“… ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25: 34-36)
“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” This question, found in the Book of Common Prayer as part of the Baptismal Covenant, has been a focal point for many of us who strive to live as followers of Jesus. A key to serving Christ is to love: to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We are able to love because God loves us first. God accepts us for who we are—warts and all. As we accept that truth for ourselves, then it is possible for us to share that love with others. It is not the concept of love that we share, or some abstract notion, but agape—the kind of love that actively seeks the good of all.
The call to seek and serve Christ and to love one’s neighbor is rooted in the tradition that was given to the earliest Christians through their Jewish heritage. Since the beginning, the invitation to serve one’s neighbor has been part of the salvation story of the people of Israel. In spite of our human tendency to identify people who are different from us as “other,” those of us who look to the Bible as our moral compass can find there an alternative narrative.
At an economic symposium in 2015, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggested that there are two “protocols” articulated in the Hebrew scripture and which exist in tension with each other: the protocol of purity and the protocol of neighborliness. The protocol of purity creates stratification and hence, an underclass. The protocol of neighborliness asks its adherents to subordinate purity so there will be no underclass. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that in serving one’s neighbor, we are serving God and helping to bring about God’s vision for creation.
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations … He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” (Isaiah 42:1, 4)
The poetry in Isaiah’s “servant song” understands the people of Israel as servants who are called to fulfill God’s divine mission for humanity—love and freedom for all. When justice is the experience of all, God’s vision will approach fulfillment.
Helping to bring about justice is a manifestation of love of neighbor, and it is one avenue to serving Christ when we serve those we encounter on our journey. The 2016 annual Trinity Institute, as presented by Trinity Episcopal Church in New York, was titled Listen for a Change: Sacred Conversations for Radical Justice. During the symposium, preachers, presenters, and panelists spoke eloquently about the “ism” of race and the variety of ways we succumb to its injustice. Listening to these speakers, I was reminded that all of us create “others.” In our limited, human condition, we are instinctively drawn to the protocol of purity named by Dr. Brueggemann. But it is the protocol of neighborliness and justice for all that is identified with God’s vision. The concept of service articulated in the Baptismal Covenant is identified with bringing the reign of God into reality.
An icon of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet hangs in my office. That picture is a daily reminder that we are all called to care for one another in surprising ways. Jesus’ disciples were astonished that he would humble himself to do this task, which was often relegated to house servants. If Jesus could humble himself and wash his friends’ feet, perhaps you and I are called to actions as radical and astonishing as this in order to serve others. And if this is true, then we will need to get to know other people: get close enough to others to show love and care. Becoming familiar with people is to know their concerns and challenges, and to walk humbly beside them in daily life. This is a life-long journey for most of us.
In 1961, the World Council of Churches put out this statement: “Christian service, as distinct from the world’s concept of philanthropy, springs from and is nourished by God’s costly love as revealed by Jesus Christ. Any Christian ethic of service must have its roots there…. All our service is a response to the God who first loved us. Justice is the expression of this love in the structures of society.” To love requires us to have compassion—to “suffer with” our neighbors.
Perhaps it is time to define our “neighbors.” When asked by a lawyer “who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story of the Samaritan who assisted a wounded man when neither the priest nor the Levite would help (Luke 10.30-37). Jesus ended the story by asking who was the Samaritan’s neighbor. The lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus would have us understand that our neighbors are everyone, especially the poor, the weak, the lonely, and those who are on the margins of society. Some of us may help feed the hungry through meal programs in our churches and communities, while others may provide foot care for homeless men and women, and still others may sit with those who are sick and dying. On those occasions, when we allow ourselves to get close to someone, we are sharing a bit of ourselves with each other. What makes our service rooted in our Christian tradition, and not an act of pity, is that we who appear “strong” suffer with those who appear ”weak.” In that journey of suffering, both the “strong” and the “weak” are transformed.
As followers of Jesus, we are called upon to calm the voices of the world that invite us to compare ourselves to others: “I’m successful!” “I want more!” “Look at me!” As followers of Jesus, we are called upon to know ourselves to be loved by God, and in responding to that love help others raise their voices. We can do this by saying “I love you.” “What do you need?” “How can I help?” It is not law or power, knowledge or dignity, but rather humble service that is the basis of discipleship.
Each of us is endowed with gifts that make it possible to stand with our neighbors. What gifts we have, and which gifts we choose to engage, will be as varied as we are. Service is expressed when we show and proclaim mercy to each other, when we care for our neighbors, especially those who are on the margins. It can be when we care for God’s creation and call forth justice for all of God’s creatures. It can be when we are attentive and responsive to the whole community. Last, it can be when we spend time in prayer and reflection in order to be equipped spiritually for the ministry of service. Therefore, it will be up to us as to how we answer the question: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
I will with God’s help!
Sources and Resources
The Book of Common Prayer
Collins, John N. Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.