10A Ministry is becoming a servant

What is Christian ministry? I had learned one of the most important things I know about what it means to be a minister long before I went to London Bible College to train. It is summed up in a simple sentence I heard from a missionary back from Africa on Home Assignment, a truth so simple and yet so vital it has stuck with me all these years. “Ministry is not rendering a service but becoming a servant.”
In John 13:1-17 we find Jesus, about to break bread and pass round the cup by which we still remember Him today. His disciples were so busy jostling for position, trying to get the best place next to Jesus, that they had forgotten one simple preliminary – something which was not only polite but necessary. They all still had dirty feet. Nobody had done the slave’s job, physically unpleasant and socially demeaning. Nobody had attended to washing their feet. So we see Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, in the Upper Room on the night before He was crucified, doing the job of a slave, washing His disciples feet.
Jesus said, “‘You call Me “Teacher” and “Lord”, and rightly so, for that is what I am. 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. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them’” (John 13:13-17).
Ministry is not rendering a service but becoming a servant. This message is not just for ministers and missionaries but for every Christian as we seek to serve Jesus Christ in the church or in the world. But especially for ministers and missionaries and church leaders, ministry is not just doing a job. It is becoming a servant, becoming a slave. God even describes some of the most important heroes of faith as “My servant Abraham”, “My servant Moses”, “My servant David”. Peter in Acts preached about “God’s servant, Jesus” (Acts 3:13).
Jesus said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
Not to be served, but to serve. There are two important questions for ministers to consider. How do we serve? And why do we serve?
How do we serve?
There are so many obvious things to say. Of course, from Jesus’s example in John 13, we must always serve with humility. We are all servants of the Servant King. Over the years I have been privileged to meet a number of exceptional Christians. Twenty years ago having tea with Bishop, later Archbishop, of Uganda Henry Orombi was one such special occasion. But perhaps even more memorable was a meeting while I was a student 45 years ago with John Stott. He was certainly a great Christian teacher and leader, but more than that, John Stott was perhaps the most humble and Christ-like man I have ever met. God was able to use his ministry mightily because John Stott was humble. We must always serve with humility. There is always a temptation for ministers and missionaries and church leaders to become proud of their service. “Aren’t you glad you’ve got me in Your church God. Aren’t you pleased you put me to serve you in this place for such a time as this. Aren’t I useful to you.” If ever any of us begin to think that way, we should remember what Jesus said to His disciples. “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’” (Luke 17:10).
The preacher and pastor F.B. Meyer once said, “I used to think that God’s gifts were on shelves one above the other and that the taller we grew in Christian character the more easily we could reach them. I now find that God’s gifts are on shelves one beneath the other, and that it is not a question of growing taller but of stooping lower.”
So we must serve with humility. But in asking “how do we serve?” I also want to ask, “what form will our service take?” Our service takes the form of meeting people where they are, with the needs they bring. I heard a story of a young missionary visiting an older experienced missionary at his work. Through the day, because this was Africa, there was a constant stream of visitors, wanting this, selling that, asking the other. At the end of the day the younger missionary asked, “How on earth do you ever get any work done, with all these interruptions?” The answer was beautifully simple. “The interruptions are the work.”
We do not serve through any particular pieces of work, sermons or articles we write or administrative tasks we complete. Ministers and missionaries, and indeed all Christians, serve by the relationships we build with the people who get to know us and who by God’s grace see something of Christ in our weak humanity. In his inspiring book The friendship gap Tim Stafford points out that in our busy Western lives we put work before relationships. In contrast, the African way is to put relationships before work. Family and friendships matter more than “getting the job done”. Wherever God is at work, the people matter more than the particular tasks or pieces of service. Our projects and reports and emails will not last into eternity – our relationships with people will. So we serve by focussing not so much on results as on relationships
Why do we serve?
What is our motivation for serving? What motivations could we possibly have which would lead anyone to give up a secure comfortable life to serve God as a minister or a missionary. What motivations will keep a minister serving God when the going gets really tough, as it inevitably will? Let me suggest six good biblical motives why ministers become ministers and missionaries become missionaries. I want to suggest they are of increasing importance. The later motives will be of the greatest value when being a minister or a missionary stops being glamorous and exciting and becomes hell on earth.
