Jesus the Giver (John 6:35-51; 13:1-11)
Thursday, April 17, 2014 – Maundy Thursday
Nelson Mandela spent years and years in prison in South Africa, yet he survived that ordeal, made it out, became president, and forgave those who unjustly imprisoned him. He gained a reputation for courage, grace, focus, and great inner strength. Martin Luther King Jr. is known for non-violence. He dreamed of an integrated America before it happened. He spoke with charisma and people wanted to follow him; or kill him. They did both.
Here in our own town, there are stories of men and women of great character and integrity. One example of many is former basketball coach Dean Smith. He is known as much for his faith and social conscience as his brilliance as a coach. He is respected for his character.
I could go on with examples. The one thing others cannot take away is integrity, yet people compromise their own values far too often. Though it cannot be taken, we give our integrity, we forfeit our reputation, and as a result we struggle to trust one another. Jesus’ character was never in question.
This may sound like an example of stating what is ridiculously obvious – Jesus was a good man. Well, no kidding! Was that even in question? And yet, to look closely at why we accept this without question helps us know how to stand before Jesus. We take up a vulnerable posture in which all we can do is present ourselves fully exposed, our souls completely bare, and then receive whatever he dishes out.
Why? It begins with what Jesus did in gathering his disciples for a meal the night he would be arrested. The gospels indicate strongly he knew what was coming. Whether he knew it would be that evening or sometime very soon, he knew. His actions were intentional, done so that after the crucifixion/resurrection dust had settled; his disciples could look back, remember, and learn from what he did.
They would have reclined around a table kind of at the height of a coffee table. And Jesus washed their feet. I thought why is it such a big deal that he washed their feet? Along with that question, I wonder, why do I feel compelled to wash feet just because Jesus did it?
In his culture it was an act of service done by a servant or in many cases by a slave. It was a lowly chore. That was a world where people traveled by foot; they walked dirt roads; and they wore sandals. I would guess those feet were a kind of dirty we rarely see, we of shoes, sock, carpets, pavement, and bathtubs. It was lowly and here the master lowered himself in a shocking way.
In our culture the issue is intimacy and self-reliance. I’ll wash my own feet, thank you. I’ll do it at my house and then I’ll hide them. If you must look down there, notice my shoes. I love you, but I don’t know if I want us to move to that level of intimacy in our friendship. I’m not sure I want my foot in your hands.
In Jesus’ day, they did not want to wash the feet of others. In our day, we don’t want others to wash our feet. In both cases, the act is a significant step out of normal. And there’s the genius of it. Jesus said to his contemporaries in this act, you are no better than the servant who washed feet. In our day he says to us, you need to open your hearts and let me in and let your brothers and sisters in Christ in.
Sure, we are capable of washing our own feet. But are we vulnerable enough to let people into our hearts to the point that we truly are a family in Christ. Will we allow him to smash down the barriers we erect to keep everyone, sometimes even our spouses, at a safe distance? Can we invite Jesus so deeply that we have the intimate love here in our family of believers that Jesus insisted be what defines us?
In the account of the foot washing in John 13 and in our acting it out, we see Jesus character. He, the Lord, is a servant. He models servant-love and demands that we give servant love to one another, to those society would call the ‘least of these,’ and to our enemies. The foot washing is one way Jesus breaks us down so he break into our lives, our hearts.
Because of his willingness to show servant-love as he calls us to servant love is one reason we admire Jesus’ character. Another is his sacrifice. When we gather around the communion table, we take the bread. We hold it up and say, ‘this represents the body of Christ.’ We eat it because he said, ‘do this in remembrance of me.’ The broken bread is his body, broken by our sins. The wine or grape juice represents his blood – the blood of the New Covenant. Because he died for us and because we confess our sins and receive forgiveness, we have life in the New Covenant.
The Gospel of John is abundantly clear that Jesus the man knew exactly what he was doing. Yes, he was fully God. At the same time, he was fully human. When nails drove through his hands, it hurt as much as it would hurt you or me. Yet, he knew it was coming and went to it for the world, for you and me. In chapter 10, he says, “I lay down my life. … No one takes it from me but I lay it down of my own accord” (10:18).
In John 19, having been arrested, the beaten, poor Galilean rabbi stands before the splendor and might of Rome, an inquiry from Governor Pontius Pilate. Yet, Jesus seems to control the entire dialogue. Frustrated, Pilate asks, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?” Already bloodied from the thorns and the whip, Jesus says back, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (19:10-11).
Jesus chose the cross. It was God’s plan from the start. I don’t think God forced Judas to betray him or forced the chief priests to hand him over to Pilate. I think each player in the drama made his own choices. But God knows the human heart and the human weakness when it comes to sin and temptation. Jesus took the sin on himself.
When we talk about his great character, we can say many things. I have chosen to focus on how he expressed servant love, and how Jesus gave of himself as an act of sacrificial love. Service and sacrifice: these attributes are what Jesus is all about and they indicate how we are to stand before him.
When Jesus knelt, Peter protested. “You will never wash my feet,” he told his master (13:8). “Unless I wash you,” Jesus responded, “you have no share with me.” There is nothing we do. We present ourselves as we are in all our dirtiness, shame, and failure before God. There’s no initiative from us; no skill or exceptional achievement. There is no gain or hard work that gets us there. Broken, we come and Jesus is the actor, the doer. He washes. If we do not come in this way, receiving what the giver gives, we never can be one with him.
Similarly he says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Nothing in any of the four gospels means literal cannibalism. Joined with the bread and cup accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we know that here in John 6, Jesus meant we eat the bread and cup as a symbol of us taking him into ourselves. But when I say, “taking in,” I mean receive. We accept that we are sinners, but that his body scarred and blood spilled make a way for us. If we do not, then we do have the eternal Jesus gives.
At the foot washers’ basin and at the communion table, we are receivers and Jesus the giver. Our hands are open as are our hearts. Nothing is held back or hidden. We come acknowledging that we belong to him. We are his and the best that is in us is what he gives.
This is not necessarily easy. People who work hard and achieve a lot want take pride in standing on their own accomplishments. Taking on the posture of receiving may be one of the biggest obstacles blocking the path to life-changing faith. We are forced to trust. Many will not. Pride is a root cause of sin, yet many of the proudest people in the country sit in churches every week. We are proud of our children, proud of our families, proud of churches, and proud of ourselves. Nothing any pastor says will dent that pride in the least. That entrenched pride produces unmovable wills which is sad because it means people bearing the identity of a Christian are in fact keeping themselves from God.
I pray tonight, Maundy Thursday, you and I would not be among the proud. I know we have been. I wrestle with pride and tonight, I am asking God to help me let it go. Would you do that? Would you ask God to free you from having to stand on your own? Would you look to Heaven and in your spirit confess your sins and your helplessness? Having confessed would you then open yourself to Jesus and receive what he gives? In washing feet and being washed, we honor our servant God and we are cleansed by him. In eating bread and drinking juice, we take him into us as we admit that we are nothing without him.
He is the great giver, giving life to all who will die to self and receive from him. Can we do that tonight?
We will have silent prayer and then be invited forward for the Lord’s Supper.