Joy in Serving
This message is based on the first part of a book by Henry Nouwen called “The Selfless Way of Christ – Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life.” I ran across this work several years ago, and it has had a profound impact on my life, and I feel called to share some of it with you today.
I need to start by looking at different understandings of the Call of Jesus which exist in our world today. “Christian” is a very broad label in today’s world, with very few string attached. Some people view this as a social or political identity, instead of spiritual relationship with Jesus. Being “Christian” defines who they are in society, and Jesus is just the token.
The call of Jesus, as it is very clearly laid out in Scripture, is something totally different. Jesus’ call to discipleship is primal, all-encompassing, all-inclusive, demanding a total commitment. One cannot be a little bit for Christ, giving him some attention, or make Jesus one of many concerns. Look at Matthew 6:14 (NLT): “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” And in Matthew 10:37-39 (NLT): “37If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. 38If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. 39If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give your life for me, you will find it.”
Jesus calls us to live a spiritual life in intimate communion with the Lord. It is a life of seeing, hearing and touching. It is a life of opening the eyes of our brothers and sisters in the human family to the presence of Jesus, so that they may also enter into this relationship of love. All people who claim to be “Christian” are called to a spiritual life of ministry, no matter where they live or what they do.
So it is reasonable to ask: “How do we do follow Christ while fulfilling the demands of the world? How do we listen to Christ while paying equal attention to others?” We will never come to know true joy and peace in life unless we grapple with the radical claim the gospel places on us. Just ignoring this call closes the door of spiritual growth.
To begin answering that question, let’s look at our culture of “Upward Mobility”. Our society is structured around climbing the ladder of success and making it to the top. It is hard to imagine ourselves outside of this all pervasive mentality. We learn from an early age that our holy task in life is to not only survive this long competitive struggle, but to come out victorious. People and organizations teach us that we must strive to wield influence and be successful. We learn that life is a series of win or lose battles, and if we lose, there is no one but ourselves to blame. We simply did not try hard enough. Also, people who lose in this battle are shunned and scorned by the rest of society. The problem is not the desire for improvement. The problem is that this desire becomes a religion. We worship “Being number one!” and the rewards of the struggle more than we worship God.
The call of Jesus is the opposite of our society, and of society throughout history. The call of Jesus is the call of “Downward Mobility”. The great paradox of Jesus, as laid out in scripture, is that the only way to real and total freedom is found in serving others. In the center of our faith as Christians stands the mystery of how the fullness of God’s divine love was revealed through the life of Jesus, which broke all the rules of the upwardly mobile world of the time.
- born a helpless child to an insignificant girl
- raised in the no-where town of Nazareth, in Galilee
- followed by simple fisherman, ate with sinners and talked with prostitutes
- killed as a criminal and died an outcast
This mystery was so deeply ingrained in the minds and hearts of the early Christians that they wrote a hymn about it, which Paul includes in his letter to the Philippians:
1Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? 2Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. 3Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. 4Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. 5You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
6Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. 7Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, 8 he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. 9Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus leaves little doubt that he expects his followers to live the way he lived. With great persistence, he points out the downward way:
How do we learn to live the Spiritual Life? How do we deal with this radical call to surrender all we have been taught by the world, and to enter into a new life with Christ? This call of Jesus subverts the systems of our upwardly mobile society. It is a jarring and unsettling challenge. Yet somewhere, deep inside, we know that success, fame, influence, power and money do not give us the inner joy and peace we crave. These goals only produce a craving for more and more. We know in our hearts that there is something more to life than this endless battle to “Be Number One”. Is it possible to take Jesus seriously? How can any person live a life of downward mobility without becoming self-destructive or masochistic?
If we think we can do this by simply imitating Christ, we have misunderstood the basic truth which Jesus is revealing to us. We can’t do this on our own! The downward way is God’s way, not ours. It is too unnatural for someone to live this life on their own power. Because we are human, every fiber of our being is filled with the spirit of rivalry and competition. The moment we think we are humble; we begin wondering if we are more humble than our neighbor. Downward mobility is the divine way, the way of Christ. And it is this divine way of living that Jesus wants to give us through the of infilling with the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul clearly explains how the way of the Spirit differs from the way of the world in his letter to the Corinthians. Remember that Paul was converted by Jesus on the Damascus Road and filled by the power of the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 2:10-13 (NLT) Paul says:
10But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit. For his Spirit searches out everything and shows us God’s deep secrets. 11No one can know a person’s thoughts except that person’s own spirit, and no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit. 12And we have received God’s Spirit (not the world’s spirit), so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given us. 13When we tell you these things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths.
These words from Paul summarize the spiritual life Jesus is calling us to. In John 16, Jesus promises that the Spirit will come to help the first disciples, filling them, and us, with new knowledge and wisdom. On the day of Pentecost the Spirit, whom Jesus had promised, came and everything changed. And because of the gift of the Spirit, we can become Jesus for other people, in all places and at all times. In John 16 (NLT), Jesus says: “7But in fact, it is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Advocate won’t come. If I do go away, then I will send him to you. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. 14He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. 15All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.’”
The way of serving, which is the way of downward mobility, becomes our way not because we try to imitate Jesus, but because we are transformed by our relationship with his Spirit. It is the power of the Spirit which sets us free to be strong while weak, to be joyful while in pain, to be rich while poor. This life of serving may seem impossible and elusive to us, as we live in this fast-paced, technology-based world, but the fruits of this life leave little doubt of the radical transformation it brings. Fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness & self-control are qualities of Jesus that are desperately needed in a world torn apart by idolatry, envy, greed, sexual irresponsibility and war. Spending time in worship, Bible study and prayer are ways to open yourself to the gift of the Spirit, which means opening yourself to Joy.
Here are two “Next Steps” to consider in the coming week:
- Spend some time thinking of one possession or activity you can surrender to God, creating more time in your daily life for Bible study and prayer. Then “Just Do It!”
- Meditate on Ephesians 3:14-21, Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus. Let the joy of the Spirit replace fear and worry.