The word “servanthood” is not recognized by my computer’s word processing program. Whenever I type the word it shows up with little red underline marks and a half-dozen other suggested words to put in its place. I don’t think we recognize “servanthood” either. It’s certainly not visible in the world in which we live; a world of smear campaigns, scraping and fighting to get to the top of the heap; broken promises and broken deals, cheating and killing – and for what? Just to get ahead. Just to be a step in front of the next guy; just to put our hands on something – money, honor, prestige, power – before someone else can get their hands on it. So, no, we don’t recognize servanthood.
Paul uses Jesus to show us what servanthood is, and he does it with what is probably his best and highest words he ever put to paper about Jesus. The passage is found in the New Testament book of Philippians. Paul writes: “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.” Or as the old King James Version puts it: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”
How did Jesus think of himself; what was his mind? Paul answers, “He [Jesus] gave up his divine privileges and he took the humble position of a slave.” In every strand of the New Testament, the followers of Jesus are called to imitate him in one vital dimension: Service. Jesus’ prayer life, his model of making disciples, his teaching style, his forty days in the desert, even his work as a carpenter; these have all been imitated by different elements of the church.
But the greatest imitation of Christ, and what the New Testament communicates as the essence of “being like Jesus,” is consistently, servanthood. Jesus emptied himself of his rights and set aside all things he correctly deserved, for the benefit of others. This is our example. If we refuse to serve others, then nothing else we do will matter. So nothing less will do.
Of course, if you start thinking about Jesus, the Son of God, emptying himself it can warp your mind. How did this happen? How could God empty himself like that? It is a beautiful mystery. It is one worth thinking and meditating on, how the essence and infinity of God could be crammed into the limitations of a human being. It is the wonderful puzzlement of the Incarnation itself. But if all you do is sit and think about it, all you will end up with is a headache. Paul’s intent in writing these words was not to provide a full explanation for the life of Jesus. He wrote this to provide an example of how to live our lives like Jesus. It is the life of love and humble service.
See, Paul isn’t writing to tell us what to believe. But he is giving us instruction on how to live, on how to treat other people. You can be orthodox in all your beliefs, and still be a jerk. You can believe the Bible, read a bit of it every morning, say your prayers and give money toHaiti, and still treat the people around you badly.
To paraphrase Paul from another of his famous letters, you could speak all the languages of earth and heaven, but if you don’t love others, it’s only a loud obnoxious noise. You could understand all the mysteries of God and possess all knowledge, and have faith to move mountains, but without love it is nothing. This is the mind of Christ.
Now, to humbly empty ourselves like Christ did, does not mean we think we are less, that we are worse, or we are lower than other people. It simply means we don’t think of ourselves at all. We quit protecting our interests, our personal ambitions, our agendas, and our desires for what we want. Instead, we give ourselves over to others in love, at whatever cost – even death on a cross. That is what servanthood looks like.