Lectionary Year A
March 28, 2002
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Step VI - Contemporary Address
(JW)The audience that I will be preaching to is the seminary community. This sermon will take place on Maundy Thursday in Holy Week. It is difficult to tell what the size will be since it is a very significant Thursday in the Christian year.
B. Describing the Audience
(JW)This address will be about the perfect love of Jesus Christ, manifested in his washing of the disciples' feet on the night he was betrayed. The hoped-for change is an awareness of the humanity of Christ which will increase understanding of his sacrificial love of Christ and motivate us to love accordingly by the power of the Holy Spirit.
C. Contemporary Address
(JW)"Do You Know What I Have Done to You?"
Today is the most sober Thursday in the Christian year. People will be gathered in churches all over the world today and tomorrow for special services that lead up to the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, which will be celebrated on Sunday morning. But before we get to the resurrection party, the Sunrise services, the anthems of joy over the conquering of death accomplished by Jesus Christ, Christians all over the world are gathering to remember the darkest three days that creation has ever known. Because, before we experience the resurrection glory of Jesus Christ, he must be betrayed into the hands of sinners (as we remember today), crucified for the sins of the world (as we will remember tomorrow), and remain in the tomb a whole day (as we will remember on Saturday).
As we encounter the text from John 13 this morning, we are immediately reminded just how dark was that evening in which Jesus gathered with his disciples for the last time before his death. The most obvious contribution to this darkness present at the Last Supper was the Satanic element. The scriptures said that "The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas… to betray him." The scriptures also imply that Jesus was quite aware that Judas was going to betray him. Later Jesus even tells him that now is the time. "Go quickly and do it."
Also contributing to this darkness is the fact that Jesus knew that his time had come to "depart from this world and go to the Father." We might think that it would give Jesus comfort to know this, but it only takes a brief glance as Jesus prayer time in the Garden of Gethsemane for us to realize that he felt incredible stress about the trial he was to undergo. Luke 22 tells us that Jesus was praying to the Father, "If you are willing, remove this cup from me." That passage also tells us that while he was praying there, he was in such anguish and earnestness of prayer that "his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground."
Finally, to add to the darkness, we have to imagine that Jesus was alone in his knowledge of what was to take place, and what was going on there. He had been prophesying all of these things, this is true, but no one had accurately assembled the pieces of the puzzle, in such as way that they could provide emotional support for him at that time.
If you've ever found out really bad news, or scary news, about yourself, your future, or your health, you may have experienced the need to call someone or turn to someone or hug someone. Well, think about the man, the human being, Jesus of Nazareth, knowing what was about to take place and the darkness present, and being all alone in that knowledge. It is almost unfathomable to think of the despair that must have been crouching right beside him, just waiting to be claimed, and trying to conquer him and distract him on this night.
BUT, friends, embedded in the context of darkness that I have just described lies what I have always thought to be one of the most mysterious and beautiful lines concerning God's love in the entire New Testament. John makes mention of it right in the beginning. Its in verse 1 of Chapter 13, he writes, "Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father." And here it is, "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." The phrase "loved them to the end" is understood differently by different interpreters. The NIV as well as others translate it "he now showed them the full extent of his love." Another translation accentuates the temporal context of the love, reading "he continued to love them right up to the end."
Whatever Bible your reading, there is a special display of love waiting to be revealed in the actions of Jesus that follow. I would say that the timing of this display of love, embedded in this dark context, demonstrates the amazing extent of the love to be displayed. The love shines brighter in this darkness.
I don't know how things get around y'all's homes the night before a huge test or interview or anything that you are anxious about, but I can tell you that at my house, the night before a big test, the world begins to pretty much revolve around me. My thoughts are focused on what I'm trying to prepare for. All of my spare moments go either into fretting and self-pity, or into telling my wife how much pressure I'm under.
