Bible Reading Philippians 2:5-11
We continue a series on the fundamental building blocks of establishing and maintaining a rock-solid relationship with God. We began with the brick of seeing a true vision of Jesus and what he came to do. We added the brick of getting to know God personally, the bricks of careful listening and speaking. Today, we establish our relationship with God by adding the brick of service. Jesus is our example, as described in Philippians 2:5-11.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very
nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather,
he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death--
even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name
that is above very name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth
and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of
God the Father. (NIV)
Message Established in Serving John 13:1-15
Climb the Ladder
Back in the 1920s, it was expected that a Michigan teenager would grow up and continue the family farm, (a noble profession). But his true love was engineering and building things. In those days, furniture just sat there, it didn’t move around much. He created a chair with a back and seat that simultaneously moved into a reclining position. He eventually developed a lever that kicked out a footrest from the front of the chair. He and his cousin went around to department stores and asked them to sell them. People fell in love with this fancy new technology. Whenever Ed Shoemaker was asked about his company, he said, “Well, I guess we did pretty good.” At the age of 90, (about a decade ago) still actively involved in running the company, he enjoyed an evening with friends, went home and peacefully left this world reclining on his creation. The company continues. Last year, sales increased to 1.58 billion.
Start with basically nothing, market what you love doing, climb the ladder of success, and leave an impact on the world. It is the stereotypical American Dream.
In Jesus’ day, the “Roman dream” wasn’t all that different. Work hard and climb within or even from one grouping to the next was as normal a desire for them as it is for us. Servants longed to be free, freed servants longed to become citizens, citizens longed to move up into those groups who had land, wealth and power, who in turn longed to be a part of the Roman Senate, and some of them even desired the highest place of Caesar. Moving from one economic grouping to another is more natural and fluid here that in the more oppressively defined Roman hierarchy that squashed the dreams of most anyone who wasn’t already born among the powerful.
Jesus absolute authority
So, when in John Chapter 13, Jesus gathered his disciples into the upper room for that final Passover meal together, they may well have expected they were also entering a war room. Rome and God’s Son were going to go head to head and toe to toe, and they would hear the final plans laid out for their glorious destiny. For them, that destiny was obvious, for we lift out the words of our text that resonate with our desires, expectations and experiences: Jesus will be lifted above all, and all will bow and confess Jesus’ Lordship. The disciples would have highlighted in their minds similar Scriptures from the Old Testament, and drawn their excited conclusion as they gathered for the certain victory. Listen to the text.
… Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (John 13:1b-17 (NIV))
We readers are tipped off almost immediately that this event may play out differently than the disciples expected. We are informed that Jesus was going to leave the world, return to God, and that he loved his disciples to the end (indicating that an end was coming). We are told that there is a betrayer in the room. But then we are reminded that Jesus knew the Father had put all things under his power -- everything from servant to Caesar. Jesus is at the top of the ladder - the position of which others only dream… and there is this glimmer of hope -- maybe things will be as they dreamed -- and every knew would bow. But then it says, BECAUSE he had all authority, he got up wrapped a towel around his waist and began to wash their feet. We have trouble relating to this event because it isn’t a normal part of our modern, developed world, we don’t do that anymore. We just kick off our shoes and keep on walking. And some of us don’t even do that. It is hard to grasp the impact of this radically unorthodox twist to a common act of hospitality in their culture.
Washing Feet (Purpose of): Act of humility
Generally, what happens is that when you enter an abode, the host would have a basin of water available for you to pour over your own feet to remove the dust, dirt, manure and whatever else your sandaled feet may have picked up as you walked the fields and dirt paths and roads. Sometimes a servant was provided to do it for you. This act was so disgusting that a Jewish commentary on the Law forbade a person to order a Jewish slave to wash their feet. It was such a disgusting thing to do that no Jew, even a slave, should be required to even think about doing it. But sometimes out of loving devotion, a student may choose to wash the feet of their rabbi. Or another example was of a woman who was engaged to be married. She offered to wash her man’s feet when he came home. He said a servant could do it, but she protested that his feet were her feet and no one else should touch them. So it is also an act of love and connection.
But as the disciples entered the upper room this night, after just recently maneuvering to work themselves up the pecking order of disciples, this act of hospitality was not done because no one wanted to stoop to wash their own or anyone else’s feet.
The meal began, which for Passover, was typically done by laying on couches on your left side with feet up, supporting your head with your left hand and using your right to reach the dishes of food set on the low tables. You’ve probably seen in movies how they do that. It was a symbol of being free people (which is what the Passover was all about).
So what does Jesus, the one with all authority do with all his power? He gets up, walks around the outside of those couches and washes their feet and dries them with a towel he has tied around his waist. He has flipped the culture’s, even the typical religious hierarchy, on its head; so that he can teach us what the dream life is truly about.
Washing Feet (Purpose of): Act of salvation
Those who look at the deeper symbolic meanings also see the foot washing as a symbol of baptism, but even more as a sign of Jesus’ impending death. We are covered in the ickiness of sin. But Jesus humbles himself, comes to us just as we are, and just as the dirt of our feet is transferred to his towel, so our sin transfers to him and he takes it with him to the cross where he and our sins are nailed and put to death, so that we can be cleansed from our sin and enjoy a right relationship with God.
Washing Feet (Purpose of): Act of maturing
As an extension, that relationship must be maintained. As we continue to “walk on this earth”, we are confronted with po-tential contaminants -- temptations, greed, sinful values, oppression, injustice, and the list goes on and on. Our spirits need God’s Spirit to keep washing us clean so we can keep moving forward faithfully.
