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Sermon for April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday)

Sermon for April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday)
Scripture readings:
Ex. 12:1-4, 11-14; Psalm 116:12, 12-19; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

By Cathy Deddo

In this Maundy Thursday sermon we’ll look at the account in John’s Gospel of Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet. In doing so, we’ll see what it means to wholeheartedly follow Jesus. Let’s begin by reading our Scripture passage: John 13:1-17.

This passage begins a long section of Jesus’ teaching at what is referred to as the Last Supper and then following. It occurred on Thursday evening, the night before Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, then resurrected on Easter Sunday.

In Jesus’ day, foot washing was part of the hospitality offered to guests. Everyone wore sandals and one’s feet would get very dusty and dirty as a matter of course. The task of foot washing was considered a very menial one—only fit for slave or servant to do. It was the one thing a disciple would be exempt from doing for his master or teacher.

The incident in this story occurs during the meal that Jesus was sharing with his disciples. The group was reclining around a low table, propped up on their elbows with their feet out behind them. Notice that John goes into great detail about Jesus’ actions at this point: He rose from the table, took off his outer garments, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and then wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. These details emphasize the initiative and deliberation of Jesus here. He consciously, deliberately adopts the stance and dress of a menial slave.

This was, no doubt, an absolutely shocking event for the disciples. It would have been shocking even if one of them had gotten up to do this foot washing for the rest. But to have Jesus—the One they were following, the One for whom they had left their trades and homes, everything—their Lord—be the One who now stepped aside from that position and took up the role of slave to wash their feet would seem intolerable. I think we see some of how they reacted by the interchange between Peter and Jesus that John includes in the narrative. To help us see how shocking this would be, imagine the Queen of England or the president of the United States cleaning your bathroom!

The narrative concludes with Jesus teaching after the event. He tells them that he did this as an example and that they should wash one another’s feet. Then he makes what seems like an obvious statement—that the servant is not greater than the master, nor he who is sent greater than he who sent him. He concludes: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

When I first became familiar with this passage, I walked away with the conclusion that the primary point of it is that I need to be willing to serve others in menial and lowly ways. This is the kind of service that is what it means to wholeheartedly follow Christ. After all, if Jesus could lower himself to do the job of a slave, then certainly I was not exempt as his follower. I thought this is what it meant, or at least a large part of what it meant to be a Christian—to follow the example Jesus gives of how to care for others.

Because I thought this way about being a Christian, I tended to get somewhat tied up in knots on whether I am loving enough, giving enough. Do I follow Christ’s example well enough? My focus was on myself and my efforts or on others’ needs. I was trying to “give it all” for God. I thought I needed to place all of my effort into stepping out for Jesus, loving difficult people for Jesus, taking any and all unpleasant tasks on for Jesus. My identity as a Christian was that I am always a poor and distorted imitation of the One I follow and that being all out for him was dealing with the never-ending needs of others.

But, just in looking over this passage as much as we have so far, we see that what Jesus is actually doing is more than just giving an example for us to try to imitate.

First, the Greek word translated “example” here means pattern, way of doing things, structure. That’s not exactly what we usually mean by an example to try to follow. This idea of a pattern is a larger, more comprehensive idea. The idea of being given a moral example may be too limited or small a point. I believe Jesus is offering more than that.

So we should look to find if Jesus offers here more than simply giving us a task to do. Perhaps he’s offering some larger pattern or approach to following him.

Second, Jesus tells them to wash one another’s feet, not just go and wash other peoples’ feet out there—so it seems what he is talking about involves both washing and being washed—giving to others and receiving from one another.

If Jesus was just giving an example of something to do for others, why did he not go out on the street after supper with the disciples, find someone randomly, and have the disciples watch him wash that person’s feet to demonstrate what they were to do? Or why not just demonstrate on one disciple? Why wash the feet of all of them? One demonstration would have been enough, it seems, to make the point.

Finally, why does John, in this story, relate to us so much more than telling us about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet? There is an introduction talking about Jesus, the mention of Judas, and all the details about the interaction between Jesus and Peter. If we put all this together, what does John want us, his readers, to understand?

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Madox Brown
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons0

To consider these questions, we will look more closely at the interaction between Peter and Jesus. We’ll come back after that to what John tells us about Jesus at the beginning of the chapter.

