn’t only something that Jesus taught, it was something that Jesus demonstrated in his life and in his death.

            And since we are God’s family, God wants to build in us the same quality that made Jesus different from everyone else in his day.  God wants us to develop the same qualities of servanthood that characterized his Son.

            There is nothing more refreshing than a servant’s heart, especially when we see it in a person whom we regard as a celebrity.  Colonel James Irwin is one of those men.  Colonel Irwin is a former astronaut who made a successful moon walk in 1971.  He looks back on that event with fond memories.  He remembers the thrill connected with leaving this planet and seeing it shrink in size.  He remembers watching the earth rise one day and thinking how privileged he was to be part of that crew.  And he realized on his way back home that many people would consider him to be a celebrity.

            But, humbled by the awesomeness of God, Colonel Irwin said, “As I was returning to earth, I realized that I was a servant – not a celebrity.  So I am here as God’s servant on planet Earth to share what I have experienced that others may know the glory of God.”

What a great motto that is!  God sent me to this earth to be a servant.  But we get so caught up in the fast pace of life – fighting traffic every day, meeting deadlines, making decisions, coping with the stress of people’s demands – and it’s easy to lose sight of our calling as Christians, isn’t it?

            If you’re like me, you sometimes think, “I’d give anything to be able to step back into the time when Jesus walked on this earth, back when there weren’t so many distractions and I could just soak up all those truths Jesus taught.  It must have been so much easier for the apostles to learn those lessons about how to serve.” 

            But it really wasn’t any different.  It was just as hard for the apostles as it is for us.  In John 13, we read about a time when Jesus taught his disciples about the importance of serving.  In many ways, this story is similar to the story about George Washington.  The difference, though, is that we know this story is true.  

            In verse 4, we read, “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end….[Jesus] 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.” (John 13:1,4-5)

            Then, after he had washed their feet, Jesus said, “Do you understand what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13:12-15)

            Let me share with you three observations from this passage:

1.         Serving one another is something that we have to make time to do

            In verse 1, “When Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father…”

            Jesus knew that his time on this earth was just about up.  He had less than 24 hours left to live, and he knew it.  Have you ever thought about what you do with your time if you knew that you were going to die the next day?  You could take a trip, but you wouldn’t be able to go very far.   You could shop, but what would you shop for?  Would you mow the lawn?  Clean the house?  Wash the car?  It’s an interesting question — What would you do?

            Here’s what Jesus did.  “When Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father…”  he became a servant and served the disciples.

            It’s easy to make the mistake of saying, “One of these days I plan to live a life of service, I plan to do more for others, I plan to do more visiting, I plan to prepare more meals for those who are sick, I plan to be there to meet any needs anyone may have, I really want to do that, but not just yet.  I need to wait until after I’ve gotten all my work done or after the kids are grown or when life slows down.”

            But if that’s what you’re thinking, you’ll never serve others.  If you keep putting off being a servant, there will always be one more good reason not to do it.  And some day, you’ll get to the end of your life having done everything you meant to do, except serve.

            Maybe during the school year, you say, “I’m busy, but I plan to devote more time to serving God and serving others when summer comes.”  And then when summer comes, you’d like to start serving, you really would, but there’s just so much to be done, places you need to go and sports the kids need to keep up with and before you know it school will be back in session.  Mark my word — If we are not intentional about serving others, it will never get done.

            Serving one another is something we have to make time to do.

2.         Serving one another is how we show our love to one another

            Verse 1 tells us that Jesus “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.”

            I think it’s interesting, and perhaps even significant, that John tells us where those men were whom Jesus loved — they were “in the world”.  And I don’t know if it’s ever struck you just how curious that phrase is.  “The men Jesus loved were in the world.”  Well, of course they were in the world.  Where else would they be?  So why did John tell us something that was so obvious?

            And I think maybe it’s because we as Christians can get so focused on the world to come that we start thinking that what happens in the here and now isn’t nearly as important as what lies ahead.

            We spend our time thinking about heaven and eternity because that’s what’s important.  And there’s nothing wrong with thinking about heaven.  Paul said in Colossians 3:2, “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.”  Which is a good thing, except that we need to be careful that we don’t neglect our responsibilities around us, figuring that it’s all going to burn up anyway, so why get all focused on the immediate, the tangible, the present.  “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through” and all that good stuff.

            But we should never ever forget that there is a sense in which everything we do in this life, every word we speak, every breath we take has a heavenly significance. 

            Because love is not an emotion.  It’s an action.  John wrote in I John 3, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?  Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (I John 3:17-18, NIV)

            Love is an action.  And where love takes place is in the daily grind of living on this dirty planet.  The opportunities to show our love come from basic human needs.  People get dirty feet and love washes them.  People get sick and someone sends them a card.  Love expresses itself not always in grand gestures of heroic proportion, but in menial renderings of humble service.

            I love this quote from Richard Foster in his book A Celebration of Discipline.  Foster writes, “In some ways we would prefer to hear Jesus’ call to deny father and mother, houses and land for the sake of the gospel, than his word to wash feet.  Radical self-denial gives us the feel of adventure.  If we forsake all, we even have the chance of glorious martyrdom.  But in service, we are banished to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.”

            But when one of us serves, then someone else knows that we love them.  Serving one another is how we show our love to one another.

3.      Being a servant doesn’t mean we don’t have any freedom; it simply means that we use our freedom to help others.

            We don’t like to use the word “servant” in our culture today.  And we especially don’t like the word “slave”.  Those words conjure up a picture of someone in shackles, somebody who is helpless and has absolutely no power and no freedom. 

