First Third Conversations

Why serve?

By Dr. Terri Martinson Elton, Director of the Center for First Third Ministry at Luther Seminary

Today we leave the celebratory experience of Palm Sunday and head straight into Holy Week. As we continue reflecting on the theme “Reclaiming the Servant’s Heart,” I want to pause a moment and change our focus from the doing aspect of mission and dwell in the why aspect of serving.

The powerful story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet is an anchor in the Christian journey from Palm Sunday to Easter. In my tradition, Maundy Thursday worship centers on John 13 as we prepare for the gut-wrenching reality of Good Friday. Love is the theme, but not love as a flowery Valentine’s Day love, rather a love which is weathered by heartache and pain and which knows where true joy comes from. This reframing of love is what moves us into Good Friday and Easter.

I have a glimpse of such love, what about you? For me Lent, as a time of reflecting on the brokenness of life while holding onto the promises of God, began in December, long before Ash Wednesday appeared on the calendar. The limits of our human efforts, the fragility of our bodies, and the selfish desires of our heart are not abstract concepts, they are real. I have particular faces and concrete stories which remind me of this truth. I have shed tears and been angry, as I try to find a pathway forward. I have attended too many funerals, have had my work redirected in unexpected ways, experienced loss of relationships and dreams, and tried to find life in the midst of suffering. Death, brokenness, betrayal, and sin are present in our world. I know it, but I don’t like it. I don’t like the hurt is causes and I don’t like the scars it leaves on my heart and in my life.

Life in a broken world is hard, isn’t it? And truth be told, I don’t gravitate toward the broken places in our world. I gravitate toward places of life. Lent, and Holy Week specifically, however put these realities right in my face, and I am forces to dwell in the brokenness without losing the promise. Why?

We are Easter people, people who live on the other side of the resurrection. Yet the message of Easter is not as powerful without a keen awareness of brokenness. And in fact, I wonder if that’s not Jesus’ message to his disciples on the night he washed their feet. John’s gospel says it this way…

12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”

If we were to take this week backwards, from Easter to Good Friday to Maundy Thursday, think how differently this event, this meal, would have been viewed. The disciples would have asked tons of questions, mostly on things that weren’t that important. And, unable to get their head around the new reality, they would have focused only on their loss. And rather than give a theological treatise, Jesus invites them into a new place. He recognizes the pain in the world, pain which will be very real to him in hours, and he calls them to serve. And Jesus says when Christians serve, we know the heart of the master.

As I have walked this Lenten season, this message of serving has rung in my ears. Many times I have stopped and wondered, “How can I serve these persons I know you are in need today?” Is it a phone call? A hot meal? Is it a note on Facebook or an evening spent together? The answers have not always been clear, but the brokenness in the world and my heart aching for others has been. My call to you, as it has been to me, is to open our eyes to see the broken places, and dwell in those places. Then hear God’s promises in light of these truths. And something will happen. Your heart will be moved. Then make yourself available to offer God’s love to another as you reclaim a servant’s heart.


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Terri Elton is passionate about young people and their families, and loves the church. No really! She's our Associate Professor and teaches with an eye toward developing leaders and leading change.

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