Because of the needs of the people
The needs of ordinary people in Britain are growing in size and variety and complexity year on year: material needs, with poverty and debt and unemployment; medical needs and needs for care; emotional needs, with all kinds of stress and anxiety and fear; problems due to family breakdown and substance abuse and immorality. And of course there are also spiritual needs – the need to hear the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. People should not become ministers or a missionaries just because they have seen the needs of the people and think they could make a difference. That is a weak motive because however hard you work, however much of yourself you give, you will never ever make a visible dent in the colossal mountains of needs. Yes, ministers serve sacrificially to meet the needs of our congregations and of the communities we live in and of all those people who are lost without Christ. But keeping your eyes on the needs and looking all the time to see what difference you personally are making is a recipe for disappointment and disillusion and depression. Times will come when all the overwhelming needs of the people will not be a motive for you to stay but will become the very reason why you need to run away and hide from those needs and those people.
When ministers end up feeling discouraged about the lack of progress we are making, as inevitably we will, we should remember the parable Jesus told about the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29). We must not rely for our motivation on seeing results. We can never measure our success or failure in God’s work. The nature of the Kingdom of God is that we don’t see the signs of growth until the harvest. In this life we will never know what needs God has met through us. Seeing the needs of a lost world is not by itself sufficient motivation for serving.
Because we care about the people
It is right and good that we care for the people God calls us to serve. The lesson we learn from the bad example of the Pharisees is it is always preferable to serve out of love than out of duty. But loving people is scarcely enough. Because at time people can be very hard to love. When we are serving God, the devil loves to attack that work by bringing division and distrust and disagreement within the church between even the closest of friends. It is good to start off loving the people but that won’t always be enough.
Because God loves the people
The task of ministry is not to love people in our own strength. Our task is to take God’s love to people. Our service for God has to be deeply rooted in the fact that God’s love for people is infinitely greater than our love for those people. God’s love for them is greater than we can possibly imagine. When our patience with them is strained, God’s patience is never strained. When our love for the people we are serving and ministering to runs out, God’s love for them will never run out. When we want to give up, God’s love never gives up. But John 13 gives us even better reasons for serving God.
Because Jesus Christ gives us an example
Slavery is not glamorous, not exciting, not even pleasant. It is hard work and long hours with no reward. Just like being a minister or a missionary. We do it because Christ has set us an example which we should follow. Of course, not just ministers and missionaries, but all Christians should follow the example which is summed up in a prayer incorrectly ascribed to Ignatius of Loyola:
Lord give us the grace to serve You as You deserve:
To give and not to count the cost;
To toil and not to seek for rest;
To fight and not to heed the wounds;
To labour and not to ask for any reward
Except that of knowing that we are doing Your will.
That is what it costs when we stop just rendering a service and really become a servant.
Because God has called us and commanded us to go
A minister does not become a minister because they want to. Just as a missionary does not become a missionary because they want to. Ministers are become ministers and missionaries become missionaries because they have a clear conviction that God has called them and God is sending them. That is what the word mission means – being sent. Ministers serve because we know God has called us to serve and commanded us to serve and sent us to serve. The church has endorsed that call by granting us the privilege of serving them as their minister.
But I know from 36 years in ministry that the hardest part of being a minister or a missionary is not hearing the call of God and leaving a comfortable job to work twice the hours for half the money. The hardest part is staying where God has put you when the time comes that the temptation is so strong just to give it all up; when the going has got so tough that the tough have long since packed their bags and gone home. How wonderful it would be to go back to a normal life and a proper job, at those times when everything seems to be going wrong, and nothing seems to be working, and you aren’t seeing any results and it seems the whole world and everybody in the church and even God seems to have given up on you. When that time comes, being there even “because God commanded you to go” won’t seem to be enough of a reason to stay. So here is the most important reason why we serve.
Because God loves you
More than any other reason – this is the reason to cling on to. God loves you. Ministers and missionaries, and every Christian in our service for the church, must never, ever forget this glorious truth. God loves you so much He gave His only Son to die for your sins so He could make you His child. God loves you so much He has come to live within you by His Holy Spirit. God loves you, and nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate you from the love God has for you. That is why we serve God: because He loves us. “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The love which we have received inspires and sustains us. We go out into the world as ambassadors for Christ because Christ’s love inspires and compels us (2 Cor 5:14). It is not our love for Christ but it is Christ’s love for us which constrains and urges us on to serve God. “The very spring of our actions is the love of Christ” (J.B. Phillips’ translation). “Christ’s love has moved me to such extremes. His love has the first and last word in everything we do” (The Message). Only our own personal experience of just how much God loves us will be sufficient to keep any of us firm serving God through the years.
Ministry is not rendering a service but becoming a servant – and that will never be easy.

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