This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: John 13:1-17
Author: Rev. Jack Westerhof of Sarnia, Ont.
* This sermon may be especially appropriate as a preparatory exhortation the Sunday before communion, or for Lent.
Big feet, small feet, old feet, cold feet, young feet, sweat feet.
Shuffling, running, swift and shy, straying, yes, betraying feet.
Feet for people. Young people, older people, gentle sunny, energetic, gloomy, brooding people.
What about these people? Jesus reaches out to all of these people. Jesus washed their feet.
Foot washing was more than a perk for Jesus and his friends. Especially for an occasion of this caliber -- this very special occasion, this marking of the hallowed ancient Passover feast. Yes, there was the comfort factor. The dusty, gritty roads they traveled were hard on people’s feet. But it’s more than that. Right now it’s time to enter into the spirit of what God has done for his people back, way back, in Egypt land on that night of all nights when he sent the angel of death to terrorize the enemy and protected his people with the blood of the lamb.
This is why for an occasion as significant as this, of course you’d have the washing of feet. Not to do this, to neglect this at a time like this, is like you and me neglecting to even greet our guests when they arrive at the door. Something’s wrong if that happens. Very wrong.
Something’s wrong here.
Why? Well, there wasn’t anyone to do the job. There wasn’t anyone to do this lowly job. But surely someone could have done it, one or the other of the twelve. But none of them did. None of them felt like it.
There was a reason for that. They were in no mood to do this for each other. They were at odds with each other, stuck in the middle of an issue. They’re hiding their feelings now, they’re as poker faced as they can manage to be, but inwardly they’re fuming. John doesn’t bother to tell us that, but Luke does. “There arose a contention among them,” says Luke in his account, “which of them was accounted to be greatest.”
Imagine that! Imagine grown men, twelve grown-up men who have sat at Jesus’ feet for all this time, behaving like this! What a childish thing to be doing, especially at a time like this!
Sure, but think about it. Grown-up or otherwise, isn’t this about the touchiest issue you can face, the issue what you are seen to be, what you amount to in the opinion of your peers? Isn’t this about the most likely of all possible issues to put you off if you were slighted or degraded? Just think of school and classmates, how often this crops up, this issue how you are seen, how you fit and where they seem to rank you. Think of where you spend your time at work – it crops up there, all the time It happens in families where parents single out one of their children, favor him or slight her. Any of these places and any of these people can do this to us. Any of these can tie us into knots and poison friendships and relationships – big time!
This is what the twelve were doing that night. Their customary generous easy flow of talk fell silent. Their conversation, spiced with jokes and banter– it stopped. Look at them there – tense and rigid in each other’s presence. No, they were in no mood at all to serve each other, to say “Welcome to the feast.”. Who wants to party, when you’re moody, brooding, wounded?
And this is why Jesus himself then got up. During the meal, John tells us. When the silence had become oppressive, when you could cut it with a butcher knife. That’s when Jesus himself got up, laid aside his robe, picked up a linen towel, poured water into a basin, took out a dripping towel, and washed and wiped his disciples’ feet.
All around the table, one after another, he washes, rinses, wipes them dry, all those feet. He works in thick silence in which no one says a single word, except for Peter, Simon Peter, who can’t keep his mouth shut, not even now.
All those feet.
All those people.
All those upset, angry people.
He washes Simon Peter’s feet. Quick and confident and sometimes thoughtless Simon Peter. The man who had been the first to call Jesus Son of God and Savior. The man who would also be the one who’d deny the slightest connection with Jesus, with strong, loud oaths. Peter found it hard to defer to Jesus. Peter knew better than Jesus. Even now Peter knows better. “Lord, I get it. Now, more than just my feet!”
Jesus washes John’s feet. John and his brother James. James and John, the sons of Zebedee. “Sons of thunder,” Jesus had called them. Powerful and gifted men, proud and ambitious too, eager to make a name for themselves. Jesus washed their feet.
Matthew’s too. Matthew the publican, a man marked as a traitor to his people. Jesus turns his life around, lets him overcome his past , gives him purpose. Jesus welcomes Matthew.
