The cross is the symbol of Jesus’ most radical expression of submission and servanthood. At the center of Good Friday was Jesus’ “obedience unto death—even on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). This cross-shaped attitude is a pattern for us to implement and imitate.
By opening ourselves to the shaping power of the indwelling Christ, we grow into the likeness of Christ. Serving is one of the most important disciplines because we act our way into Christ-likeness.
The Cross Style of Submission and Serving
Jesus’ way was the way of the cross, and this was essential to his ministry. He chose the way of humiliation. He “emptied himself,” refusing to hang on to the glory that was his with the Father. He reversed all notions of greatness and power. He became weak that we may be strong, poor that we may be rich. And he chose obedient submission even to death on the cross (Philippians 2:5-11).
So, his was a cross-way of life, which made his teaching the most revolutionary in history. His call was to a cross-way of life. “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me'”(Mark 8:34).
He minced no words: “He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.'”(Mark 9:35).
Perhaps the most dramatic witness of this cross style was his action at the last supper with his disciples in the upper room. No one was around to perform that common act of a servant when persons came in off the hot dusty roads, that is, washing feet. This was a borrowed room; thus there was no servant or head of the house or anyone to see that the menial task was performed. Jesus provided the unforgettable picture of submission, of the cross style, by washing the disciples’ feet.
Lest the ongoing meaning of this be lost in the bafflement of what was happening, Jesus made it clear. After washing their feet and taking up his garments again, he sat down, explained to them what he had done and why he had done it, and plotted their course as his disciples: “You call me ‘Master’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Then if I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example: you are to do as I have done for you” (John 13:12-15, NEB).
Servants After the Style of Jesus
It is clear as we read the New Testament that serving is the most distinctive quality of Jesus’ style of ministry. And Jesus leaves little doubt that it is the style to which he calls us: “The disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master” (Matthew 10:24).
“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:26-28).
Not only does Jesus call us to this style, he gives life through this style: “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).
It is clear. The style to which we are called is that of serving:
But not many of us want to be servants, do we? Also, there is a vast difference between the way most of us serve and Jesus’ call to be a servant. The way most of us serve keeps us in control. We choose whom, when, where, and how we will serve. We stay in charge. Jesus is calling for something else. He is calling us to be servants. When we make this choice, we give up the right to be in charge. The amazing thing is that when we make this choice we experience great freedom. We become available and vulnerable, and we lose our fear of being stepped on, or manipulated, or taken advantage of. Are not these our basic fears? We do not want to be in a position of weakness (Dunnam, “Alive in Christ,” 150).
Here is the conflict. Even though we make the decision to serve, undisciplined as we are, we continue to choose when, where, whom, and how we will serve. Thus we continually run the risk of pride, and we are always vulnerable to a “good works” mentality that sends us frantically to engage ourselves in whatever deeds of mercy we can devise. How do we deal with these snares?
Guarding Against Pride and a “Good Works” Mentality
Thomas Merton reminds us that,
he who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means. (“Contemplation in a World of Action,” 178-79).
If we think we know others and their needs perfectly well, our serving will often hinder rather than help. To combat pride, we must be attentive to the other – a form of submission. We must be patient, intent on serving the genuine needs of the other, rather than serving our own need to serve. In this fashion we will diminish the possibility of being on our own. We will be open to the Spirit to guide us in discerning need and in making appropriate responses to need.
Given a decision to serve, we think we must immediately spring into action. We must guard against two pitfalls. Our desire to serve may be poisoned by a desire to please. Also, there is the snare of turning our servant action into controlling power over another.
One antidote for a “good works” mentality is an ongoing sensitivity to our own unworthiness. The Bible witness is clear. Awareness of a calling to service is accompanied by a sense of personal unworthiness. A “good works” mentality is also dissolved by keeping alive the conviction that our salvation depends upon God’s grace, not our performance. A third antidote to a “good works” mentality is an ongoing awareness that our serving is not redemptive within itself. Our serving provides the environment, sets the stage, and releases the energy for the person we are serving to be genuinely helped, even healed.
Now we return to the central issue. We discipline ourselves in serving, deliberately acting as servants because we are servants of Christ. Thus our choosing to serve elicits no false pride.
In a disciplined way we choose and decide to serve here or there, this person or that person, now or tomorrow, until we take the form of a servant and our lives become spontaneous expressions of the cross style.
As we practice the disciplines of submission and serving, we are freed from the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way, and we find the freedom to value and serve others. The primary purpose of these two disciplines, like all spiritual disciplines, is to cultivate the mind of Christ in us. We act our way into Christ-likeness.