Service versus the Servant

In John 13 there is an interesting story about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.   I can only imagine the odd feeling in the room as Jesus, the top dog, pushes back from that table and begins to wash everyone’s feet.  And then after he is finished Jesus makes an interesting statement, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.   I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” For almost 20 years I have given witness to thousands of youth and young adults who have come to the city to “do” service.  They come to metaphorically wash the feet of those who don’t have as much.

Lately I have begun to wonder, does this passage call followers of Jesus to service or is there something more going on?  Doing is certainly important.  Giving a cup of water, visiting the prisoner, or feeding the hungry are things that Christians are called to do.

It seems to me that Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet was more than a “yearly” act of service.   His actions that evening were simply an extension of who he was – a servant.   In Philippians 2 the apostle Paul talks about Jesus emptying himself and taking on the very nature of a servant.

The dirty little secret about “doing” service is that the temptation to retreat back into privilege is intoxicating and overwhelming.  There is an entire Christian industry that has grown up around servicing this cycle.  It goes something like this: go on the annual mission trip, have your heart broken by the need, have your faith stretched, commit to making changes, go back home, begin the process of allowing the service experience to slowly fade into a distant memory, reengage your privilege – from how money is spent to only worrying about me, myself and I- then get ready for the next service trip and repeat.  The danger of this cycle is that it leads to a Christian faith without substance.

When Jesus called his disciples to wash each other’s feet, it was much more than a call to do.  It was also a call be.  Who we are is much more than what we do for a week.  The call of Jesus is to become a servant to all.  In some circles this is referred to as the upside-down kingdom, a kingdom where power comes from being a servant.  While it is possible to do service and retain privilege it is not so easy to be a person of privilege and a servant at the same time.  Even Jesus had to empty himself.


One of my fondest memories of growing up is hanging out with a musical group that came and preformed at our church. It was my first experience with professional musicians. I attended every rehearsal and concert that week. By Wednesday, they asked me to help out the sound guy. I felt like a member of the band.

The other thing I remember about this group was their name – Bondservant. It was taken from Philippians 1:1, “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus.” As far as I know, only the New American Standard Version uses “bond-servant.” Most versions use “servant” and give a footnote saying that it could also be translated as “slave.”

All of this connects to a pastor’s meeting I was at last week. During the sharing time, one of the pastors told the following story.

He was at a local convenience store trying to purchase something. The line was slow and he was in a hurry. His turn at the check-out counter finally came. As he was checking out, the clerk asked what he did for a living.

“I am a pastor,” he replied

“Well, it can’t be too much work. After all, you’re a slave,” the clerk responded with a grin. As he finished paying for his purchase, the clerk leaned over and whispered, “The work you do is not your work, but it is important work.”

In a culture that emphasizes personal rights, the idea of service to others (slavery) seems archaic and out of step with reality.

In John 13:15, Jesus sets an example to for us. Jesus came to serve us and we are called to serve each other. To be bondservants. To serve without regard to our own needs.

What are the implications for those of us in ministry?