Thomas too – the one we call doubting Thomas. Thomas in a day or two will walk away from it all, stung by Jesus death, stung into a dark and lonely disappointed bitterness. Jesus makes it a point to touch him with his towel, washing him. As he does with others – his own brother James, and Philip, Bartholomew, Simon the Zealot, and Judas. Yes, Judas too, Judas Iscariot.
All those feet. Fast, ambitious, slow and plodding, straying, even betraying feet. All these people, that is, all these anything but fit and ready people he loves into the kingdom, into the kingdom party. Makes himself the very least of them, their servant and slave.
This is how he loved us, John begins this chapter. He loved us to the end. Endlessly.
And when he had washed their feet and taken his garments and sat down again, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done just now? You have learned to call me ‘Teacher ‘ and ‘Master’ and that’s right, this is what I am to you. But if I then as your teacher and your master have washed your feet – don’t you see what you too ought to wash each other’s feet? I did this on purpose. I mean to give you a pattern I want you to follow in your own behavior.”
I wonder if we can even catch what we’re asked to do right now, what it means for us to assume the mind of Christ, to walk in his footsteps at this level. What Christ models here is nothing short of any claim to be more than a servant to others, to be there for them to a point that isn’t even reasonable. It’s a call to forget everything about you that might suggest that this is far too low for you -- to stoop to lift others, even if those others happen to resemble Jesus’ company that night. But here it is, the call to follow Jesus into being there for others, becoming small enough -- big enough – to be nothing more than a servant, the very least!
That’s not an easy calling.
It’s a far cry from the way our culture suggests we live our lives. You know what its message is, consistently and often. It’s there everywhere and all the time: you’ve got to be smart, you’ve got to get the edge on others, you’ve got to look out for number one. Early in life we learn to think the way these disciples were thinking --who matters here, who’s the greatest, who’s the best. Who’s the greatest, who’s got the edge.
In one of his little books Eddie Askew tells us about a concert in Rome that brought together three of the great tenors of the world of opera, Jose Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti, and Placido Domingo. They sang superbly well, and people responded enthusiastically. Carreras, they said, had a voice like silver. Pavarotti, an unmatched dramatic quality. Domingo, a richness of sound seldom heard.
Of course someone had to ask, “But who’s the best?” An unnecessary and superficial question, Eddie Askew suggests, a question better not answered. After all, how do you decide a thing like this? They were all superb, each bringing unique, personal qualities to his music. Does it matter who’s best? Is an apple better than an orange or a mango? You may like one more than another, but none is best. It is a false question.
It’s tough to give yourself away for others. It’s tough especially when we’ve been slighted, angered, hurt. Then everything within us wants to slash out, to give tit for tat, or else hold a grudge and nurse it. This is how we run stuck – just as the disciples did that night, we too.
And on our own we’ll never get unstuck.
We’ll get unstuck only when we realize just how much our Savior’s given us, how he’s given everything to love us into his Father’s kingdom – all it’s taken to forgive, cleanse and renew our lives.
We’ve got to see ourselves as part of that circle whose feet he washed. When we actually see him stooping to meet us in our need – then the lights go on, and then it begins to be possible for us to say, Yes Lord – you are the source of my life, you make me want to start all over. Show me, Lord, tell me what to do, and I’ll do it – not my way but yours.
Then just what should you do? Jesus never gave us a formula, a set of printed instructions, or a twelve-step guide. These things have their uses, but Jesus isn’t after what they offer. Jesus is looking for the kingdom lifestyle, for that incredibly roomy, generous, forgiving way he showed us in the way he humbled himself – that night when he washed his disciples’ feet, and after that when he became the Lamb of God and gave himself in sacrificial death.
So, what needs to be addressed, forgiven or undone? Who needs our forgiveness, another chance, a new beginning? And who will offer it, who can – who else but you whose sin has been forgiven, whose debt’s been paid in full?
Let’s pray: Father, as Christ our Savior loves me, so help me to love. Please give us your Spirit, enough of your Spirit to do our part in straightening out what’s crooked, making things right and new. Give us the heart and mind of Christ, the joy of you our Father, and, in all our relationships, the fruit of the Spirit. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Suggested songs for this service: PH 266 and 267; “Jesu, Jesu” and “Here Am I, Lord”