Learn the lesson that, if you are to do the work of a prophet, what you need is not a sceptre but a hoe.—Bernard of Clairvaux
Service is about mission and ministry, but it is also a spiritual discipline. God asks us, as the body of Christ, to join his mission and serve, not solely for the common good, but for our own spiritual development and relationship with him. In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard writes, “In service we engage our goods and strength in the active promotion of the good of others and the causes of God in our world.”
The call to serve is present throughout the Bible. In Deuteronomy, Moses, speaking to the Israelites on behalf of God, says: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul?” (Deuteronomy 10:12). When Joshua’s life and leadership were coming to a close, he said to the Israelites: “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness” (Joshua 24:14).
In the New Testament, the command to serve is heightened by Jesus. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus presents significant theological implications for his followers’ service. When we serve others, we are serving Jesus; when we deny service to others, we are denying service to Christ.
The most significant passage of Scripture for reflecting on the spiritual discipline of service is John 13:1-17, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Jesus and his disciples were about to participate in the Last Supper, when Jesus “got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:4-5). With no slave or servant present in the upper room to wash everyone’s feet, Jesus dons the garment of service, literally with the towel around his waist, and figuratively with his actions.
I have been blessed to serve in a number of capacities. When I was younger, I worked and served at Salvation Army camps. As a cadet in training college, I went on a mission trip to Jamaica and was an extra set of hands and feet for the construction of a small church building. As an officer, I’ve been able to serve the church family and community in various ways. Last December, a group of us sang carols at a hospital, held worship gatherings at nursing homes in the area, distributed Christmas hampers and, on Christmas Eve, my wife and I were invited to serve dinner to needy families in the area at a local restaurant that closed for the day. These opportunities to engage in ministry and mission were formative times when God spoke—and continues to speak—to me through the spiritual discipline of service. I have also witnessed other people serving people. It is a beautiful thing to see people with their hearts to God and hands to others.
Authentic service follows Christ’s command to be the “servant of all” (Mark 9:35), but self-righteous service “picks and chooses whom to serve….True service is indiscriminate in its ministry” (Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster). Self-righteous service is done to check something off our spiritual checklists or for personal recognition. True service serves for the good of those being served and for the glory of God. Service is a part of our calling as the body of Christ and is a spiritual discipline through which our Christlike character can be formed.
Captain Mark Braye is the corps officer at Temiskaming Community Church in Temiskaming Shores, Ont.