Peter probably watched in horror as Jesus worked his way around the table, knowing his turn was coming. When the moment finally arrived, Peter asks, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” “Lord”—the one who has authority over me—you, would you do for me what only a slave would be required to do because it is such a shameful business?

Jesus replies “yes”—he is going to wash Peter’s feet. Notice that Jesus also lets Peter know that he understands that this makes no sense to Peter now but he assures him that the meaning of his action will become clear to Peter later on. Jesus is saying that this action serves as a sign that points beyond itself. Ultimately, we know that it points to Jesus’ pouring out of his life to cleanse our deepest, most shameful broken and twisted lives to be made right, to be made his brothers and sisters.

Jesus is inviting Peter to trust him—to allow Jesus to do this, to receive this astonishing gesture, even though it doesn’t make sense to him right now. And Jesus gives Peter a kind of promise—you don’t understand now, but there will come a time when you will, and you’ll have to wait until that time. Jesus is directing Peter to trust him now in the present and for the future, when he will come to understand.

But Peter rejects this. It doesn’t matter to him that he will need to wait to possibly understand later. He is convinced he already knows enough of what this action means. Peter thinks that if Jesus was to wash his feet, he would be humiliating himself for Peter. And this, Peter will simply not allow Jesus to do. He isn’t sure he wants to be given such a great gift—one he could never repay. Peter uses a double negative in his answer, which shows complete rejection of the whole idea. “No I will not ever let you wash my feet!” He will not have Jesus humiliating himself.

But Jesus rejects Peter’s rejection. “If I do not wash you, you have no share (or part) with me.” If Peter wants to continue being a follower of Jesus, continue being with him, he will have to be willing to receive this from Jesus now and be willing to wait to understand. Peter needs to die to his current understanding. Jesus makes it clear that it is crucial that Peter receive this act from him – that this is what it means for Peter to follow Jesus, to have a part with Jesus.

Now, Peter swings in the other direction—okay, if you have to wash me in order for me to have a part with you, then how about you include my hands and my head? All of me, then! Maybe Peter thinks this solution would be easier for him to accept from Jesus. Or maybe he hopes to show himself as more zealous than his fellow disciples. Either way, what we see here is Peter offering a counter proposal to Jesus.

Why does John include this interaction between Jesus and Peter in his story? Peter is not refusing to wash another person’s feet. He is objecting to Jesus washing his feet! Jesus is not insisting here that Peter wash another’s feet. Rather he is insisting that Peter allow him to wash his feet. If the whole point of the story is that we need to be willing to wash other people’s feet, then this part of the story contributes nothing to Jesus making that point. Peter isn’t wrestling here with having to wash John’s feet, but with having to receive Jesus washing his. That’s the problem!

When I thought of this passage being primarily a story about my needing to serve others, I tended to start the passage at verse 4 where Jesus gets up and begins to serve the disciples by washing their feet. But the passage actually begins with the three verses before that and John has a lot to say in those first three verses before he gets to telling us what Jesus started to do. We probably need to consider how he begins the story if we want to know what John wants us to understand.

We learn several important things about Jesus from these three verses (read John 13:1-3):

  • These verses begin and end with what Jesus knew. Jesus knew his hour to leave this world and return to his Father had come. Jesus also knew that the Father had given him all things and he knew where he had come from and where he was going.
  • We learn that Jesus had loved his own while here on earth and now “he loved them to the end”—meaning to completion, or fully (telos).
  • John mentions Judas, who was at this moment preparing to leave in order to betray Jesus. It looks like Jesus washed his feet, the feet of his betrayer as well, not just those disciples who would not betray him.

Knowing that the Father had given him everything, and that he would soon go back to his Father in heaven, Jesus rises and washes the disciples’ feet. In doing so, he performed the task of a slave out of the fullness of his relationship with his Father.

What does all this add up to for us? First, we have a clearer idea of the pattern that Jesus is giving here for us to follow. Second, we learn that wholeheartedly following Jesus involves needing to receive what Jesus is giving us.

