November 20, 2005

Why We Need Each Other: Service
1 Peter 4:1-11

Can you recall a time when you were told to do something that you felt totally incapable of doing? Something that was beyond your abilities? Something that was “way over your head”? Perhaps you were given a job that required skills or strength that you lacked. Or maybe you were overcome by emotion—anger or anxiety—in the face of an unexpected and seemingly insignificant development, and some well-intentioned person casually encouraged you to set your emotions aside. “How?” you wanted to ask. “How do I turn off my feelings?” What do you do when you sense the need to be or to do something, but you feel virtually helpless when you actually try to pull it off?

I wonder just that sometimes when I am reading the Bible. “Love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you,” Jesus remarks (Matt. 5:44), yet I struggle to tolerate my noisy neighbor. “Do away with such things as jealousy, anger, and envy,” Paul writes to the Galatians (5:20-21), yet I crave the praise of those around me. “Be still and know that I am God,” the Psalmist declares (46:10), yet I remain on the run. “Don’t worry about tomorrow,” Jesus gently instructs us (Matt. 6:34), yet I lay awake at night wondering about what will come next. These are wonderful pieces of advice—helpful words of wisdom. But they often seem unrealistic—out of reach.

The Bible, of course, repeatedly invites us to pray and to depend in ever-deepening ways on God and his endless resources. We are assured, in other words, that spiritual fruit is the product of the Spirit’s transforming activity in our lives. At the same time, however, we are encouraged to participate with God’s Spirit in living out the Christian life. When it comes to Christian character and virtue, it is true that we cannot create spiritual fruit on our own. It is equally true, however, that we need not stand idly by—as mere spectators—in the hopes of receiving some sort of cure-all intervention. As we trust in God, we also begin to take deliberate steps toward godliness. Of these steps, few that I know of can be more helpful in shaping our spiritual lives than that of service.

When we as followers of Jesus consider this matter of service, we typically think of the benefits that such service offers to those being served. Our service, in other words, helps others—and in fact it often does. We feed the hungry so that they have enough to eat. We visit the sick so that they feel cared for and appreciated. We open the door for the elderly so that they can come and go more easily. What we sometimes fail to recognize, however, is the lasting effects that a life of service brings to our own souls. I recall reading, for example, an entry in the journal of John Wesley, the great English pastor and scholar. On Tuesday, October 14, 1735, Wesley jotted down a few thoughts about a missions trip that he, his brother Charles, and a friend made to serve among the native population in Georgia. In 1735, such a trip was a long and difficult undertaking, requiring significant personal sacrifice. In this particular journal entry, Wesley suggests that he and his fellow travelers went, not for personal gain, but for one simple reason—“to save our souls.” Wesley was painfully aware of the grotesque deficiencies in his own character and in his own spirit, so he consciously decided to participate actively with God in bringing about a meaningful and lasting transformation deep within his own soul. And what did he do? He practiced service. He gave himself away. As we serve each other, we grow. “Serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received,” Peter announces here in 1 Peter 4:10. We need each other, then, to be recipients of our service. God uses the service that we extend to each other as a vital means of changing and renewing us.

In the pages of 1 Peter alone, various “unChrist-like” attitudes appear that we can attack with genuine, Christ-like service. Consider just a few:
Arrogance: an inflated view of ourselves. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the
Romans, warns his readers against thinking too highly of themselves (12:3). Peter says much the same thing here in 1 Peter 5:5: “…all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another….” And how are we supposed to do that? Humility, after all, is a virtue that strikes us as being difficult to attain. Have you ever said, “Self, be humble?” Often times, the more we want to be humble, the more evasive it becomes. And yet, as Peter fashions his instructions, he suggests that there is actually something that we ourselves can begin to do to overcome our unhealthy pride and in its place put on humility. So what are we to do? How do we “clothe ourselves” with humility? For one thing, we can engage in acts of service.

