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The Downstairs People


Giving back has gained popularity in America over the past several decades. Businesses create opportunities for their employees—regardless of title or position—to engage in serving their communities through things like picking up street trash, cleaning city parks, or serving food to the under-resourced. After a few hours of much-appreciated service, they change their shoes and shirts and return to their regular jobs.

 

Candidates running for public office are often featured flipping burgers at a local café or wearing hard hats on an assembly line. The message? Vote for me because I serve in the community just like you. But when the cameras stop running, they drive away to resume their lives of importance.

 

Volunteers are the lifeblood of churches. Unlike paid staff, they serve without monetary compensation and are often given titles to reflect their value: Impact Teams, the Kindness Krew, All-Stars, Heroes, the Difference Makers. When their scheduled serving commitment is complete, they drop off their lanyards and head back to their normal lives.

 

All this is good—very good—but are we missing something? Is this what Jesus had in mind when He redefined greatness in the context of serving? Was He talking about an occasional short-lived activity that could be wedged between the cracks of our all-consuming lives?

 

Two important words capture Jesus' thoughts on serving: servant and slave. While these carry a negative vibe in civilized cultures, failing to include them in the serving narrative misses one of the most critical aspects of His teaching.

 

Servant and slave in the New Testament referred to people owned or controlled by others. They included those who had been captured in war and forced into slavery, born to slave parents, or had willingly sold themselves as slaves to better their position in life. They were neither volunteers nor employees; their full-time job was to fulfill the wishes of their masters. In return, they received food, shelter, protection, and care.

 

The British drama series Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey portrayed the historical difference between servants and those they served. For the downstairs people, serving was not a random act but a way of life. It was their identity. You'd never hear them calling "shotgun" when getting into a car, taking the biggest slice of custard pie, pushing to the front of the line, or claiming the best seat at the table. Their place was not to promote themselves but to do the bidding of their masters—always.

 

When two of Jesus' disciples asked Him for the premier seats in His kingdom, He turned the conversation to include His classic definition of greatness:

 

You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them.  But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.           Mark 10:42-44

 

Our natural desire is to be included with those who are served and promoted. We want to be upstairs people and live as masters of the castle. But becoming a follower of Jesus changes all that. We willingly place ourselves under the headship of a new Master because He offers a better life, and embracing His desires changes the way we think, act, and live—twenty-four-seven.

 

  • God values every person and calls us to join Him. We serve others—at work, in the grocery line, at home, on the road, at restaurants—not because it's our turn to volunteer or because they deserve it, but because they're important to our Master. It's what downstairs people do.

 

  • God wants every person to hear the life-giving message of the Gospel and calls us to join Him. We engage with others in conversations about Jesus—at work, with friends, in school, in the neighborhood—not because it's our night to "witness" but because they matter to our Master. It's what downstairs people do.

 

We must guard against the thinking that event-driven serving is what qualifies us for greatness. It's not. God isn't interested in adding activities to our busy lives but in redefining our very existence.

 

Being a follower of Jesus means we vacate the upstairs, return it to its rightful owner, and move downstairs. And as we engage in the heart and desires of our Master—not as an activity but as a way of life—we experience much more than greatness: we experience Him.

 

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