Summary: What does it mean to serve as Christ did?
If I were to ask you to describe yourself in one word; if I were to ask what one adjective best sums up your identity, what would you say? If you met someone for the first time, and they asked, "What are you?" how would you answer? What single term would you give in response to that question? You might respond in terms of your vocation. Many of us derive our identify from our work. So you could say, "I’m an engineer;" "I’m a homemaker;" "I’m a lawyer;" "I’m a pastor." You could answer according to your family status. "I’m a father," or "I’m the mother of three children." There are literally dozens of possibilities: religious affiliation: "I’m Catholic," or "I’m Baptist." Nationality: "I’m an American." Political party: "I’m a Democrat," or "I’m a Republican." Family or clan, "I’m a Perkins." Ethnic background: "I’m Hungarian," "I’m African-American," "I’m Irish". Gender: "I’m a man." "I’m a woman."
The way you answer that question is significant because it reveals what personal attributes you consider as central to your identity. What’s at the core of your view of yourself. Would it interest you to know that when the authors of the New Testament began their letters, they all used the same adjective to identify themselves? What do you think that adjective was? Not "Christian." Not "disciple". Not "teacher." But "servant".
"Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle " – Romans 1:1
"James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" – James 1:1
"Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ" – 2 Peter 1:1
"Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James" – Jude 1:1
What does this tell us? That they all considered their status as servants to be the most significant aspect of their identity as followers of Christ. That in the years following the death and resurrection of Christ, as the church was being formed and the followers of Christ were developing a sense of who they were, and what it meant to be a disciple, this idea of "servanthood" was at the center of their thinking. What does it mean to be a Christian? It means being a servant. A servant of God. A servant of Jesus Christ. A servant of the gospel – the message of forgiveness and eternal life through faith in Christ. And a servant of the church, of other believers.
Does that surprise you? How do you like that designation – "servant". Does it seem like a good thing? Is it an energizing idea, something that makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? "Time to get up and be a servant!" Our natural reaction to be called a servant – or worse, being treated like a servant – isn’t usually a positive one. I read a story a while ago about a training program for employees at one of New York’s finest hotels. At this hotel, they emphasized the outstanding service provided to the guests by every member of the staff – the front desk, the maids, the bellboys. But I’ll never forget the one line they used to begin every training session. They told them, "You are not servants. You are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen." In their minds, to be a "servant" meant having no dignity, no sense of self-worth. A servant was someone to be looked down on, someone not to be respected. And so, even though they were being trained to do the work of servants, they rejected that title.
You can see that attitude in the decline of customer service. When was the last time you were greeted warmly at a restaurant or retail store? How often do you find the waitress, or clerk to be friendly and helpful, compared to how often you find them to be rude and indifferent? Why? I think it’s because they consider serving other people to be demeaning. They’re not proud of what they do. And I’m sure it goes both ways. Their customers treat them badly, because our society doesn’t respect people in service occupations. So other people look down on them. And they respond by having little respect for the work they do, or for the people they are supposedly serving. It’s a vicious cycle.
A few weeks ago, when Caribou Coffee opened on Detroit Road, I went in to get a latte. [I know, I know, now I’ve identified myself as a latte-swilling yuppie. All I need is a Volvo and a Black Lab to complete the picture. What can I say! I like latte’s!] Anyway, when I ordered the latte, they were so cheerful and friendly that I was just stunned. It was exhilarating! It made me almost giddy with happiness! They were being nice to me! I was so excited that I upgraded to an extra-large (that’s a "venti" for those who haven’t been initiated into coffee lingo). I suppose I was surprised because I had been getting my coffee at a certain bookstore in the Promenade; which, because this is being taped, shall remain nameless. Now, I don’t want to unfairly malign the employees of this establishment who are friendly and helpful. Just because I’ve never encountered one doesn’t mean they don’t exist. But when I get coffee there, I’m more accustomed to being snarled at than smiled at. In short, virtually everyone agrees customer service is declining in this country. Why? Because we don’t respect the role of the servant, the person whose job it is to meet someone else’s needs. We look down on servants, and they respond by treating us with rudeness or indifference.