This sermon was delivered on February 3, 2013, at Wallace UMC.
13Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ 9Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 18I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfil the scripture, “The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” 19I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he.20Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.’
It always strikes me how aware Jesus is of the flawed and broken people that he surrounded himself with—and yet is never discouraged, or disheartened enough to quit. I think it has to do something with the forty days in the desert he spent, fasting and talking with the Satan. There’s nothing quite like staring your demons in the face, and acknowledging them, and by acknowledging them, defeating them. Jesus was surrounded by temptations all the time, I am sure. He was also surrounded by people who just didn’t get what he was trying to say, and even people who would eventually betray him. Despite all that, despite the traitors and the demons, the deniers and persecutors, Jesus did what he knew was the right thing to do. In this instance, it was to wash his friend’s feet.
I realize that this may be a bit early for the reading; this passage is traditionally the story read on Maundy Thursday, the night before Good Friday, when he died. Nonetheless, I wanted it read today, because it proves a very powerful point, one that is crucial for discipleship. The point of it all is embedded in the story after he gets into his argument with Peter: 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet… servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.
Discipleship is the entire reason we are Christians. This is all of it. Christianity does not exist because of the sins we do without Christ, but it exists because of the good we can do through Christ, by following Christ. But that’s just the point. There’s been a lot written about Christian leadership, so much so that Christian bookstores and Christian sections of bookstores are flooded with books on leadership. The sad thing is, I believe all those books truly miss the point of what Christ was trying to teach, ESPECIALLY in this passage. The church doesn’t need leaders, because we already have a leader. The church needs followers, and my brothers and sisters, I am just as much in need of following Christ as you are. And that means taking a lesson in humility, and the only way to gain that is through service.
We are in the 4th week of our discipleship campaign, a season which I think this church, and any church, should take time to think about. Lent is in a couple of weeks, a 40 day long marathon of preparation and fasting, a time preparing ourselves the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. It’s a time of intense devotion, and a time when discipleship comes to the forefront of the Christian life. Following Christ should be our top priority when it comes right down to it, and honestly, the best way I could address it was by doing it the way we’ve done for the past few weeks, through testimonials, and through focus on the things we promised when we began our walk in following Christ, to give our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. This week, we focus on the fourth promise, that of service.
It is, I think, a misconception of ours, that service is somehow something that only the hardcore Christians do. It has a character of being the “advanced” course in Christian discipleship, no?
We hold that up as something that only the most dedicated of followers ought to do, that first you need to believe and learn all the things you need to do, and then you get to the work of Christian service. Truth be told, that’s just completely backwards. Service, as it turns out, tends to be the one thing that really ignites our hearts. Doing something with tangible results, working and doing solely for the glory of God, it really speaks to the heart. In fact, service is often our best teacher for how to believe. When you take a chance and plunge yourself headfirst into service, you allow the Spirit to work through you and do real good in this world.
The fact of the matter is, that’s a heck of a lot easier said than done. I’m reminded of the old Nike slogan, Just Do It.
It’s fascinating to me what they did with that campaign, because for years and years, they had that slogan, encouraging everyone to go for what they want to do. And then who do they have as their front man, encouraging people to do it? They get professional basketball giant Michael Jordan to lead the way. For many people, having an incredibly talented athlete as the spokesman saying “Just Do It” was an incredibly inspirational thing, because he’s encouraging us to do it along with him, and that maybe if we buy the right shoes, we could be pro basketball stars like him. For others though, it was just the opposite. “Just Do It, MJ? Sure, it’s easy for you to say that. You’re the one with the multi-million dollar contract and the championship rings. You’re the one with the life-long career in basketball. You’re the one who has the natural talent and drive to accomplish it all. Who am I? I don’t have the training. I don’t have the natural talent. I certainly don’t have the athletic career. What gives me the right to “Just Do It?”
I bring that up because, I’m guessing, for many people, they are hesitant to serve in the church because they don’t feel adequate. They don’t feel like they have the ability, or the right, to serve for Christ. There’s an intimidation factor there that I’m sure many of you have felt. I know I have. I think it’s because we get this distorted vision of the kind of person we imagine God wants to serve in the kingdom. The myth? God only works through perfect people.
