The Cruciform Life in Action
Worldview Church » November 2008
About a year ago, I signed up to participate in a “silence and solitude” retreat with a few other local pastors. I was in the midst of a busy church-planting ministry and longed for some time away in the mountains of North Carolina to rest my head, heart, and hands. Typically, our retreat leader, my friend Buddy, would take us to a quiet place in the Blue Ridge Mountains where we would take a temporary vow of silence and spend thirty-six hours alone with God. Even our meals were shared in complete silence. We fasted from speaking and feasted on the Savior.
But this time Buddy warned the four of us that this trip might look a little different. He made arrangements for us to spend the next day and a half at Young Life’s Windy Gap camp. Nestled in a small “gap” between the mountains and continually caressed with a fresh breeze, Windy Gap’s beauty and well-kept facilities provide a place for one’s soul to open up and say, “Ahhhh.”
School was in session, so I began to imagine having a room of my own and the whole camp to myself. I felt my burdens start to lift with the anticipation of rest and restoration. Buddy burst my beatific bubble when he explained why this retreat would be different: There were going to be about 120 Young Life staff members from Tennessee attending a staff retreat at Windy Gap, and Buddy had signed the five of us up to be the kitchen staff for their meals.
“Now, this might be good news to some of you guys, because I know you feel more comfortable serving people than sitting in silence and solitude,” Buddy said. “But I want you to use this service experience as an opportunity to commune with Christ, so we’re still going to take our thirty-six hour vow of silence. We’ll just serve in silence, and when we’re not working, we’ll seek solitude.” I couldn’t relate to what Buddy said being more comfortable serving than sitting. I came to get away from serving people. I’d much rather be settling into silence and solitude, thank you very much.
Waiting tables is hot and hard work. An hour or so before mealtime we helped the cook staff prepare the meals, and at the appointed time we served the staffers and their families. We were each assigned a section of about four to five tables of folks whose needs we were watching, waiting, and willing to serve. After the feeding frenzy was over and the tables were empty, we cleaned up the mess and prepared the tables for the next meal.
Just as I suspected, serving these people was messy, physically draining, time consuming, and often humbling. I entered this time of service with not a few qualms and questions: I’ve never done this before; will I know what to do? Will I drop something? Will I do a good job? What will people think of me? To top it off, Buddy took away the one weapon I had to defend any incompetency that might get exposed: my words. The vow of silence prevented me from using my words to defend, deflect with humor, excuse mistakes, make sarcastic comments, tell funny stories, or try to sound intelligent.
I was left with nothing to depend on but . . . God. My Lord called me to be with Him in that place at that time, so I had to look and listen to Him for the direction and motivation to serve Him on His terms. That’s the cruciform life in action: serving God by serving others while depending on Christ. Jesus’ disciples are those who fill up on the love of God in Jesus, His Son and Servant, until they overflow with loving service back to God and out to the world around them.
JESUS, THE SON AND SERVANT
Jesus has not called us to live a life that He has not lived Himself. Jesus is the “founder and perfecter” of the cruciform life of faith (Hebrews 12:2). As our trailblazer, He embraced the love and leadership of His Father by faith, and then expressed that faith in love by pouring Himself out for the sake of seeing people and creation reconciled to a right relationship with God and one another. A quick scan through the Gospels reveals two crucial roles by which Jesus identified Himself and out of which He lived.
Jesus lived as the Father’s Son. Jesus lived in constant awareness of and dependence upon His relationship to God as His Father’s beloved. It is significant that prior to the two most important phases of His life on earth Jesus heard these words from His Father: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus heard these words at His baptism, just before He began His public ministry of works and witness (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22). And He heard this affirmation again at His transfiguration on the mountain, just before He began to move toward His Passion Week ministry (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35; 2 Peter 1:17). Jesus moved into those intense periods of ministry with His Father’s words “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” ringing in His ears. We know from the Apostle John’s testimony that Jesus frequently mentioned that He was God’s Son (John 5:17-18,30; 10:24-38, and more) and that He was fully aware of and dependent upon His Father’s love for Him (John 3:35, 5:20, 10:17, 15:9-10, 17:23-26). It is possible that Paul’s reference to Jesus as “the Beloved” and the “Beloved Son” means that this way of identifying Jesus was passed down through the Apostles’ teaching (Ephesians 1:6; Colossians 1:13; John and Peter both taught this: 1 John 1:1-3, 2:22-24, 4:10-15, etc.; 2 John 3; 2 Peter 1:17-18). Perhaps when John referred to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” he was only following Jesus’ example of identifying Himself as the Son whom the Father loves (John 13:23, 20:2, 21:7,20).