            But as Paul said in Galatians 5:13, when we serve one another, it is not because our freedom has been taken away from us.  Rather, it because that’s how we choose to live.  “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

            I find it interesting that Paul says, “I want you to be free in Christ” and then he says, “I want you to serve each other.  I want you to be a slave to one another”.   Christ is calling you to be free — now go out and be a slave.  And while that may sound like a contradiction, it’s not, because our service is voluntary and what compels us is love. 

            Every now and then, Sueanne and I will get into a bit of disagreement.  She will ask me the question, “Do you love me?” and I will sometimes say, “Yes, I love you.  I have to.”  And Sueanne will take great offense at that.  She doesn’t want me to love her because I have to, she wants me to love her because I want to.

            And I do want to.  It’s a choice that I’m free to make, but my freedom is led by the Spirit, which compels me to love her with all my heart.  And because I am led by the Spirit, I am willing to sacrifice anything in this world to meet her needs.

            I think that’s what Paul meant when he said that Spirit-led freedom will always result in serving one another in love. 

            Jesus demonstrated this in John 13.  Again, in verse 3, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His handsrose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself.  After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.”

            Jesus knew that “the Father had given all things into His hands”.  The NIV translates this well when it says, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power.”  Don’t miss the irony of this verse.  I don’t know how many times I’ve read this verse and never caught it.  When Jesus realized that God had given him all power and all authority, that’s when he picked up the towel and started serving.

            There were 13 men in that room – there should have been “One Lord and twelve servants”, but the truth is, there were twelve lords and one servant.  Only one man in that room knew anything about serving others.

            And, in the end, that’s why he was made Lord.  Down through the centuries, God has given power to many men and women, but only one really knew how to use his power.

            God gave Jesus power to understand scripture, and he saw him use it in the temple to the Father’s honor.  Later, he gave him power over bread, and he fed people.  He gave him power over disease, and he healed people.  He gave him power over death, and he raised people.  He gave him power over sin, and he forgave people.  And God watched it all with admiration, knowing that here, finally, was a human who knew what to do with power from God – he used to bless others!

            So God gave him power over his own life (John 10:18).  And what did Jesus do?  He laid that life down for others!  No wonder the Father said of him, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

            We’re often told that power is a bad thing.  Power corrupts, we say, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.   The truth, however is that power isn’t always a bad thing and people who have it don’t always do bad things.  Sometimes people in a position of power have the heart of a servant.  Let me tell you about one of them.

            In 1973, it had been a long day on Capitol Hill for Senator John Stennis. He was looking forward to a bit of relaxation when he got home.  After parking his car, he started to walk toward his front door when two people came out of the darkness, robbed him, and shot him twice.  News of the shooting of Senator Stennis, the chairman of the Armed Forces Committee, shocked Washington and the nation.

            For nearly seven hours, Senator Stennis was on the operating table at Walter Reed Hospital.  Less than two hours later, another politician was driving home when he heard about the shooting.  He turned his car around and drove directly to the hospital.  When he got there, he noticed that the staff was swamped and couldn’t keep up with the incoming calls about the Senator’s condition.  He spotted an unattended switchboard, sat down, and went to work, taking calls until daylight.

            Sometime during the next day, he stood up, stretched, put on his overcoat, and just before leaving, he introduced himself quietly to the other operator, “I’m Mark Hatfield.  Happy to help out.”  Then Senator Mark Hatfield discreetly walked out.  The press didn’t know what to do with that story.  There seemed to be no way for a conservative Republican to give a liberal Democrat a tip of the hat, much less spend hours doing a menial task and be “happy to help out.”

            Each and every one of us has some measure of freedom.  We all have some measure of power.  That doesn’t make us bad people.  It’s what we do with our power that determines whether it’s good or bad.

            The sad thing is, sometimes we hesitate to be servants because we’re so focused on keeping our power.  Because, if I become your servant, then you have power over me.  You can take advantage of me.  I become vulnerable.  Which is true.  Service does make us vulnerable.  Love makes us vulnerable.

            In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis talked about this.  He wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.  Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.”

            In the end, we really only have two choices.  We can either live out our lives trying to control other people, free to do whatever benefits us personally, or we can live our lives in service to others.  God never called us to be in control, to be in charge.  But God has called us to serve.

I like the thought of Robert Raines when he wrote these honest words:

            I am like James and John.

            Lord, I size up other people

                        in terms of what they can do for me;

                        how they can further my program,

                                    feed my ego,

                                    satisfy my needs,

                                    give me strategic advantage.

            Lord, I turn to you

                        to get the inside track

                        and obtain special favors,

                                    your directions for my schemes,

                                    your power for my projects,

                                    your sanction for my ambitions,

                                    your blank check for whatever I want.

            I am like James and John.

                        Change me, Lord.

                        Make me a man who asks of you and others,

                                    what can I do for you?”

            What can I do for you?  Wouldn’t it be great if that was a phrase that people who come to visit us would hear more than any other:  “What can I do for you?”  Wouldn’t it great if that was the one phrase that people in this community connected with us?  The Cruciform Church of Christ?  Oh yeah, I know those folks.  They’re the ones who are always asking, “What can I can do for you?” 

            “What do you need?  What can I do for you?” 

            “I’m here for you.  What can I do for you?” 

            “I care about what you’re going through.  What can I do for you?” 

            “I’ve brought you a meal.  What else can I do for you?” 

            “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself.  After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. 

This morning, I challenge you to:

1. Serve whenever you can.

2. Serve wherever you can.

3. Serve whoever is in need.

4. Be willing to do whatever it takes.

            Because the important question isn’t, “Am I going to get my way and gain control?”  The real question is; “Am I going to let God control me?”  Because only when God is in control can you and I become free to serve others by His power for his glory. 

            “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:13)


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