Many characteristics may define a Christian life. Many things may be signs that someone truly lives their faith in correspondence with the Gospel. In this reflection series, we’ll explore how different Scriptures emphasize service as a defining character trait of the Christian.
Service can be defined as what you do for something or someone. But in the Gospel context, service is much larger than that. Service, according to the teaching of Jesus, is a way of life. More than an aspect Christian character, it IS Christian character. In these reflections, we’ll discover five elements of service that please God.
The apostle Paul left behind a lasting legacy in the many letters he wrote to churches and individuals important to the early Church. While at first glance all of the letters seem to discuss the same topics and ideas, as one devotes more time to them, the diversity within each letter separates them into distinct messages, rather than one massive “Paul Letter” section of the Bible.
The letter to the Ephesian Church expresses sound Christian theology; however, its purpose-driven nature sets the letter apart from the others. Throughout the letter, Paul not only reminds us of the things that have been and will come as we continue to walk in the light of Jesus Christ, but also devotes significant attention to the idea that falling back into a previous way of life is no acceptable option if the experience of meeting Christ was true and Spirit-led.
The idea of “genuine change” is best expressed in a different letter: Galatians 5. Paul compares this change in a person’s life and character to a fruit tree. Paul used the idea of “Christian Fruit,” first taught by Jesus throughout his lifetime. As a person begins to change their life in Christ they witness the emergence and growth of “fruit,” namely love, joy, patience, kindness, faithfulness, self-control, peace, gentleness, and goodness. It is in the discovery of this fruit that, Paul explains, a follower of Christ will become aware of the change promised by Christ emerging in their character as a Christian.
A theme of Paul’s letters, including the letter to the Ephesian Church, is the notion of a “new life” and an “old life.” This idea is far from original with Paul as it was first and best explained by Christ himself in the Gospel of John where Jesus talks with the Pharisee, Nicodemus. According to Jesus there was a clear difference between a person’s old way of living and their new life as his disciple. Just as a baby, once born, does not return back to the mother’s womb, likewise a new Christian does not return to their “old life.”
However, this desire to stay away from the “old life” does not come through force or insistence by anyone but the person directly involved in the change. There must be some experience that plants the seed of this desire in the heart of the individual, a seed that continues to grow over time. Awareness of the distinction between the two lives emerges within a person, along with the desire to maintain the newly found direction of this “new life.”
When we are children there are many instances where we are headed straight for a mistake or a bad situation. Parents may try with all of their might to prevent children from experiencing the predictable outcome that might bring harm. However, there are also times where the parent knows that to allow the child to experience disaster may be the most effective decision. It may be that allowing the child to fall, so to speak, and allowing the child to experience falling will prompt an experience, not rules, that will encourage a change.
For example, when I was young I loved to play in the sink in our kitchen as my mother cooked or did housework. My mother would fill up the sink for me and then allow me to play in the water with my favorite toys, clad in a raincoat to protect me from the violent splashing that would ultimately ensue. However, one day my mother was not around to ask to fill the sink, and I saw an alternative in a large pot of water atop the stove. Unaware that the pot had been left to boil in preparation for pasta, the only thing I saw was an opportunity for me, along with my toys, to explore new and exciting waters. Needless to say, what followed was a massive burn that left a sizable scar on my left hand that is still with me. As a result of this experience, I did not stop my fun water game of splashing, raincoats and toys. What I came away with was a cautious awareness of pots and boiling substances on the stovetop. That burn gave me enough to know that I never wanted to make the same mistake again. The scar was a visible reminder of my decision and its consequences.
When Christians, like Paul, discuss the idea of a new life, many people assume that this is just cheap Christian lingo, something we know is in the scripture but don’t know how to experience. Reading Paul’s desire for the Christians at Ephesus to “put off the old self” makes us aware that there’s something to be done there, but defining the “old self” can seem complicated and discovering the “new self” can be rather ambiguous and hard to comprehend. What is not difficult to understand is that both Jesus and Paul took this “new life” extremely seriously.
Jesus himself made it perfectly clear that to be a Christian and to represent his name in our new identity means carrying the burden of a cross that accompanies this “new life.” For some, this cross is heavy, splinter-ridden, and a burden. This perception of the “new life” can soon make returning to the “old life” without the cross look pretty appealing. Assuming that the cross means judgment, rules, and impossible expectations makes burning oneself in the boiling water of the “old life” almost desirable. The difference between the Christian who has not truly encountered the living God and the Christian who has been born of the Spirit, is that the first has not truly understood the dangers of the boiling water, and the second has found that one burn was enough. The first saw no reason to change; the second saw that change was the only option.
Being changed by God is not something that happens to you but something that happens within you. The change is supported by the awareness that ahead of you is a well-lit path, and behind you the dark ground already traveled. Someone who has truly met Christ recognizes that in the darkness exists a world of mistakes already made and desires left unfulfilled. For this person, walking ahead into the well-lit path of “new life” with Christ is an opportunity to enter into a world of hope and promise. From this place, the decision to place the hand in the boiling water a second time would seem insane.
At the heart of the Christian’s transformation is an inner acknowledgment that to “go back” is not only counterproductive but counter-intuitive. Going back is never an option. Service, bearing the cross in the new life, becomes a part of who you are, and less a list of things you are required to do. Service becomes more of an instinct and less a choice to be considered. Serving the king, the suffering servant, the great Teacher, becomes your lifelong desire, the essence of who you are and everything you do.
To know Jesus is to be made like him. By serving him and serving like him we truly find union with him. This union establishes us firmly on the rock that is Jesus Christ. It is then on this rock that we can honestly and confidently refer to ourselves as Christians.