02/20/22 “Love Languages: Acts of Service”

1 Peter 4:7-11

We’ve arrived at our final “love language,” as author Gary Chapman describes in his book The Five Love Languages. It’s the language of “acts of service.” Chapman discusses it as the fourth love language, but I left for last on purpose. The reason is that I think, for many of you, it’s one of your primary love languages. And, if it’s not, you’re fluent in it as a kind of “second language.” I actually made myself a list with each of your names. Then I added the acts of service you offer to this church and its ministries. Everyone’s name had something next to it. In this congregation, everyone serves.

And, I know that this church is not the only place you serve. You care for others—family members, friends, even complete strangers. You cook, you clean, you offer rides, you share your expertise, you offer your support. You volunteer at the library and support the schools. Every one of you knows how to speak the love language of service, and you speak it well.

Chapman has a pretty simple definition of this language. He says that an act of service is doing something that someone else wants you to do. Speaking this language doesn’t mean that you become a doormat. It means you choose to do things another person wants you to do as an expression of your love for them. In our passage, Peter offers some instructions about how we are to express our love for each other through acts of service.

It’s uncertain who the author of the letter was, or when it was written. It’s possible that the author was Peter of Jesus’ inner circle. Or, it may have been written much later, after Peter’s death but in his name, to communicate what the author felt Peter would say if he could. But what is certain is that it contains a lot of wisdom for Christians who are trying to live faithfully in a world that is very different from God’s kingdom.

While our passage today can be a helpful guide in all our relationships, it was written for congregations of Christians, and specifically about how they were to show their love for each other through acts of service to each other. First, Peter says, “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” Hospitality has to do with how we treat a guest. If you are a good host or hostess, you eagerly do everything you can to make your guest feel welcome. You don’t complain about the extra work, or the fact that they like different foods than you do, or have a routine that doesn’t match yours. You just do whatever you can to make them feel cared for. That’s how Christians are to treat each other—as though each one were a special guest.

Then, Peter says, “Serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” We all have various gifts and talents, and all can be used in acts of service. That list I made of all the ways you serve? What a variety of gifts you have—gifts that you use to serve the community, but also in service to one another. Some of these gifts are ones we can hear or see, touch and taste. Others, like administration and building maintenance, fly under the radar. But all can be expressions of love in the language of service. We have all been made stewards of the gifts we’ve been given—caretakers of this evidence of God’s grace in our lives.

Then Peter says something very important about the attitude we are to have when we serve. “Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies.” Think of that. We are to speak and serve in the way that God would speak and serve. We are to speak and serve the way Jesus would speak and serve. Remember when the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” was so popular? That’s exactly what Peter would have us figure out: “What would Jesus do?”

As Chapman says, speaking the love language of service means doing something that someone else wants you to do. In the context of human relationships, this person may be a spouse or partner or relative, a co-worker or a friend. It may be someone we don’t know. But, for us as Christians, our acts of service have an added dimension. While they express our love for other people, they are also an expression of our love for Jesus.

Jesus made it plain that our acts of service for others are an expression of love for him. We read in Matthew 25 that, when he comes again, Jesus will say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And he’ll explain to those who don’t remember ever doing these things for him, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Peter tells us to serve as Jesus would serve, but Jesus also tells us to serve as though he were the one we are serving.

Alphonsus Rodriguez understood this. Alphonsus was born in 1533. He was the second son of a prosperous cloth merchant in Spain. As a boy, he studied at a Jesuit college, but when his father died, he had to go home and take over the family business.  Alphonsus married, and he and his wife Maria had three children. But, sadly, Maria, their children, and his mother all died, one after the other, within four years. His business, too, was failing under a heavy load of taxes and expenses. For many years, Alphonsus prayed to understand what God wanted from him and for him.

Gradually, he felt a call to become a Jesuit priest. But, at the age of 35, he was considered too old to begin the long period of training that was required. He was rejected. Instead, two years later, he was accepted into the local monastery as a brother—something like our lay servant. After just six months, he was sent to work in the Jesuit school in Majorca, where he was given the job of doorkeeper.

But, this man who had wanted to be a priest didn’t see his role of doorkeeper as a menial task. He treated his work as an act of service to Jesus. Each time he opened the door, Brother Alphonsus would say to himself, “I’m coming, Lord!” He treated each person who came to his door as if he or she were Jesus himself. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”

Mother Teresa spoke the love language of service. She’s well-known for her acts of service to the poor and the sick. But for her, those acts were merely the means by which she expressed her love of Jesus, and she emphasized that to those who wanted to serve with her. In 1963, Mother Teresa co-founded an organization called the Missionary Brothers of Charity. A young brother came to her and said that he was feeling a special call to work with lepers. “I want to give my whole life to them, my whole being,” he said. “Nothing attracts me more than that.”

