In John 13 Jesus is approaching the end of his ministry and is giving his disciples his final instructions. Jesus begins this final set of instructions with a very physical and very humbling illustration, he takes off his “good clothes” and wraps himself with a towel to perform the work often delegated to a very low-ranking member of the household staff, cleaning the dust from the guests’ feet. Even today it is considered an insult in some Middle Eastern countries if one person has to see the bottom of another’s feet. Shoe salespeople and bowling alley attendants are often the punchline on sitcoms precisely because they have to deal with people’s feet. Yet, when Jesus wants to give his disciples one of his last object lessons he strips out of his festival clothes and attends to their feet. As Serevian of Gabala put it: “He who wraps the heavens in clouds wraps around himself a towel. He who pours the water in rivers and ponds tipped… water into a basin. And he before whom every knee bends in heaven and on earth and under the earth knelt to wash the feet of his disciples.” What a wonderful message to us who, as verse 16 reminds us, are servants and therefore not greater than the master who serves us.
We are not greater, we are called to a life of service: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14). Not only are we called to service some of us truly feel the most loving while serving others, and truly feel the most loved when being served, as The Five Love Languages makes clear. For some of us having a chore list decreased by someone is the truest expression of love. I like to think of this as Grandma love. I think this way because of my own Grandma (as well as some others I have seen). My Grandma would bend over backwards to help her grandchildren, doing little things for us; her way of saying, “I love you” was to make a ham & cheese sandwich for us when we showed up to visit in the evening. I may have been visiting my Grandparents’ house, but, I was treated like she worked for me.
My grandmother had an innate ability to sense how she could serve us, or at least she must have to figure out teenage boys want food. However, loving service is not always so easy; sometimes it takes a tremendous amount of listening and patience to figure out what how to best serve another person. Even if you are serving a person who feels loved by service, not all service is the same. Certain acts of service will mean more than others, serving is not simply about doing something Truly serving a person begins with knowing the need; in the stories of the last supper in Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus serves them food and drink. Yet, in these stories we do not read of the disciples noticing the act of service. We do read of Andrew or James standing up and saying, “Let me get that plate”. No, in those stories the service was not important because it did not hit where the disciples lived. Peter reacts to Jesus’ attempt to wash his feet (verses 6-8), precisely because he understands the action, Jesus’ action touched his heart. The same is true with everyone else. You cannot expect a person to be meaningfully touch by an act of service unless it is an action that individual considers meaningful. Cutting the grass for a person who enjoys, and takes pride in, yard work is not normally an act of service.
The second element in loving service is allowing people to serve you. Peter obviously had a very difficult time allowing Jesus to serve him. He found it difficult for Jesus to humbly yield to Jesus. Peter tried to refuse Jesus then he tried to make the foot-washing less about service and more about ritual. Peter would have been comfortable with a ceremonial cleansing from his master; but, to allow his master to perform such a demeaning act was out of the question. I have done many acts of service for people where at the end they forced money into my hand, they could not let the service be an act of love, or, who would simply not ask for my help for fear of inconveniencing me. We as Christians must be willing to serve and be served, we must be willing to allow others to show us their love through their service. In their service to us, other brothers and sisters are living out Jesus’ command to follow after his example, in John 12:26. In their service they are emulating Jesus when he said, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45).
Third when serving and helping others to serve you, never be demanding. Gary Chapman says it well when he says, “Requests give direction to love but demands stop the flow of love.” Love is not demanding Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13. However, love can and should make requests, mentioning the burdens of our lives to one another in such a way that those who care for us have an opportunity to help without feeling any burden in doing so. We are often so good at doing this when prayer is involved saying things like, “would you please pray for me?”. That is how we must approach acts of service, “would you be able to mow the lawn today?”. By making requests instead of demands we allow the other person to know the service is meaningful and touching.
For those of you who easily feel love in service to God and others, congratulations you are living out Jesus’ example and Paul’s command and will inherit the promise of Malachi 3:17-18: “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them. Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” For those who want to grow in loving acts of service, the first thing that might be helpful is to create a list of service projects for the person you love, or better yet have that person create the list and choose items off of it. Politely consider what such people do for you as acts of love, and allow them to continue such actions. Gently guide others and allow yourself to be guided into service projects that can be meaningful. Or, as Dr. Chapman pointed out do service projects together for another person to share in the love. Christ has said that those who want to love him will serve him and we know that service is extremely meaningful to some around us. Before the day is out consider someone you can engage in loving service towards, and form a plan to serve that individual to express your love and God’s love for that person. Do not let this be a onetime event, stay conscience of the need for loving service within the your friends and family and continue to serve them as Christ would.