Anyway, Jesus of Nazareth modeled a different response to the impossible trials that he was facing, and that lied in the very near future. Jesus took the opportunity, when the darkness was so present, to model a new degree of love greater than this world could fathom. This love that he would model would be totally inappropriate by all worldly and cultural standards. On the way to the cross, where the God died for the sins of the Creation, God stopped to wash his own disciples feet, as a slave.
Footwashing was a common practice in Jesus' time. Because the streets were very dusty, when travelers would come in off of the roads, usually upon arrival a servant or slave would wash their feet for them. But, it is interesting to point out that this task was so menial that washing of a master's feet could not even be required of a Jewish slave. But, on the other hand "As a sign of devotion,…occasionally disciples would render this service to their teacher or rabbi."
Noticing from the text that Jesus didn't wash the disciples' feet upon arrival, but instead he got up during supper, we can see that no disciple was rushing to the task of washing Jesus' feet. But, Jesus, the God-Man, the King of all the Universe, filled with love for those whom he had cherished so much, seized the opportunity, when he should have been receiving honor, when he could have been focused on his own trials, to instead pour out his great love in a personal and totally humiliating way.
It is no mystery why Peter was so concerned about this. There are two great reasons he should have been. First of all, God was going where God really shouldn't go according the standards of probably anyone. A King has no business playing the part of a slave. Even today, we want our leaders to be strong. People are attracted to confident, popular people, whose personalities and successes are such that other people admire them and want to serve under them. It's offensive that God would be almost naked, washing the feet of his own servants. When people we look up to are humiliated, we too are humiliated. And, when Jesus humiliated himself, Peter was also humiliated.
Secondly, would be that Peter knew that he should have been washing the feet of Jesus and honoring him. His response to Jesus, when he approached him to wash his feet was literally, "Lord, you wash my feet?!" Jesus' demonstration of love convicted him of his own lack thereof. I remember the first experience that I ever had with footwashing. For a class assignment, I had to visit a worship service that was different than the style of worship that I normally attend. Since I had obligations at my church on Sunday mornings, I decided to attend a service at a local Seventh Day Adventist Church. As I sat there in the pew during the service, there was something in the bulletin that was causing me a little uneasiness. In the Order of Worship, right before the Holy Communion, was something titled "The Ordinance of Humility." I'm like, "What could that possibly be?" When the time came, the Pastor explained that we would now be separating into one male group and one female group to wash one another's feet. I'm like, "Oh my gosh." Anyway, I went with the male group, of course, and we were hanging out in the room waiting for the pastor to come with the water. There were little wash basins and towels around the room. And I only saw one other man who didn't seem to know anyone, just like I didn't. He looked like he was homeless. He didn't smell good. His fingernails had rot under them. (So I could only imagine what his toenails might look like!) Since most of the other men already knew each other, and had found a partner whose feet they were to wash, I was really thinking that it was inevitable that I would be washing this man's feet, and I was feeling a little nauseous. Then, to my relief, an old man tapped me on the shoulder and said in a sweet voice, so sweet at the time, "Brother, could I wash ya feet?" I was so relieved. Then, immediately the Pastor walked into the room where we were all gathered waiting. And without even looking around to see if there were any other brothers who hadn't found a partner, he went straight to the dirty man with the rotten fingernails and said to him in a soft and caring voice, "Brother, could I have the privilege or washing your feet today?"
With the mixed emotions of relief and disappointment in myself, I washed the clean feet of the old man, as I watched the pastor so thoughtfully washing the feet of the dirty man, as an outflow of love, with the complete absence of feelings of obligation or resentment. He was smiling and making pleasant conversation with him. I felt that, just like Peter, I had missed the opportunity to wash Christ's feet.
Though I had known that if I'd had to, I could have washed the dirty man's feet, after I'd seen the example of that Pastor, who washed the dirty feet out of love, rather than obligation, I saw the power in it. I saw the greatness in it. I saw the incredible blessing that comes with washing the feet of another.
Albert Sweitzer said, "example is not the main thing in life - it is the only thing." One incredible thing about the leadership that Jesus Christ demonstrated on this earth is that he never asked his disciples to do anything that he himself was not willing to do. Jesus said, "You call me Teacher and Lord - and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet."
