For most of my Christian experience I was taught and I taught others that church was primarily a place to go to serve, to use your gifts, to bless others. “You don’t go to church to be served but to serve!” This became for me a mantra that I championed for many years as a pastor. I felt it was my duty to deconstruct the “consumer” mentality that so many American Christians seemed to espouse. This emphasis to do something for God actually sells very well in our pragmatic culture. You can rally an army of eager Christians who busy themselves with things to do believing themselves to be living radically for God. In fact, like Peter, we find it very difficult to allow Jesus to serve us (John 13:6). However, I believe that Jesus would say to us what he said to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” (vs. 8).
Certainly the Church ought to be a place where Christians are using their gifts for the good of their neighbor. The NT is full of “one another” imperatives and after washing the disciple's feet Jesus tells his original disciples to follow his example and “wash one another’s feet.” (vv. 14-17) We miss the thrust of this passage however if we lose sight of the fact that at the heart of this command is the ongoing need for the Christian to allow Jesus to wash their own feet. The Christian, according to Jesus, is already clean but has need of a perpetual spiritual cleansing that while already accomplished has ongoing implications as we continue to battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The Christian as both a sinner and a saint (100% of each simultaneously) continues to struggle with sin and is in need of ongoing absolution. We need to hear the Word of Christ, “you are forgiven”, spoken through the word of a preacher sent to us by God. This I believe is the primary reason Christians gather together each week. While all of the acts of service that go into a church gathering are most certainly needed they are not the most vital thing that is happening when we assemble together as “the Church.” The words of Christ and the sacrament he’s given are the primary thrust of the Church. Those are the gifts Jesus has given to the Church and its leaders to give away with no prerequisites or conditions.
Jesus has most certainly commissioned his Church to follow his example by serving one another, but this service we give to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ is actually Jesus serving his people through us. While that might seem like a minor distinction it’s actually a very important one. For it is far too easy for the Church to begin to function as simply a means to an end; pushing Christ and his gifts “for you” to the margins. Putting in its place a comfortable setting where we partake of premium coffee (which admittedly beats the heck out of Folgers) hear polished music, and listen to inspirational talks. Yes, many will say, we need to, “purify the Church of its consumerism” by getting back to the basics, feeding the sheep instead of entertaining the goats! But please don’t miss my point. We can attempt to counter the consumeristic mentality of many American Christians but still miss the main thing. If our anti-consumerism turns into beating people over the head with their need to serve and live sacrificial lives we can just as easily leave the finished work of Christ behind and turn our congregations into modern-day Pharisees who look down their noses at all the lazy Christians and the Churches that attract them.
We do not go to Church to serve. We go to Church to be served, by Christ. He invites us to come and sup with him, to recline at the Table with him and allow him to wash our feet. He welcomes us into his house with all our filth and grime and he once again sheds off his outer clothing and dons the towel of the servant. He isn’t afraid of our mess, there’s no sign that says “please remove your shoes”. He beckons sinners one and all to his feast, even his enemies are invited, he’ll wash their feet too. Sometimes those enemies, like Judas, leave with thoughts of contempt and betrayal, but some of those enemies turn into his friends exchanging their squalid garments of sin and shame for his robes of righteousness. This is why we go to church, to receive from Jesus. To allow him to do the unthinkable, to get dirty with the mess of our lives. To hear once again the promise, “it is finished.” It’s only from this place that we can serve one another and have any meaningful fellowship. So go to church but go with empty hands and dirty feet, Jesus will take care of the rest.