Friday, April 02, 2010

Sermon on John 13:1-35, for Maundy Thursday, "Finding Ourselves"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In the last several weeks, we’ve talked about how God shows us that a self-seeking and self-centered life isn’t God’s desire for us. We’ve been called to “Life Together”—a caring community of believers who are willing to hand our lives over to God’s leading and His purposes as we extend that care and concern to others. Tonight, we’re going to consider how Jesus’ last supper with His disciples helps us to learn about what it means to be followers of Jesus, and the impact of our witness and message. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Take a moment to recall when the last time was that you shared your Christian faith with another person. Perhaps a stranger, perhaps a friend or even a family member. What did you say, and what was their response? Perhaps it was someone living a worldly life, and you’re faced with the uncomfortable fact that it’s not a God-pleasing life. Perhaps they didn’t believe in God, the Bible, or right and wrong. What did you learn from this conversation, and what did you find out you didn’t know? Maybe they had a clever reply that cut the conversation short or left you stumped. Maybe they rolled their eyes and acted like all they heard was blah, blah, Christian, blah, blah. Maybe they politely listened. Maybe they were even respectful and interested. Whatever we may have learned from these experiences, it calls us to ask a very important question of ourselves. Is there something about our church’s life together that will make critics think twice? Is there something about our witness and our way of life that compels people to listen—or do they have any reason to discount our message and not pay attention?

Now of course, the message of Jesus Christ crucified carries a whole offense in itself, that means that many will be unreceptive to hearing it from the start. There’s nothing we can change about that, and still remain faithful to the Word. The Word must remain unchanged and true and bold—but it may be our lives that are due for a change. Do our lives cause people to stop and think (in a positive way) about what it is that we believe? Or do they convey hypocrisy, or arrogance, or indifference and complacency? Why ask these questions on Maundy Thursday, the night Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper? Because on that night, Jesus taught His disciples a very important lesson. They learned something important both about themselves and about God’s will for their lives.

That evening meal was no ordinary celebration of the Passover. The Passover meal, which recalled the deliverance from Egypt, always involved eating a sacrificed lamb, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. This Passover meal was unlike any other night, because at this meal, with Jesus and His twelve disciples gathered in a private room, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world was awaiting His sacrifice. Jesus was anticipating His death in a matter of several hours. The Bread of Life for the world would endure the bitter sufferings of death on the cross. So why was this a context for Jesus teaching them and us about ourselves? It was remarkable that Jesus, preparing for His own death, chose to show His love for His disciples by doing the most menial task—washing their dirty feet. Here the King of the Jews, the Promised Messiah from the line of David, and the Lord of Lords, took on the form of a servant, and humbly washed their dust-stained, sweat-dried feet.

Peter drew back when Jesus knelt down and wrapped Himself in a towel, taking a basin of water to clean their feet. Peter thought he knew how to relate to Jesus, and since Jesus was His Lord and master, there was no way He was going to touch his smelly, dirty feet! That’s a job for the household servant, not for the Lord! Peter said, “You shall never wash my feet!” Peter, the good-hearted individualist, wanted his own will to be done, rather than Jesus’—after all, it seemed commonsense not to allow such a humiliating task to be given to Jesus. This wasn’t something even a disciple would normally do for their teacher, let alone the other way around! But Jesus challenged Peter’s individual judgment. Tonight Jesus challenges you and me: Do you choose how you will relate to Me? And if you think you can relate to Me in any old way you choose, is that how you’ll relate to one another?

Individualism is part and parcel of American culture, and it has crept into the church in less than helpful ways. American individualism says you can do what suits your best interests and you can express yourself in any way you want. You are free to find the true you! In the church this can show itself by everyone seeking their own way or doing what seems best to them. But Jesus goes against this do-your-own-thing individualism. “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Our life together as a church is not a voluntary association of independent individuals. It’s not for us to decide how we relate to Jesus or to each other. Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16). We were not chosen for self-service, but for service to one another. We were not called to think only of our own interests, but also those of others (Phil. 2:4).

When Jesus answered: “If I do not wash you, you have no share in me”—Peter backpedaled immediately. He was led to a new discovery of what discipleship meant for him, and he was now gung-ho to go all the way—“Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus answered, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.” This washing of their feet was a reminder of their cleansing—and also an example of how they were to serve one another. How were they cleansed? They were cleansed, as are we, through their baptism into Christ—a washing that cleansed their conscience and freed them from sin. They were going to be cleansed with the forgiveness of sins in the Lord’s Supper that He was about to establish and serve to them. Both our baptism and the Lord’s Supper ultimately cleanses us because these sacraments join us to the cleansing death on the cross that Jesus underwent for us. Here was the most demeaning act—the most humbling yet noble act of servitude that He was to perform for all mankind. The crucifixion was a far greater humiliation then donning a towel and washing feet. But His love for us and His desire that we be clean—totally clean, led Him to that awful death for us.

Similar to how Jesus said that the one who has bathed needs only to wash his feet—we as Christians have been spiritually bathed in our baptism, cleansed of sins because of Jesus’ cross. Just as a traveler needs a regular foot-washing, so we need a daily life of repentance and forgiveness. Our sins are forgiven in baptism, but we continue to sin daily, and need constant forgiveness. We take the Lord’s Supper to continually get forgiveness for daily sins.

So Maundy Thursday—this Last Supper of Jesus with the disciples—teaches us a lot about ourselves as well. It helps us to “find ourselves,” not in the individualistic way we are used to, but in the communal way that Jesus showed. What God does this evening is to show us who we are. We sit together to hear His Words, and gather together to receive His Holy Supper—visible signs that our life together is not one of autonomous individuals, each seeking their own way—but rather we are made one body, washed by our servant Savior. A social commentator, Robert Bellah, made the observation that we don’t get to the bottom of “who we are” or “find ourselves” in isolation from one another. Rather, we discover who we are “face to face and side by side with others in work, love, and learning.” We cannot forget that we are parts of a greater whole, or imagine ourselves to be so without a great loss. Ultimately there in community and in relation to others, we discover the most about ourselves. It’s no accident that Christ intentionally placed us in community—in life together.

“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” If our own Lord and Master humbled Himself to be a servant, is there any task that is so unworthy of us? Can we serve each other, even to the point of menial tasks of service and unexpected kindness, like that of the washing of feet?

Remember how we started by asking if there was something about our life together as a church that would compel critics of Christianity to think twice? How about this kind of loving service? How about showing such a deep compassion and willingness to serve, that it makes even a “Peter-esque American individualist” jump back and say: “Wow! You would do that for me?! How come?” Or maybe, “You really care to hear about my struggles and problems? What’s in it for you?” If our lives together as Christians can display that same loving service and community concern that is so perfectly modeled in Christ’s washing of His disciples’ feet—in His death on the cross—then maybe people will think twice about what we say. And our lives can display that love, not because we have it on our own, but because Christ’s love lives in us. And when people do think twice, we’ll have the opportunity to share with them the most incredible message of forgiveness and self-discovery that has ever been given—that God became a servant for us by dying for our sins—and so we are to be in love and service toward one another. The story of Christ crucified, that truly helps us find ourselves. May God bless us each in our witness and calling to those around us. In Jesus’ name, Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

No comments: