A Theology of Service

A Theology of Service

Message, Community, and Service: these three components of the Christian life are so closely intertwined that if one of them is missing in any proposed theology of Christian life, then that whole theological enterprise is weakened. Preaching the Good News of God’s love, living not in isolation, but in the Spirit of community, and serving others for the good of all are actions that define the Christian life.

This short reflection paper focuses on the third component, service, but within the context of faith and community. Let it be noted at the outset that most of the historically well-established religions of the world incorporate some form of exhortation to altruism, but in its beginnings Christianity did so to such an extent that it became the hallmark of the movement even in its infancy: “Behold how these Christians love one another,” said one secular observer. (Of course, historically, it took a while for Christians to extend that love to others beyond their own group.) For Christians in general, the call to service is grounded in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. For Catholic Christians, a strong tradition of social teachings further strengthens the Gospel mandate to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Two main features of the Catholic tradition (when lived at its best) contribute to a mature theology of service, namely, the insistence on the dignity of the human person and the recognition of the dimension of mutuality in the act of service.

First is the fundamental insistence on the dignity of the human person, a dignity based on the belief that human beings, male and female, are made in the image of God. Further, the Christian scripture narratives move toward a mysterious identification between neighbor and Christ himself. The familiar parable of the Last Judgment illustrates the point: “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome. . . .” (Mt. 25:31-46). Indeed, in this parable we learn that our very salvation depends on the extent to which our life clearly demonstrates this dimension of service. The powerful story of Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus reminds us of the converse as well; with the great Apostle to the Gentiles we, too, hear the words, “Why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you?” we ask. And we hear the response: “I am Jesus, and you are persecuting me.” (Acts 9:3-6)

But a particular theological pitfall needs to be avoided here. We are not saved by serving others if we are using other people as a mere means to holiness instead of as an end in themselves. The great theologian Karl Rahner warns against this sincere but manipulative behavior. The person we serve is to be loved and served for herself/himself and not just as “a symbol of the Christ,” the service of whom will get us to heaven. This is more than just a subtle theological point. Rahner rightly insists that the love of God and the love of neighbor are distinct as well as united.

In this manner, a healthy theology of service honors the profound human dignity of those served, no matter what their state in life, their gender, or race. Any semblance of arrogance or denigration on the part of the service provider shifts the act from one of service to one of persecution.

Closely related to the notion that we serve (or fail to serve) Christ when we serve (or fail to serve) other people, is the sheer power of the example set by Jesus when he washed the feet of his followers. “What I just did was to give you an example: as I have done, so you must do.” (John 13:13-15)

In addition to the notion of human dignity, another feature has emerged as a basis for a theology of service, namely, the “mutual” dimension. In other words, the road of service is a two-way street. Walking this road includes discovering, in surprising and humbling ways, that one receives as much as one gives—sometimes even more. This sense of mutuality seems to be emerging with greater clarity now. This should not be surprising. For over twenty centuries Christians have endeavored to practice what Jesus taught us about service of others. Along the way, theologians as well as spirituality scholars and practitioners have helped us deepen our understanding of what this means. Now in our own time we have come to new insights about the relationship between the served and the server. In this graced encounter, both persons are served and both become server.

This emphasis on the mutuality dimension of service is particularly important as affluent and privileged Christians hear with new ears the “cry of the poor.” In the last quarter of the 20th Century, new voices—both male and female—turned us toward new understandings not only of the dignity of human persons, but also of the value of the life experience of those persons, especially the experience of the poor, the marginalized, the shunned.

In sum, then, a 21st Century theology of service must call our attention to the fact that a faith-filled reading of the Scriptures and of Catholic social teachings leads to the inescapable conclusion that Christians, each according to her/his own talents, are obliged to be in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized. To engage in service, to reflect on one’s own experience and that of others, and to move toward action on behalf of peace, justice, truth, reconciliation, and love: these are constitutive elements of the Christian life of service, lived with an attentiveness to the common good and with a deep and abiding faith. We serve, not to feel better about ourselves, but to build a more humane and just society, what Christians call the Reign of God.

September 5, 2001
Division for Mission