Note again that Jesus acts from the relationship he has with his Father. Jesus has received from the Father what the Father has given him, and he is counting on the Father receiving him back on the other side of his death. This pattern of receiving from his Father and acting from this place of receiving is seen throughout the Gospel of John. Jesus states in other places that he only does what he sees the Father doing and he only says what hears his Father saying. He does not just do what he saw his Father do in the past or follow instructions he was given earlier. Jesus did not just follow the example the Father laid out for him earlier, but rather he participates in the Father’s work on earth from the place of dynamic relationship—continually enjoying living in the loving relationship he has and has always had with the Father, every moment. He is living, speaking, acting from the place of being loved by the Father. And he lives in confidence as to where he will return—to the Father. He knows where he came from and where he was going in relationship with his Father. Jesus knows who he is—the Son of the Father.

In the first three verses of chapter 13, John tells us about Jesus and the Father and also about Judas. John wants us to see that Jesus is keying off of his Father and does not key off of the imminent betrayal of Judas. The love he shares with the Father and the Spirit is the deepest reality of his life, his work, his purposes. That is what moves Jesus, what propels him. He is always receiving from the Father and then giving and serving on the basis of what he is receiving from the Father—and not on the basis of what he receives or doesn’t receive from others, even from his disciples. Because of his relationship with his Father and what he receives in and through that relationship, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, including his betrayer. Because of the love of the Father for him, he can love his disciples to the end, even Judas.

So that’s the pattern Jesus gives his disciples and thus to us. To wholeheartedly follow Jesus, we are to be those who are wholeheartedly receiving Jesus’ love. That is the first part of the pattern. And that first part is the foundation for what follows. As we receive what Jesus gives us, we then pass on what we have received to others. The love I give to others is the love I have received from Jesus as his beloved one. We are not sent out alone, apart from God, at a distance, with nothing but an example to try to copy. What we do in loving and serving others is the fruit, the outgrowth, of trusting Jesus and receiving from him what he first has to give and continues to give to us. That’s the pattern: first receiving, then giving to others what we have received.

Back to Peter. John tells us in verse 1 that Jesus, having loved his own, now loves them to the end, or fully, completely. What does it mean for Jesus to love Peter fully or to completion? The story tells us. Jesus’ intention is to help Peter fully receive what Jesus is giving him. This is fascinating. For Jesus, to love us to completion means enabling us to become very good at receiving from him. We may think that he has loved us fully when he makes us good servants, but he can only enable us to serve by enabling us to receive from him as his beloved.

Peter, in both refusing and then trying to make additions to what Jesus will give, is struggling with receiving from Jesus. He is trying to call the shots, be in control of how he will receive—which really means he is not willing to receive what Jesus is actually giving. But Jesus won’t allow this—he loves Peter too much to allow him to receive less, to stay stuck in trying to run his own life, trying to control the pattern of his own following of Jesus. What we see is that there are various wrong responses to Jesus and only one right one—Peter needs to receive what Jesus was giving him.

It’s easy to understand why Peter struggles. To be loved by Jesus, to simply receive from him, from the One who is Lord, the washing of what was a shameful part exposes for Peter and for us that this receiving calls on us to die to our pride, do die to our desire to not need or receive from anyone, including God. It requires us to give up our sense that we are self-sufficient, self-justified. It requires giving up all of our own sense of who we are and allowing Jesus to tell us who we are. To let Jesus be Lord is to let him tell us who he is, and who we are, our true identity, in him, and what we really need to receive from him. But receiving grace takes great humility. We come to realize that all we can do is receive. But we often want to rush right on to giving and gaining our value, our identity in what we do.

This passage points ahead to the cross, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. As Jesus told Peter, it was a sign that he would only understand later. It points to the wonderful self-giving of God in the person of Jesus. In the cross of Good Friday, we see most clearly that Jesus has taken on far more that our dirty feet. To share his astounding love with us, he takes all of our unloveliness, brokenness, sin and pain and makes it all his own to redeem, heal, make whole and raise us up to eternal life.

The footwashing points ahead to the giving of the Holy Spirit to live in us. By giving the Spirit, Jesus unites himself to us at the level of our being. In doing so, he gives us our real identity in him. We belong to him. We trust in him. We receive Christ and his work, his extravagant love all the way into those places where we most clearly see and recognize our need, our shame, our complete inability to give ourselves life.

