Sermon 1698 John 13.1-15 April 9, 2020
This is not the sermon I wanted to be preaching. I wanted to preach about the Lord’s Supper and the First Communion for the Confirmation class this year. I wanted to have a whole bunch of people here, happy to be in worship on a Thursday evening, even happier to be receiving the Lord’s Supper. But preaching a sermon about the Lord’s Supper in the time of COVID-19 where the only legitimate gatherings are firemen, policemen, doctors and nurses hurriedly huddled over someone to save a life while public worship services have been suspended, is like doing a walking tour of Las Vegas pointing out what used to be there. “And to your right is where the Desert Inn used to be, where Frank Sinatra performed and Nicholas Cage crashed the plane in Con Air. And over there is the Barbary Coast, with the first of the five star restaurants in Las Vegas, Michael’s. And just down the street was the Boardwalk, home to the 99 cent dozen of donuts which nobody would award five stars.
I was built for better stuff. But here goes.
Follow His Example.
“It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.
The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, 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 (1-9)!’”
It was the night before Jesus would die. He was going to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. As the meal is being served, Jesus decided he could wait no longer. Not one of the disciples had volunteered to perform the most menial of tasks. Not one had washed the feet of the others.
Washing feet was a real thing back then. You come off the dusty, dirty, garbage strewn and God knows what else streets and you washed your stinky, smelly feet before you ate. It was customary. It was what people with manners did. But it was also the job of the person lowest on the rung in the household. The lowest servant or the youngest child would wash feet. But none of the disciples had volunteered. It was beneath them. They were destined for bigger things.
So Jesus takes up the job. He pours a basin full of water and wraps around his waist the cloth with which he will dry their feet. Some, maybe most of them, let him wash their feet, astounded at what was happening, maybe a bit ashamed that Jesus was doing it. Jesus comes to Peter. Peter objects. This is not a fitting job for the Lord. “You are destined for greater things than washing our feet,” Peter tells him.
Certainly that was true. Jesus is the Lord of lords and King of kings. He created the sun, moon and stars. He commanded the heavenly hosts. At his birth the angels sang. At his death, the sun would stop shining and the earth would shake. And he was now kneeling before Peter to wash his feet.
“You shall never wash my feet.”
Peter like that word, “never.” When Jesus predicted his suffering and death, Peter said, “Lord, this shall never be.” When Jesus would later warn his disciples they would all desert him, Peter said, “Even if all fall away, I never will.” Be careful of that word “never,” Peter.
Peter didn’t want a suffering Savior. He didn’t want a Savior who stooped to serve. Peter wanted a Lord of glory. “Let’s never lead the Mount of Transfiguration!” But if you don’t want a suffering Savior, if you don’t want a Savior who will die to pay for our sins, then you don’t want the real Savior at all. That’s why Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” If Peter did not believe in Jesus’ death on the cross as the payment for his sins, he would never enter into heaven. If Peter was too proud to have Jesus wash his feet, he would be too proud to bend a repentant knee at the cross and see all his sins forgiven there.
Follow Jesus’ example of confident service. Oh, I forgot one thing. John tells us Jesus knew everything that was going to happen. He knew it was time to leave this world. He knew God the Father had placed everything under his feet. Jesus’ actions were not the actions of someone trying to curry favor or gain a higher approval rating. These were the actions of a man confident of his place in the world and in God’s Kingdom. He knew who he was and he knew what he had come to do.
If I am honest with myself, sometimes I think I am destined for better things than what is presently in front of me because I am uncertain of myself. I want people to think I am important. I want people to usher me to the front of the line or the head table. And if they don’t, well, I think my star is falling and I am a has-been. What the world thinks of me is important.
That is sin. To fail to do the good we should is sin. Think back on Luther’s explanation of the commandments. They are not only “do not!” They are also “do!” Help and befriend our neighbor in every bodily need. Speak well of him, defend him and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way. Help him to improve his property and means of income. Just because I haven’t murdered anyone doesn’t mean I haven’t broken the Fifth Commandment. Saying nothing when the gossip is flying is hardly checking the box of obedience to the 8th Commandment.
Jesus saw a need. He stepped in. He didn’t have to. He was the Lord and the disciples’ master. Yet he took upon himself the role of the lowest servant to wash their feet. The next day Jesus would see the greatest need—a world of sin which cried out for God’s judgment and the fires of hell. He didn’t have to die on that cross. Yet he stepped in. “A body you have prepared for me,” Isaiah says, predicting the thoughts of Jesus. “No greater love is there than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus would say. He knew he came into the world to be the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world. And by his death, all my sins of failing to step in for fear that people would look down on me are washed away.