A short look at the history of humanity could tell you otherwise. Let’s just run down the list of biblical heroes shall we? Abraham: old guy who laughed in God’s face, and lied to a king at least twice. Isaac? Made a career out of cheating people out of their stuff. Moses? Straight up killed a guy. David? There isn’t a sheet of paper long enough to list all the questionable things he did. Elijah? Slaughtered thousands of rival prophets. Jonah? Ran away from God. Peter? Denied Christ three times to save his own skin. Paul? Persecuted and killed Christians before he converted. That’s just a short list of people in the Bible. That’s in our Holy Book, the thing we hold up as our authoritative text.
What I take away from that is that there is nobody too unqualified to serve God. Nobody is too inexperienced, too sinful, or too hopeless to serve. I know, that’s hard to get drilled into our heads sometimes, especially since many people tend to raise people who serve in the church onto a pedestal. That pedestal is a lie. I am not in the greatest profession ever; I am far from the holiest person in this room. True, I strive and aspire to holiness, but I’ve got a long way to go. God has just begun to work on me, as God has only just begun to work on you. We are all called to serve: some in ordained ministry, some in lay ministry. Neither is more or less prestigious than the other, because prestige is not the purpose of serving God. To serve God does not involve getting onto a pedestal.
In fact, in serving God, we reject the pedestal, in favor of a towel and a bowl of water. This is the image of service that Christ gives us in this passage. When Christ put on a towel and got on his knees to wash the feet of his disciples, the disciples were completely shocked, and the one who gave voice to this shock was Peter. This was the man who they called teacher, master, and Lord—why on earth is he doing such a dirty and debasing job as washing feet? Which of course was exactly the point. Jesus was someone who is both king and servant, one who did not see equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself , humbled himself and became a servant, so that we might too know the mind of God. God is completely self-giving, self-sacrificing and love. What Christ tells us in this passage is to go and do likewise.
It’s a weird thing, to wash someone’s feet. It’s often the smelliest and dirtiest, most worn and least attractive feature on our bodies, and it’s the feet that Christ washed, and told us to do likewise. It’s a humbling thing to do. It’s nothing flashy. It’s no great labor, it’s no taxing job, and it’s not even difficult to do. But it’s service to our fellow human being, and that’s the point.
We, as disciples of Christ, as baptized persons, as United Methodists, are called to give of our service for the glory of God and the kingdom of heaven, and service comes in so many ways. There are ways of serving in the church officially, like working on a committee, or leading a bible study, or teaching the youth. But there’s so much more than that. It’s volunteering to go out and pick up trash on the highway, or fix up the church. It’s showing up to go serve food at a soup kitchen, or paint houses, or mow someone’s lawn. It’s cooking for a church dinner. It’s visiting someone who can’t get out of the house, like serving on the pastoral care team. Most of it, again, is related to presence. It’s simply being willing to serve that is what’s important. It doesn’t take fancy training, or a sinless life, to serve God. As you serve, you learn more and more about the God that we love and worship. By serving others, we embody the saving work of Christ in the world.
Service is as much about discipleship as it is about stewardship too. Giving of your energy, of your time and of your work is as much a contribution to the church as is any amount of money. This isn’t to say that it’s an equal replacement, but it’s no less important. Christ calls us to give in many ways. Being willing to serve is a matter of stewardship of time. Giving time is a crucial investment, but it’s one that pays back in spades. It gives far more to you than it pays. It produces the spiritual fruits that nourish the body of Christ. It’s vital to discipleship.
So I’m encouraging you to take seriously the call to serve. Christ only does a few things in the bible that is worthy of the command “do this.” Serving each other as he serves us is one of them. It’s probably the most overlooked one too. There’s a sacramental element to service, in that it is a means of Grace. Grace is given when you serve God, and it is a grace that will strengthen and empower the one who does it and the one who receives it. God works in all of it. Serve, as you have been served, and share the grace that God freely offers to us all. Amen.