We come, like Peter, again and again with empty hands to Jesus, letting him give to us what he knows we truly need, not what we think we need or what we think he should or shouldn’t give us. This is the wholehearted following of Jesus that this story is about—fully receiving from Jesus and from that place of receiving, giving to others.

In Jesus’ teaching at the end of the narrative, he says that “the servant is not greater than his master.” I wonder if Jesus’ point here, following his interaction with Peter, is that the servant who won’t receive with empty hands from the master is actually acting as if he is greater than the master. Peter, in at first refusing Christ’s love because it wasn’t the way he wanted it, was in danger of separating himself from Christ by acting as if he were greater than Christ. By refusing to receive exactly what Jesus was giving him, he was placing his own judgment above that of Jesus. Peter’s pride was getting in the way and he was having difficulty trusting Jesus. So he was tempted to hold his own understanding above that of his teacher and Lord!

To receive from God is our Christian posture. We receive what he gives with thanksgiving, and we remain in that posture. We are recipients of grace. We don’t switch to a place of earning grace or seeking to condition God to be gracious. God gives himself by grace to us in Jesus Christ. We can only receive or resist.

Why is it so hard for us today to receive the incredible work of God in Christ for us? Is it that we don’t want to surrender control? Is it that we want to preserve our pride and our desire to be independent, even from God? Maybe we only think of actively receiving from Christ at the beginning of our Christian life, or when we run into problems too big to handle on our own. We may think of our relationship with Christ as something that, once started, just goes on automatically. We may think that to grow as a Christian, we become more able to obey, minister, etc. “on our own”—we have the tools now to do the job. Or we may think that there is not time to listen to Jesus’ speaking, to empty my hands to receive him again. I have my church service to prepare, my neighbor to see, my work to accomplish, my frustrations to deal with. We may be more willing to receive in great trials, but we want it to be a temporary state—this being so dependent on Jesus. We want to get back to being that person who can get along without receiving.

When we are reluctant to receive, we might be tempted to think that what is in front of us is the deepest, closest reality of our lives today. My eyes and ears are focused on myself and my circumstances rather than the giving Jesus. I can be tempted to act as if Jesus is not present and actively working in these situations and that I just need to get on with doing the best I can on my own. What happens is I start trusting mostly in my own abilities. The problem is, what I give to others is qualitatively different when it is not out of the fullness of what I am receiving right now from God. This doesn’t mean that God is not at work, but we are tempted to work less out of the hope, joy and the peace of Christ that he is seeking to give us now. We are not following wholeheartedly.

I think we often resist receiving what Jesus is actually giving in any certain time and place because he is not giving us what we most want or hope for. We are tempted to refuse the grace given to hold out for the grace hoped for. If we do receive from God, we have to give up what we may think will force or put pressure on God to do our will.

This resistance to receive can be fueled by expectations. When we hold onto expectations of how God should be working in our lives, our relationships, or our ministries, we make it hard to receive what he is actually doing in all these areas and most especially what he is doing in us. To wholeheartedly follow Jesus now is to fully receive what he is actually giving us in the midst of our afflictions and trials and in the midst of our temptations and weaknesses. We don’t wait until the weaknesses are gone. Isn’t this what Peter was struggling with? Having to receive into his own weakness, have to sit in his need and receive? This is how we follow our Lord, recognize his authority—receiving all the way into our weakness.

We receive each day, each moment, his real presence and work now to transform and to perfect us, to know again that his grace does indeed suffice. Jesus’ work of perfecting us is not to make us eventually not need to receive, but to receive more fully and continually. In the new heaven and the new earth, we will receive and therefore give perfectly and with our whole being.

Jesus is here, in this moment fully. He is speaking, comforting, leading, redeeming, and transforming. God doesn’t require that we live off of yesterday’s grace. His mercies are indeed new every morning. We forget, but he is committed to reminding us, drawing us close, helping us see what we are holding onto instead of receiving from him.

So, by God’s grace, let us turn again and receive our union with Christ, our identity in him, his loving work to make us whole and through us to care for others. Let us empty our hands again, like Peter, of whatever is making receiving from Christ difficult. Let us trust anew in Christ to enable us to do this, both today and tomorrow. Let us, once again, surrender to his love, suspended in his grace. Amen.

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