Jesus also lived as the Father’s Servant. Jesus lived in constant awareness and practice of His relationship to God as the Father’s bondservant. Jesus made it clear that He “came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45) and gave the disciples a memorable picture of what that meant when He washed their feet at the Last Supper (a task left to the lowliest of servants) and when He “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” and becoming “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” the very next day (John 13:1-17; Philippians 2:7-8).
Perhaps only after the ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost did they truly understand what their Master meant when He said, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). After Pentecost, the Apostles and earliest followers of Jesus identified Him as God’s “Holy servant” both in their preaching and their prayers (Acts 3:13,26; 4:27,30). Both Jesus and His followers believed that He was the “Suffering Servant” that Isaiah prophesied would one day pour out His life for the sake of God’s people (Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Luke 22:37; Acts 8:32-35).
And this brings us back to the Father’s announcement that Jesus was His “beloved son, in whom He is well pleased,” for this statement is almost a direct quote referring to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 42:1 which reads, “Behold 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.” Matthew claimed that Jesus was the fulfillment of that prophecy, and his quotation of it more closely resembles the words that the Father pronounced at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon Him, and He will proclaim justice to the Gentiles” (Matthew 12:18). So these words were not only identifying Jesus as the Father’s Son, but also His Servant. Just before the major periods of Jesus earthly ministry, He and those who were with Him were reminded of His two major identities. Jesus lived as both the Son and Servant of God.
HE HAS GIVEN US AN EXAMPLE
John’s gospel tells us that on the night before His crucifixion, Jesus
. . . knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside His outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around His waist. Then He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around Him . . . When He had washed their feet and put on His outer garments and resumed His place, He said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
This is a perfect picture of the cruciform life, a life of service that flows from a loved son. Jesus knew where He had come from and where He was going. He forever belonged to the Father and would forever be with and beside the Father. John makes it clear that from His position and power as Son, Jesus fulfilled His purpose as Servant, obeying His Father by taking up His cross with a heart that says, “not my will, but Yours be done.” Jesus the Son and Suffering Servant poured out His blood from the basin of His perfect life. He took the towel of His flesh and wiped away our sins. The life, death, and resurrected life of Jesus says “at your service” both to the Father and to us. And in that life, death, and resurrected life Jesus has given us an example of the cruciform life in action, a life that says to God and others “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Jesus has now handed the ministry of reconciliation over to us, saying “you also should do just as I have done to you” (2 Corinthians 5:17-21; John 13:15).
EQUIPPED TO SERVE
The profile of Jesus’ life described in the gospels fits hand-in-glove with the profile of the cruciform disciple that is prescribed by the Apostles in their letters. When Paul was laying out his God-given plan for building up the church in Ephesians 4, he mentioned that pastors and church leaders were to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” resulting in a unity and maturity that finds its final expression in love. The Greek word translated “ministry” here is related to the word diakonos (dee-AH-ko-nahs), a servant who waited tables at meals (e.g. Luke 10:40, 12:37, 17:8, 22:27; John 12:2). At banquets the diakonos was assigned a certain number of tables over which he or she presided as one who watches, waits, and willingly serves the people who reclined and dined there. This is very similar to how our modern day restaurants assign servers to care for the guests at a particular section of tables.
Each follower of Jesus has been assigned a “section” of “tables,” each of which is full of people who are in need of the ministry (diakonian, service) of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). Paul called that section of tables our “area of influence,” the boundaries in which and the limits to which God has placed us to advance His Kingdom through gospel works and witness (2 Corinthians 10:13-18). Our section of tables is what we’ll call our Personal Mission Field (PMF), and each table represents a different circle of influence in which we live (i.e. home, work, neighborhood, school, stores, restaurants, the gym, extended family, clubs, teams, associations, church, etc.). The work of ministry to which each of us is called is “to serve, not to be served,” to live among those in our Personal Mission Fields “as one who serves.”