I’ve told some of you before about Ethel Saltus, an elderly woman who Deb and I cared for during my senior year in graduate school. Miss Saltus had a degree from Radcliffe College, an affiliate of Harvard University. She was articulate, captivating, and rich. For some reason, however, she also chose to live like a pauper—her house was filthy and falling down, and she never bathed, even though she was incontinent. Miss Saltus was a pitiful sight, and she smelled worse than anyone I ever knew. Yet five days a week, either Deb or I drove the 3 miles to her house to care for her needs.

On one particular occasion, Miss Saltus asked me to put her shoes on before we went to the grocery store. As I bent down and slid her shoes on her nearly repulsive feet—corroded toe nails curling in all directions—I felt surprisingly blessed for the privilege of serving this ornery but gracious old woman. In those moments, it did not seem to matter how I looked to the rest of the world. I felt no pressure to flaunt my successes, broadcast my GPA, or promote my own cause. In the process of my serving Ethel Saltus, God was transforming of my own soul. Do you think too highly of yourself? Has pride been a life-long nemesis? Don’t stop praying. Start serving.

Self-centeredness: a preoccupation with yourself. Paul, in his letter to the
Philippians, encourages his readers “not to look out to your own interests, but to the interests of others (2:4).” And in 1 Peter, we read again and again that followers of Jesus must discipline themselves (1:13; 5:8) and set aside their infatuation with satisfying their own desires and needs. Self-centeredness at its worst involves an endless drive to look out for ourselves, even at the expense of others. There is, however, a more subtle but no less dangerous form of self-centeredness that we all too easily overlook or even justify. It is called self-absorption. Self-absorbed people, though perhaps not on a ceaseless quest to accumulate and advance, are nevertheless unaware—oblivious—of other people around them. They are caught up in their problems. Their needs. Their issues. Their work. Their interests. Their fantasies. And all the while, they seem totally unaware that anyone else exists!

So how can we deal with our self-centered and self-absorbed tendencies? In addition to praying and waiting on God, we can, as a starting point, begin to live a life of service. In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster describes an occasion when he was nearing the completion of his doctoral dissertation. As he was frantically editing his work, a friend called and asked him to take him on a variety of important errands. With considerable frustration, Foster agreed, lamenting this ill-timed interruption in the midst of his important work. As he ran out the door on his way to pick up his friend, Foster grabbed his copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, thinking that he might have a few moments along the way to at least glance over a page or two. As he sat in the parking lot of the local super market waiting for his friend to pick up a few items, Foster opened the book and read this paragraph:
The second service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.
Through service, we leave a preoccupation with ourselves and enter the world in which other people live. When we serve, we drive a stake into the very heart of our arrogance and self-centeredness, not to mention our jealousy, prejudice, anger, and so much more.

The logo of the Brethren in Christ Church, which you can clearly see on the top of your bulletin, the upper right corner of our website, or on the front façade of our building, depicts a cross, dove, towel and basin. The cross symbolizes the sacrifice of Jesus and the dove the indwelling Holy Spirit. Our transformation into sons and daughters of God begins and ends with God. But God, in his mercy, invites our participation in the ongoing process of that transformation, and our participation is depicted in the towel and basin—the service reflected in the washing of each others’ feet. When Jesus, in John 13, instructed his disciples to wash each others’ feet, he did so, not so much for the benefit of those being washed, but for the sake of the servers. Genuine Christ-like service changes us. And the wonderful news is that, while you can go to Zambia and the Gulf Coast to serve—and I hope that some of you will—you can exercise this spiritual activity right here. “Serve one another,” Peter writes. Hold the door for someone. Provide a night of free baby-sitting for a young couple in desperate need of a break. Take a teenager out for breakfast—or perhaps lunch! Help an elderly or crippled person clear the leaves from their lawn. Offer your time and expertise to help with some ministry in the church. Christ-like service is not so much a one-time trip as it is a way of life. So while you are struggling with some area of your life that you want so much to overcome, and while you are praying for God to change you, try serving. That is one of the reasons that we need each other as much as we do. By serving one another and receiving each others’ acts of service, we are assisting God in transforming our very souls.