Follow his example. Unbounded concern.
“Jesus answered, ‘A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his 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 had said not everyone 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 (10-15).”
Jesus lightens the mood a bit to let Peter save some face. A foot washing, not a bath, was what was required to have a social meal together. Jesus didn’t rub it in. He cared for Peter and it had shown over the past three and a half years. Impetuous Peter often said what he shouldn’t, sometimes causing confusion among the disciples, sometimes contradicting Jesus’ words, but seldom expressing the Gospel truth. Jesus didn’t kick him out. He didn’t even demote Peter. He bore with Peter and kept nurturing a growing faith where mistakes were allowed. You are clean, though not every one of you.
There was another disciple who had gone astray--Judas Iscariot. He was the one who objected when Mary anointed Jesus at Bethany—that money could have been spent on the poor! He was the one who had gone to Caiaphas, the High Priest, and agreed to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. And Jesus knew it. Here he was showing Judas that he knew what Judas was up to. He loved Judas. He did not want Judas to spend an eternity in hell. He did not want Judas to think he was getting away with something. That’s why, even while Judas was betraying him with a kiss, Jesus would call him “friend.” Only when he could see in emptiness of Judas’ stare would he say, “Do what you came for.”
If we are looking for how to follow Jesus’ example, here it is. Rather than having a ritual washing of the feet of prisoners or the homeless, we can show unbounded concern for others. If we think the role of a Christian is to stand and express outrage at every injustice in the world, then we are going to become nothing more than voiceless statues, unable to move forward, unable to utter a peep because our throats are so sore. Jesus could have delivered a real tongue lashing to Judas. But he didn’t. He tipped his hand to Judas, but then kept on going. He had other things that also had to be done. He had warned Judas and now he was nurturing the faith of the believing disciples.
Unbounded concern is what is needed right now. Earlier in the month I had posted a meme of Luther describing his attitude to the Black Plague. He said, “I shall fumigate, help purify the air.” He was talking about the Black Plague. The Black Plague was spread by fleas on rats. He could have dumped a gallon of Chanel #5 in his house and it wouldn’t have mattered. But he was acting according to the medical wisdom of his day. A lot of things we have been told have been countermanded. Don’t wear masks. Wear masks. Stay three feet, no, six feet. Children are immune. Nobody is immune. This off-label drug could help. It is proven ineffective. We could spend all day griping and trying to pin blame and generally ignoring everything everyone said. If I die, I die. But where would the love for our neighbor be in that? I would hope we, as Christians who have received the true body and blood of Jesus Christ in, with and under the bread and wine as the sure sign that our sins are forgiven, can show more maturity than a gang of drunken frat brothers on a Florida Spring Break.
Part of that unbounded concern is patient endurance. Stay at home. Save lives, perhaps yours, perhaps your spouse’s, perhaps the person you would have been next to in line if you had gone out for that one spice you absolutely would die if you did not have it for your homemade marinara sauce. So often Christianity has been compared to the military. Onward Christian Soldiers. Fight the Good Fight. Good armies have good discipline. They have good discipline not because they want the generals to be so happy seeing them all march in step and in line on parade, but they need that discipline so they will stand and defend the one closest to them, their buddy in the squadron, the platoon next to them, the aircraft carrier in the middle of the fleet. The discipline of the Church militant shows in its unbounded concern for those around us. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13.35).”
We have been so good at this social distancing stuff for, what, almost a month. We really have. By God’s mercy we may not repeat the infection curves Italy and Spain and New York City have experienced. But in light of God’s tender mercies, please, keep showing concern for others by heeding the best medical authorities. If we are sick, this is the perfect chance for us to stay home. For once no one in the office will gripe. If we are immune compromised, kick back. You’ve hit it hard all your life, now is the time to relax. Tomorrow will take care of itself. If you are in an occupation deemed essential, may God give you the courage and stamina to face fear and desperate need every day. We need you. But most of all, keep saying our prayers, keep close to the word of Christ and
Follow His Example.
No, this wasn’t the sermon I wanted to preach, but it was the sermon I needed to preach, because it was the sermon I needed to hear. You and I, far from being too good for all this, are doing exactly what the Lord has put us in this world for. In fact, maybe it was especially for a time such as this.