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The Perfect Example to Follow

The View from the Cross
Cycle B Gospel Text Sermons for Lent and Easter
As is often the case, John's gospel reports more of the contents of Jesus' instructions to his disciples than do the other three gospels. There are always detractors but it seems that one of the reasons for this was the fact that John is an eyewitness to all that he writes about.

As we have seen during our Lenten journey, Jesus' own journey was headed for the cross and finally the empty tomb. Here in John 13, we can surmise that Jesus' death and resurrection were now imminent. He had come a long way and he knew that he had come in obedience to his Father's will. We can see that in his obedience he was also acting in love for all of humankind. It seems quite clear that he had a special kind of love for those who had chosen to follow him and had stayed with him through all of the turbulence that accompanied them all in getting to this point.

During the American Revolution a man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers repairing a small defensive barrier. Their leader was shouting instructions but making no attempt to help them. Asked why by the rider, he retorted with great dignity, "Sir, I am a corporal!" The stranger apologized, dismounted, and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers. The job done, he turned to the corporal and said, "Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you again." It was none other than George Washington.1 Today we're going to talk about the example set by Jesus for all of us to follow. His words and actions are words and actions that all of us would do well to live by.

Let us recall that as we approach the evening meal outlined in our reading, Judas has already undertaken his hateful act of cowardice. It is remarkable to watch as Jesus voluntarily took the place of a servant, washing the feet of his disciples, even in the midst of betrayal.

We should remember that foot washing was not a foreign action at all. In point of fact, it was a needed service for those who traveled the dusty and dirty roads where Jesus and his followers traveled daily. No one wore socks because there were none! It was an act of honor on behalf of a host to wash a guest's feet, and it was a sign of dishonor not to do so. It was not uncommon for wives to wash their husband's feet and for children to do the same for their parents.

It is only natural that Peter, wanting Jesus to be above the common everyday things that people lived with, was not at all happy with Jesus becoming the servant of anyone, especially the disciples. Peter just did not feel that Jesus should act like a servant but especially not as Peter's servant. Unthinkable! Peter, as usual, speaks what he feels without giving it a whole lot of thought. Jesus tells him to his face that he has to wash Peter's feet. Peter, however, remains skeptical and really is not in line with Jesus' thought process.

Continuing to miss the point, Peter asked Jesus to also wash his hands and his head and his feet. Jesus replied that a person who is already clean doesn't need his whole body washed again but their feet would still need attention. Then Jesus goes on to say that not everyone who was with him was clean. He was, of course, referring to Judas.

On this Maundy Thursday let me ask you all a question. What would you do if you knew you would die a violent death in about twelve hours? Would you want to be alone in prayer? Would you record some final thoughts? Would you spend time with those you loved? What would you want to emphasize? Would you share recipes or gardening tips or would you focus on what's most important in your life?

As was said earlier, the Bible tells us that Jesus knew the time had come for him to leave this world and he took off his cloak, put a towel around his waist, and washed the dirty feet of his disciples. Who's going to waste time on that when the end is so near? Jesus. Why? Because he wanted to show them how important it is to humbly serve one another and,

Don't be selfish; don't live to make a good impression on others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself. Don't think only about your own affairs, but be interested in others, too, and what they are doing. Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal's death on a cross.
-- Philippians 2:3-8 NLT

Mother Teresa visited Phoenix in 1989 to open a home for the poor. During that brief visit, she was interviewed by KTAR, the largest radio station in town. In a private moment, the announcer asked Mother Teresa if there was anything he could do for her. He was expecting her to request a contribution or media attention to help to raise money for the new home for the needy in Phoenix. Instead, she replied, "Yes, there is. Find somebody nobody else loves, and love them."

Jesus showed by his own actions that serving others, demonstrating our love in tangible ways, is of critical importance. Jesus considered it a priority and so should we.

The scripture says that not just in spite of but because he understood who he was, Jesus washed the disciples' feet. It takes an understanding of our identity to be able to humble ourselves. The world tells us that we need to make ourselves look good in front of others that we need to lift ourselves up and demonstrate how important we are. I am not about to say the Bible has an answer for everything because technically speaking it does not. What it does tell us on a human level is, "But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted" (Matthew 23:12 NLT).

It is like the corporal who couldn't humble himself and was humbled by the commander-in-chief. If we don't understand who we are in Jesus, we will be unwilling to humble ourselves until the Lord himself humbles us.

The late Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's hamburger chain, was known for his humble service within the multibillion dollar empire he founded. When asked what made him so successful, he replied, "my MBA." But he didn't mean a graduate degree in business education he meant "a mop-and-bucket attitude." In other words, no task was too insignificant for him to tackle; he simply jumped in and got the job done.

If anyone didn't have to humble himself to wash the feet of a bunch of fishermen, it was Jesus. Because he knew he was Lord of the universe and because he was not worried about his self-image he was able to show his love in humble service. He took up the towel and basin and stooped to serve. What an example for us all.

On this special night it is also important that we try to discover our need to be in Jesus' presence and the additional need of being served by Jesus himself. Sometimes that is a hard idea to come to grips with. Look again at the exchange between Peter and Jesus,

When he came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, "Lord, why are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus replied, "You don't understand now why I am doing it; someday you will." "No," Peter protested, "you will never wash my feet!" Jesus replied, "But if I don't wash you, you won't belong to me." Simon Peter exclaimed, "Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!"
-- John 13:6-9 (NLT)

You see when Jesus himself makes it clear that being the one served by Jesus is one of the conditions for having a relationship with him, Peter has a change of heart. I think there is clearly some symbolism here. Jesus is saying not just that Peter must let him wash his feet, but the reference is to the more thorough washing that Jesus will perform the next day when his blood is shed for Peter's sin and for ours.

I hope that we will all be able to identify with Peter here. The truth is that our pride often gets in the way of our living the life Jesus wants us to live. We all want other people to think well of us and there is nothing wrong with that, unless it gets in the way of our walk with the Lord. By our own effort we each will only be able to go so far. The message to Peter and to us all is that unless we let Jesus wash us, we have no part with him. Unless we recognize the mistake of our pride -- the mistake that says, "I'm good enough on my own," then we make no room for Jesus and we will never come to the point of being able to say along with Peter, "Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!" With any luck we will come to our senses enough to recognize how wonderful it will be for each of us to become servants in the service of Jesus.

Jesus has shown us by word and deed that you cannot call yourself a Christian if you are unwilling to serve in humility. That doesn't mean we don't have individual gifts and places of service, sometimes very public ones, roles of leadership, but each of us should be willing to humble ourselves, to demonstrate our love for those we serve. Remember how our first president got off his horse to help that soldier? Isn't that as good an example as we need?

You see foot washing isn't about foot washing, it's about serving others at personal sacrifice, humbling ourselves when we don't have to because we don't have to. It's somebody watching the children of a neighbor who has good reasons for needing to get out of the house. It is people showing up at another's door with hot soup on a cold night knowing that the folk in need have lost power; it is about clearing someone's driveway of snow because you know they are not healthy enough to do it themselves. It's listening to a neighbor who needs to talk when you don't have time to listen. It's giving ourselves when we don't have to. It is walking and talking with Jesus on the road we call life. It is about sharing a meal as darkness approaches. It is about washing our lives in the promises of our Savior and being diligent in waiting with him as the world becomes a dark place. It is about standing at the foot of a cross and in faithfulness standing by an empty tomb as the darkness is lifted and life becomes hopeful once again. Amen.


1. Today in the Word, March 6, 1991.
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