Sunday, January 17, 2016
More Like Jesus: From Self to Serve (John 13:3-5,12-17)
3 Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. 4 So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing.
12 After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. 16 I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. 17 Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.
Several years ago, I was attending the funeral of one of my distant relatives. I was sitting with two of my aunts who knew this particular great uncle better than I did, and I listened carefully as the pastor described him as a warm, caring, kind, person. A model of virtue and generosity, the best of neighbors if ever there was one. When the funeral was over, we were barely out of the church when one aunt looked at the other and said, “I had to check the front of the bulletin, because I thought we were in the wrong service for a minute.” Then, to me, she said, “Your great uncle was one of the meanest, most miserable, selfish people to ever walk the planet. I’m not sure who that pastor was describing, but it sure wasn’t him.”
When your life is said and done, when your story is told, does anybody here want to be remembered as a selfish person? I would hope not. I will say, if it’s your life’s ambition to be a selfish person, we won’t be much help to you, here. We worship and follow Jesus, who served and sacrificed and gave himself for others, and told us to do the same. That’s what we’re about here!
Today, we are continuing in a series of messages called “More Like Jesus.” Simply put, we are embracing and living into our call to be more like Jesus.
Last week, we remembered our baptism, celebrating that God claims as part of God’s family, and makes us “Christian.” The very word, “Christian,” means “mini-Christ” or “Christ-like.” We are called to become like Jesus! While none of us will grow up to physically resemble him, as we live with him, follow him, and listen to his words, as we surrender our way to his way, we become like him in other ways. We are called to think the way Jesus thought, to love the way Jesus loved, to live the way Jesus lived.
In today’s Scripture reading from John’s Gospel, the disciples bounded into that upper room, scoping out positions of honor around the table. They were bickering amongst themselves about who was the greatest among them, who should sit in the places of privilege closest to Jesus.
In those days, traveling meant walking. Sweaty feet in leather sandals kicking up great clouds of dust. Even a short distance could make your feet pretty nasty, and so feet were washed just inside the door.
A wealthy person might have servants who did that, sometimes you were left to wash your own feet, and sometimes, the socially lowest-ranking person present would be asked to wash the feet of everyone else. Washing feet was the job of servants. The disciples realized that if they stopped to wash their own feet, they might end up washing everyone else’s feet, too. Peter, James, John, Andrew, Thomas, Judas - none of them wanted to get stuck doing that – they were all above that!
But as the supper progressed, Jesus got up from the table, and he walked back to the door, and he picked up that pitcher, basin, and towel – those tools of service everyone else had walked past and ignored. As he tied the towel around his waist, the disciples were mortified. “Oh no. Jesus isn’t going to wash our feet, is he?”
Jesus Christ – the son of God, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords – washed his disciples’ feet. The master performed the work of a servant.
“You call me master, teacher, rabbi, Lord – and I am all these things. But I’ve served you as an example. As I have served you, you, likewise, shall go and serve.”
On the altar table is a carving made from olive wood. I bought it in Bethlehem last year. It’s a depiction of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet – I’m going to pass it around so you can get a good look at it. If you’ve been in my office, you may have noticed it behind my desk. It sits next to a picture of me and Ashley from our wedding day, and those two items together are there to remind me of who I am and what’s most important in my life – a follower of Jesus, and a husband to Ashley. And every time I look at this carving, I’m reminded that being a follower of Jesus means being one who serves.
Serving is as essential to being a Christian as breathing is to living. Breathing requires both a taking in and a giving out. Breath comes in, breath goes out. Breath comes in, breath goes out. There’s a rhythm to is, isn’t there? A balance, an exchange.
Maybe you’ve heard the story of the man who was afraid he would run out breath, and so in an attempt to hold onto as much breath as he could, he would only breathe in, but never breathe out. And so he’d take a deep breath in, and then another, and then another, until he couldn’t breathe in any more. Do you know what eventually happened? He passed out is what happened, and when he woke up, his body was naturally, on its own, breathing in and breathing out, and he felt so much better than when he was only trying to breathe in.