You need to visualize this, so I’ve provided a drawing that I believe will help you:
The stick person in the middle represents you, the servant; the arrows show that you have a God-and-others-oriented, at-your-service heart; and the circles at the end of the arrows are the various “tables” or circles of influence in which God has placed you and to which He has assigned you to be His servant. Now, take a moment to label each table with a word that will signify the various circles of influence in which you’ve been placed and to which you go on at least a weekly basis. You may want to start at the top table and label it “home.” Then, moving counter-clockwise, continue to label the other tables: neighborhood, work/school, church, etc. Now, around each table write the names of at least three people whom you regularly see and interact with in that circle of influence. Once you’ve done that, you can see the people to whom God has called you to be a servant just as Christ has served you. These are the people among whom you are to make disciples as you are going (Matthew 28:18-20). For a more detailed exercise in mapping your PMF, download T. M. Moore’s Personal Mission Field brochure.
WATCHING, WAITING, WILLING, WELCOME
Once you’ve mapped out your Personal Mission Field, you’ll find yourself in the same position I found myself at the Windy Gap dining hall. I’ve been assigned my section of tables, and I see the people there, but now what? Allow me to suggest three activities and one attitude that you can begin to develop as you are going into your areas of influence on a daily basis.
Watching: Like a seasoned server in a fine restaurant, learn to anticipate the needs of the people around you. Carefully and prayerfully consider the physical and spiritual needs of the people whom God brings across your path each day. Our friend Sara excels at watching for the needs of others. In the last few months our little church has had the opportunity to provide meals and prayers for the family of her daughter’s school friend. The little girl’s dad lost a job and her mom had major surgery in the same week and, being new to town, had no family or friends to care for them. More recently, Sara began to serve her neighbors whose lives were in turmoil and whose young daughter was struggling with it all. Sara was there for them, taking care of the kids, bringing the daughter to our church, getting all of us to pray for them, and we had the opportunity to bless them with a cash gift for food and gas as they recently moved out of state. These people in Sara’s PMF were not believers and as far as I know still aren’t, but because Sara served them, they got a front row seat to the glory of God on display in His church.
When asked whether “reading guests” was “an inborn talent,” the general manager of the Oceana restaurant in New York City replied, “No, I don’t think it is at all. I think you can actively read guests by focusing, and being there and watching them . . . I think being in your station, watching the table, watching people eat, making eye contact to see what the body language is, is how you accurately read a guest . . . You have to be watching. You have to be paying attention. You have to be looking. You have to be reading the table.” Sara knows how to watch tables and read guests.
Waiting: Waiting tables requires a combination of anticipation, availability, and action. The server expects that needs will arise, makes himself ready to meet them, and moves to serve when the time is right. For the serving saint this requires the readiness that only waiting on the Lord in prayer can provide. The biblical worldview teaches us that every man, woman, boy and girl were made in the image of God and for intimacy with God, and that both that image and intimacy have been ruined by their rebellion (Deuteronomy 32:4-6). What they need is a reconciliation to intimacy with God that will restore in them the image of God (2 Corinthians 5:17-20). We know there are needs and that we have been called as servants of that reconciliation, but like the disciples before Pentecost we must wait in prayer on the Spirit to empower our service (Acts 1:4-2:41).
Our friends Ned and Anna are both people of prayer and passionate for people in their Personal Mission Field. When a Chinese couple moved in a few houses down, Ned and Anna introduced themselves and began to pray. It wasn’t long before this couple showed up at our church and we began to pray publicly about their desire to stay in the states and become citizens. After months of prayer, they announced one Sunday that they had received permission to stay in the U.S., and they thanked us for praying and specifically attributed the good news to our prayers. These folks still aren’t professing followers of Christ yet, but they’ve got a table for two with a glorious view of the God who answers prayer.
Willing: It has been said that everyone loves to think of themselves as servants until they are treated like one. Serving the needs of others is tedious, tiring, and often thankless work. Watching and waiting on the people in our PMF will require a willingness to sacrifice. Jesus never said this would be easy, in fact He said that serving others “just as I have done to you” would mean to “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). For people whose “me-first” hearts are committed to using God, people, and creation to save their own lives, it is painfully impossible to bend our hearts to the cruciform life of losing our lives by using ourselves to serve God, people, and creation. Serving is sacrifice. “Killing me with kindness” will take on a new level of meaning in the life of the cruciform disciple as the old “me-first” heart gives way to the Spirit’s creation of a “you-first” heart that says “at your service” to God and others.