Mother Teresa knew that the young man’s feelings were genuine. But, she also saw that his priorities were wrong. She said to him, “Our work is nothing but a means to express our love for Jesus. What is important is for you to belong to Jesus, and he is the one who offers you the means to express that belonging.”

I wonder if, when we engage in our acts of service, we might some misplaced priorities of our own? We serve, generously and often selflessly, but why? Do we serve because Jesus told us to love our neighbors, and we want to follow his instructions? Do we serve because that’s our job as Christians? Doing what Jesus wants us to do fits the letter of Chapman’s definition of service as a love language. But what difference would it make in our serving if we were to consciously make it an expression of love for Jesus, treating those we serve as though they were him?

If our expressions of love for others through acts of service are truly an act of service for Jesus, in the manner of Brother Alphonsus and Mother Teresa, we will have the same attitude of self-giving love that Jesus did. We go back to the passage we started this series with—Paul’s description of love, written, as today’s passage was, to tell Christians how to love each other. In our serving, we express a love that is patient and kind; not envious or boastful, not arrogant or rude, not irritable or resentful. This Christ-like love doesn’t insist on having its own way. We serve, as Paul says to the Philippians, “doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, regarding others as better than ourselves, looking not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.” We love with the humility of Jesus, as Paul described him: Jesus, who, “though he was in the form of God, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

I’ve found many, many examples in Scripture of all the other love languages. Scripture is loaded with examples of God’s affirming words to us. We find story after story about how Jesus used physical touch to offer healing, forgiveness, and inclusion. All of creation is God’s gift to us. And we read of moments when Jesus expressed his love through quality time. I didn’t find many examples for acts of service which meet Chapman’s definition for this love language.

But, the good news is that we don’t need a lot of examples for this love language. We only need the greatest act of service imaginable in which Jesus expressed his love for us—for you, for me. We need only the example of Jesus’ death on the cross, his resurrection, and his ascension—the result of his willingness to serve the world he came to save, even at the cost of his own life.

Chapman says that “acts of service” involve doing something the beloved wants us to do. But, Jesus served by doing what we needed him to do. Rather than abandoning us to our sinful natures and leaving the world to continue on its own hell-bent way, Jesus went to the cross, doing for us what we needed him to do: free us from the power of sin. He rose from the dead, doing for us what we needed him to do: free us from the fear of death. He ascended to the right hand of his Father, doing for us what we needed him to do: prepare a place for us in an act of eternal hospitality.

Having been the recipients of a love so great, expressed through this act of service so gracious, we then respond to God through the love language of serving. We speak as Jesus would speak, act as Jesus would act, love as Jesus loves. We speak the love language of service so that, as Peter says, “God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.” We speak it first to each other as members of the community of Christ. And then, we allow that love to overflow into our service to others in the world—speaking the love language of service as though we were speaking it to Jesus himself.

As with the other love languages, this one can be spoken in different “dialects.” We’ve learned that expressing our love in a language someone else doesn’t understand is likely to leave someone feeling unloved. Different dialects can also cause misunderstandings, even among people who speak the same primary love language. It’s like the situation Marc and I find ourselves in when we’re watching British detective shows from the BBC. Half the time, we can’t understand a word the actors are saying, even though they’re speaking English!

The same thing happens when we speak different dialects in serving. The differences between the dialects of this love language are a little more subtle than the others we’ve learned about. When it comes to this language, the problems arise when the thing we do is not the most important thing to the one we’re doing it for. Imagine someone who’s caring for an ailing family member. A friend offers to do the care-giver’s grocery shopping. But what the caregiver would really like is to have the friend come and stay with the sick person, so that the caregiver could do their own shopping and get out of the house for a bit. Offering to do the shopping would be a kind act of service, and the caregiver may appreciate the effort. But, they may not feel the love to the degree that was intended.

Marc and I solved our TV dialect problem by turning on the English subtitles. But, when it comes to the love language of service, the best ways to resolve or avoid this problem is communication. Ask your loved one what tasks are most important to them. Share what is most important to you. If your loved one indicates our acts of service need some fine-tuning, receive their suggestions graciously, because our goal is to express our love in the best way we can. If we take seriously the idea that our service to others is really service to Jesus, and if we are serious about serving as he would serve, we’ll do all that we can to make sure our service is the loving expression we want it to be.

Like all the love languages we’ve learned about over the past weeks, the language of service may have been described by Gary Chapman but was created by God. The five languages are a gift, given to us by God’s grace, so that we might receive God’s love for us, and so that we can give love to and receive it from others. Understanding the languages helps us to be more gracious ourselves, accepting others’ expressions of love, even when they don’t come in the form we would prefer. They are a tool we can use to do what Jesus commanded us to do—to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, and to do it as effectively and clearly as we can. Most importantly, they help us to love fully, so that in everything we do and say, God may be glorified in all things through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young