Or, think of it this way. What does a sponge do? It soaks up. Eventually, a sponge soaks up as much as it can, and once it does, can it soak up any more? No, unless the sponge is wrung out a bit. In fact, only if it is wrung out, can it soak up any more. And the more times it is wrung out, the more it can soak up.
Sometimes, I think we try to do the same thing in our faith. We want to have as much of God’s goodness and grace and love as we possibly can, and so we can just keep taking in and taking in and taking in and taking in without also giving back out. But that’s an inhale without a corresponding exhale – a spiritual half breath.
That’s like a sponge sitting in an infinite pool of God’s grace that’s never been wrung out. If that sponge wants to soak up more, it will have to learn – we will have to learn – that serving is more essential to our faith than serving. Giving is more blessed than receiving. Feeding is the outgrowth of having been fed.
It was a hot summer day at the beach. Two seagulls were trying to keep cool in the shade, when they saw two crabs scuttling by. Each crab had an ice cream cone in both claws. One seagull looked at the other and said, “Should I ask those crabs to share their ice cream?” The other seagull said, “I wouldn’t bother; they’re two shellfish.”
By the grace of God, as we follow Jesus, we become like him. We move away from a selfish life toward a serving life. Being a Christian means learning to serve, sacrifice, and give ourselves as Christ gave himself.
Taking on a life of service is something we have to learn, and that’s what Jesus was teaching us when he washed his disciples’ feet. We don’t have to learn to be selfish; we all come by that one naturally enough!
St. Augustine called this curvatas, meaning “curved inward on oneself.” He used this phrase to describe the human condition without Christ – a life lived “inward” for oneself rather than “outward” for God and others.
That curve draws us down, down, down, further into ourselves. Unchecked, it can curve us so far that we’re only looking at ourselves, staring into our own navel, as it were. We’ve all been there, completely absorbed in ourselves, seeing only ourselves, thinking only about ourselves. And from this position, it’s very difficult to talk to God or other people, or care about anything or anyone other than ourselves. Our only interest in other people will be about what we can get out of them.
This curving in on ourselves is the basic nature of sin. Sin, of course, separates us from God and from others. Sin is a preoccupation with ourselves – all sin fundamentally ties back to living for self rather than living for God and others. There’s a reason the word “sin” has an “i” right smack in the middle—and a big “I” at that! Sin is all about me. When my world revolves around me, with me at the center of everything, sin is bound to result.
Rick Warren says, “It’s the ‘I’ in words like sin, pride, and mine that causes the ‘I’ in other words – like strife, bitterness, and misery.”
But, in Christ, this bent toward ourselves gets straightened out. Indeed, what Christ does is restore us to our original condition – the way God created us before sin entered the world. The curve toward ourselves is straightened so we can see others eye-to-eye, and be in right relationship with them.
And, as always, we don’t do this straightening up by our own ability or cleverness. It’s what Jesus, the Son of God, does in us. And there’s something interesting about the word, “Son.” “Sin” has the “I,” “Son” has the “O.” I like to think of that “O” as standing for others. Jesus wasn’t about the “I,” but he was all about the “O” of others. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave himself for others, and gave us the example that we should do the same.
Every time we serve, we follow the example of our blessed Lord. Every time we serve, we straighten up and work against that curve that would keep drawing us down and in on ourselves. Serving keeps us from too much naval gazing. We will always have that natural inclination to curve in on ourselves, but every time we serve, we’re pulled up out of ourselves. That’s why it’s important to keep serving others for as long as we can – it keeps us from turning in ourselves, and keeps our eyes on who and what is really most important.
When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, it was an example to serve. It was an invitation to make our lives less about the “I,” and more about the “O.” Less about me and more about others. Less selfish and more serving.
You know, more like Jesus.