I have a friend who serves as the discipler of middle school girls at a large church here in town. Once while interviewing a young lady for church membership, my friend discerned that this young lady had no desire to pursue Jesus and that her participation in the new members’ process was to appease her parents. After much prayer and conversation with church leadership, my friend suggested to the girl and her parents that she was not ready to take membership vows and should wait until she was ready to do so. My friend offered to meet with the young lady for discipleship and conversation, hopeful that the Lord would eventually grab her heart. The parents were outraged, and my faithful friend endured a profanity-laced tongue lashing on the phone. The family soon left the church in anger never to be heard from again. This wise woman’s loving efforts to protect this young lady from taking vows in vain were met with an abusive attack. I don’t know what’s become of the teenager, who by now is in college, but I do know that through my friend she received a taste of cross-shaped love that is willing to pour itself out for the sake of reconciling a wayward child to a heavenly Father.
Welcome: The three activities we’ve explored must be supported and surrounded by an attitude and atmosphere of hospitality. Drawing from a number of sources, I offer this definition of hospitality: “the reception and care of strangers or guests with kindness and generosity.” Hospitality opens its heart, hands, and home to others and says “Welcome.” We have been served by One who opened His heart, hands, and heavenly home, not to friends but to foes, not to entertain guests, but in order to give His enemies life by giving up His own. Hospitality is grace, and “grace is the face that love wears when it meets imperfection.”
One restaurateur describes the difference between the action of service and the attitude of hospitality: “Service you can teach. Hospitality is in you, and it’s a born, bred thing more than it’s a situation where you can actually train someone to do it.” But therein lies our problem, the welcoming grace of God’s Kingdom is not in us until we are “born from above . . . of the Spirit” (John 3:1-8). This attitude of gracious service is only available to sons of God.
EMBRACED AS SONS, EMPOWERED AND EMPLOYED AS SERVANTS
Jesus calls us to serve like Him, but as we’ve discovered, His service flowed from His sonship. We can’t, and won’t, and don’t want to serve unless and until we are sons. But by nature we are “children of wrath” who have rejected the Father for the pursuit of pleasure or performance, attempting to either escape or earn the righteousness of God (Ephesians 2:1-3; Luke 15:11-32). We cannot live the cross-shaped life of lovingly serving God and others until we have been forgiven and formed by the cross of Christ. The difference between Jesus’ sonship and ours is that He is and always has been God’s Son by the nature of His being, while we become sons (by second birth and adoption) by believing the Gospel (John 1:12-13, 3:1-15; Galatians 4:4-6). [Remember Galatians 3:26-29, where both men and women are said to be “sons of God.” An adopted son in Paul’s day was a full heir while adopted daughters were not. In Christ, both men and women are full heirs, and having received the Spirit of sonship are therefore called “sons.” This does not mean, however, that believing women may not be called daughters of God (2 Corinthians 6:16-18).]
Again, our service to God and others must flow from our sonship. When through the Gospel we have become sons, then through the Gospel we can become servants. There are at least three reasons for this. First, we can freely serve the Lord Jesus and others because we have been forgiven (1 Peter 1:13-23). We no longer owe Him. The ransom price has been paid. He has shown us mercy, now we can share mercy with the people in our Personal Mission Field (Matthew 18:21-35). Second, we have been more than forgiven, we are Jesus’ friends and family and now have been given insight and involvement in the plans of His Kingdom (John 15:12-17; Hebrews 2:10-11; Luke 12:32). Finally, we are being formed into Christ-like servants ever so surely by the Spirit who now lives in us (2 Corinthians 3:18). The very Spirit by whom we cry “Abba, Father” is the One whose name means “helper” or “one who comes alongside” (Romans 8:14-17; John 14:15-17). He knows how to make sons to be servants. This is the Spirit who gives us various gifts in order to serve others with holy hospitality (1 Corinthians 12:4-11; 1 Peter 4:7-11). This Spirit is the One who continues to bear witness to us about Jesus and empowers us to bear witness about Christ to others (John 15:26-27; Acts 1:8). And this Spirit is the One who provided the blood of Christ that cleanses our consciences from dead works and causes us to walk in the good works of love for God and others (Ezekiel 36:22-28; Hebrews 9:14; Titus 3:4-8). We are the forgiven friends and family of Jesus, whose Spirit is forming us to be cruciform servants who love like our crucified Servant.