John Wesley explains this verse saying, "Ye ought to wash one another's feet? - And why did they not? Why do we not read of any one apostle ever washing the feet of any other? Because they understood the Lord better. They knew he never designed that this should be literally taken. He designed to teach them the great lesson of humble love, as well to confer purity on them. And hereby he teaches us, In every possible way to assist each other in attaining that purity; To wash each other's feet, by performing all sorts of offices to each other, even those of the lowest kind, when opportunity serves,…."
While I would never take anything away from the Church where my feet were washed and where that Pastor assisted me in attaining a purer love for Jesus Christ by his example, I think that the Ordinance that the King, Jesus Christ, was instituting by his example his last night with his disciples, was not simply an Ordinance or Humility that consisted merely of literal footwashing, though there is definitely power in this sacrament. Instead, I think it is the Ordinance of humble love, of which Godly greatness and blessing consist. It was the love that carried Jesus to the cross, and it is the love that flows from the cross into everything menial and common in our lives, as we strive, as Wesley put it, "To wash each other's feet, by performing all sorts of offices to each other, even of the lowest kind" whenever the opportunity allows it.
The demonstration that Jesus gave was not simply one of "How to get dirty feet clean." It was a demonstration of putting others' needs before our own. It was a demonstration of changing our focus from ourselves to others, and instead of centering our thoughts and attitudes on ourselves and our situations, focusing our thoughts and attitudes on what we can do for others. There is no possible way that anyone could misconstrue that Jesus was embodying the new commandment that he was about to give, which was "to love one another." And perhaps he was telling us that, "although there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friend," this greater love should find a multitude of expressions in the regular menial tasks, the dirty work, of everyday life.
I know a well-to-do man, a well-off man, a man that others look up to and go to for guidance, he's a great Christian man. He has a wife, and they have two daughters. He's the only male in the family. One time I was eating dinner at their house, and when everyone had finished eating, he began to clear the table and clean the dishes while the rest of us stayed at the table and enjoyed ourselves. My initial thought was, "What is going on here?" And I felt obligated to help, being the only other male here. He told me that it was O.K., he would get it, just relax. The next time I ate there, he did the same thing. At Thanksgiving, he even cleared all of the 30 or so people's dishes from the table. I took it upon myself to explain to his daughter that she should control her expectations of men, because not all of us thrive on dishwashing as much as her father does. She explained that she knew that every man couldn't be expected to do that, and that her father never did it out of a sense of obligation, but rather he did it because he enjoyed showing his loved for his family in the everyday things of life.
There was no sense of obligation of any kind attached to Jesus' performing something as menial as washing his own disciples, feet. It was definitely an expression of his great love for them, as he recollected their time spent together, and as he had in mind his own departure, soon to come.
And then, Jesus asks, "Do you know what I have done for you?" and a moment later, "If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them." I think that Jesus may have been saying, "Do understand the great love that I have for you? That is what I have just shown you. Never think that there is anything greater than showing love to others." And, I think he told them, "If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them," because he had experienced that blessing himself in washing their feet. He wanted them to have the joy of loving others. Perhaps this act of love blessed Jesus so much that it resulted in the New Commandment. Because, as Jesus' time with his disciples was boiled down to its final moments, he was not thinking "Oh, I wish I had just preached one more sermon, or I wish I had just gotten this or that done." Instead, his attention turned to showing love to others.
When Jesus was surrounded by darkness to an unimaginable degree, Jesus saw the opportunity to look beyond himself and to show love, not out of obligation, nor because their feet were unbearably dirty, but because for him love was the most important thing, and because he was blessed by it. On the way to the cross where God would be crucified for the sins of all the world, God stopped to wash his servants feet as a slave. Then he said, "If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them." Jesus wanted all of us to remember the same thing, "If we know these things, we are blessed if we do them."
| Return to Gospel text listings | Return to Epistle text listings |
| Return to Old Testament listings | Return to Psalm listings |
| User response form |