Jesus begins moving around the room, revealing the humbling, loving, saving, maturing nature of the God who comes to serve, who offers us to reorient our lives in a way we can find a full life, and he offers it to one who is on the verge of betraying him, to one who would doubt him, the rest who would scatter, and the one who would deny him before morning – three times.
When he came to this disciple, Peter refused, “Are you going to wash my feet? Never.”
Peter's refusal could be for one of at least three reasons:
I don’t need you
Peter may be saying, “I am a tough, ex-fisherman, bold, brash, strong, I don't need to be served. I can handle these things myself, I am not in need of you doing this for me. This is least likely in this particular setting, but I mention it because the virtue of self-sufficiency makes it a challenge for some to recognize or admit their own need and are therefore reluctant to receive help, even from God.
I am not worthy
Or he may be saying, much like he did when Jesus gave him the great catch of fish. “Go away from me, I am a sinful creature, not worthy of your attention, service, sacrifice, your grace.”
You are not to serve
In combination with this, he may be saying, as he did elsewhere, “Jesus you are supposed to be the ruler! It is not your place to be the servant. You wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn't, lower yourself to do this kind of a service.”
Peter recognizes how backwards this is. That God should stoop to the manger, stoop to his feet, and though he doesn't know it yet -- stoop to the cruel cross of execution at human hands -- it makes no logical sense.
To one or all these reasons, Jesus replies, “If you do not allow me to do this for you - you can't be part of me -- or all that I am bringing. If you reject God because you think you don’t need his grace and help to navigate through life, or you reject his love because you think you are not worthy of him, or reject him because you think he is too royal to dirty himself for you; if you reject his salvation -- then you cannot be in relationship with him.”
Then be my servant
Hearing this, Peter jumps to the other extreme, “Then not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Bathe me in Your presence and power ... Peter was probably focusing on the closeness and completeness of the relationship, but I’m going to use it as a reflection of our cultural inclinations – about that ladder they talk about. When some people discover someone is willing to care for them, they are tempted not to simply receive the help offered, or to make it mutual, but to take advantage of it, especially when we have a servant as powerful as Jesus. It isn’t without precedent. They asked Jesus to serve them the best positions in the kingdom -- even against one another. These people had been going together as a group for three years, and still fighting. Sometimes we clamor for God --- not to meet our needs (which is very legitimate), but to be a resource to make us – beyond that. Make us comfortable, make us powerful, make us rich; to be at our beck and call for my selfish, even greedy desires that we may have. God doesn't become our serf just because he is willing to serve us in grace and love. The foot washing is not intended to be a role reversal, but a representation of the kind of role we are to fulfill as his people.
“No”, Jesus tells Peter. “You are already clean, you are already forgiven and in covenant relationship with me and that is never going to end. We only need to maintain and grow that relationship now… so (symbolically), only the feet need to be washed.
Follow his model
Jesus then asks them if they understand. He’s higher than Caesar and look what he’s done for us. Though he was God in the flesh, he didn't consider his equality with God, but moved from the top of the ladder, emptying himself until he was below the lowest enslaved -- publicly crucified on a cross -- only to be lifted -- and then to declare that we will find our truest joy when we follow him and empty ourselves and invest our time, our talent, and our treasure in the service of others in his name. We serve God when we serve others.
26-year-old Martha needed help. She didn’t understand how a loving God could give her ALS. A group of ladies heard about her and sixteen of them organized and gave her around the clock care. They bathed her, they fed her, they prayed for her. She couldn’t understand an abstract love of an invisible God until she saw his love embodied in these faithful ladies.
We’ve been talking about some of the different ways we establish our relationship with God. Today, we establish it by doing things for others. We serve God by serving others. We need to do all the things we’ve been talking about, but some of us tend to learn best and establish our relationships best through study, some through times of speaking and listening, and taking that time and some by picking up a hammer or picking up cooking bowl, picking up a phone, or a pen and writing a note, doing different kinds of things, hands on, for others.
It is in the doing that we are blessed
Jesus says, “Now that you know these things, [that you are free to humbly serve as I did for you] you will be blessed if you do them...” (John 13:17 (NIV)) “Blessed” has many different connotations. We use it for health, for wealth, for comfort and ease of circumstances; we use it for those things that God has given to us. But the original Greek of this particular beatitude means it is a state of being, (not something you get as payment because you’ve done it) it is a state of being, of joy or happiness that comes from being a part of the coming kingdom and experiencing it even now -- by understanding what God wants us to be -- and do -- and doing it. Someone described it as the deepest level of soul satisfaction. Let’s serve each other.
Closing Prayer Lord, true soul satisfaction is totally upside down to the stereotypical Roman and American dreams. Not that we should avoid striving for accomplishment, you call us to do our very best in everything we pursue. But in our pursuit, teach us to fair and kind without com-promising your ethics, help us not to damage others for our own gain – kicking people off the ladder so we can gain one more rung.
There are few things that gratify the soul more than knowing we have made a truly positive and timely impact on someone else who needed it. So guide us to those who are weary of trudging through the muck and mire of difficult circumstances, and show us how we may wash their feet, show us how we might bring them true refreshment and hope in your name. Teach us to gratefully receive the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus, but then also freely embody it, and give it away to others who need to see a good word from you. We ask this in Jesus name, Amen.
Closing Hymn # 432 (vv 1,3,5) Jesu, Jesu
Closing Blessing Now go to live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ., who deserves all the glory, both now and forever! Amen.