EXPRESSING THE LAW BY EMBRACING THE GOSPEL
In the diagram above, I’ve tried to show that being a servant by loving God and others is an expression of the Law of God, obedience to which flows from embracing the Gospel as a son. I like the way Sinclair Ferguson has explained the connection between the imperatives of the Law and the indicatives of the Gospel:
The great gospel imperatives to holiness are ever rooted in indicatives of grace that are able to sustain the weight of those imperatives. The Apostles do not make the mistake that’s often made in Christian ministry. [For the Apostles] the indicatives are more powerful than the imperatives in gospel preaching. So often in our preaching our indicatives are not strong enough, great enough, holy enough, or gracious enough to sustain the power of the imperatives. And so our teaching on holiness becomes a whip or a rod to beat our people’s backs because we’ve looked at the New Testament and that’s all we ourselves have seen.
We’ve seen our own failure and we’ve seen the imperatives to holiness and we’ve lost sight of the great indicatives of the gospel that sustain those imperatives. Woven into the warp and woof of the New Testament’s exposition of what it means for us to be holy is the great groundwork that the self-existent, thrice holy, triune God has—in Himself, by Himself and for Himself—committed Himself and all three Persons of His being to bringing about the holiness of His own people. This is the Father’s purpose, the Son’s purchase and the Spirit’s ministry.
We are only able to obey the Law’s imperatives or commands to love God and others as a servant when as sons we are “rooted in” and sustained by the indicatives or completed actions of Christ as He is offered in the Gospel. Only the Son of God, the Suffering Servant, can obey God’s Law fully. In order for us to be able to be Law-Keepers, we must be united by faith to God’s Son (Romans 8:3-4). We must not fall into the Galatian trap of getting the Law cart before the Gospel horse (Galatians 3:1-5). We are not transformed into cruciform servants by buckling down in our own fleshly power to try harder at serving God and others. On the contrary, we pursue a life of serving God and others by faith as we hear and believe the message of the cross that tells us we can count ourselves as sons of God who are dead to our sinful “me-first” hearts and alive to God with a “you-first” heart and an at-your-service life (Romans 6:5-14).
SERVED BY THE KING FOR KINGDOM SERVICE
Serving at Windy Gap served me well. I struggled with my “me-first” heart that first day of waiting on tables. I selfishly wanted to be served with time alone in restful retreat, but my time was taken with serving servants who had come away for retreat themselves. That first afternoon, after I finally had a couple of hours alone with God, I wrote in my journal: “I spent a lot of time today trying to listen to God’s voice, but not sensing He was saying anything in particular . . . perhaps He would have something to say to me tonight at communion with Buddy at 9:30.”
That night I sat alone with my sinful, sulking heart in the corner of the upstairs room where we were celebrating the Lord’s Supper. The room was dark but for the flickering light of the candles Buddy had carefully placed. There was a long, low table in the center of the room on which were a few candles, a cross, the bread, and the cup. Later I recorded the moment in my journal: “As soon as I sat down and looked at the table, tears began to roll down my cheeks, and I had this overwhelming sense that the Father was saying to me, ‘See Jimmy, I love you! You are my son, my beloved. I am well-pleased with you because of Jesus. This cup is the New Covenant sealed for you by the blood of My Son.
Your sins are forgiven—you are clean! You have a new heart that loves Me and wants to obey Me! Haven’t you noticed? You have My Spirit living in you. Think about that! I love you, son. I delight in you. You bring Me joy.’” When Buddy brought me the bread and juice, there were more tears as I tasted the sweetness of my King’s love for me. I had an inkling of what Peter must have been feeling when he refused Jesus’ offer to wash his feet, “You shouldn’t serve me. I should be serving You!”
Afterward, I went outside to walk and enjoyed a perfect evening in a cool breeze. You should see the stars from Windy Gap. I was amazed that the One who made and manages those billions of stars met me in that upper room that night at the table. When the bread was broken, my eyes were opened and I recognized Him. “He was known to them (and to me) in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:30-35). The Lord knew that what this unwilling Kingdom servant needed was a reminder that the King had served him and that His sacrifice continues to serve my transformation. So once again, He served me the Gospel, so that I could become a gospel servant to Him and others. I recognized Him when through the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup He said, “At your service.” The people in our Personal Mission Fields will recognize Him, too, when the body of Christ is broken and poured out for the sake of serving others with an at-your-service heart.
Please be sure to visit my blog The Cruciform Life to leave your comments or questions regarding this article. I plan to post further thoughts and observations, and I’d love to have your input as together we pursue the cruciform life.
Coming up next in this series: “The Cruciform Servant: Seeker, Shepherd, Steward, and Sower”
Jimmy Davis is the associate editor of Worldview Church and pastor of Riverside Church in Knoxville, Tenn. He also maintains The Cruciform Life Blog.
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