“All Empowered to Serve”
“All Empowered to Serve”
Vital Congregations Intitiative
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
September 1, 2022
John 13:3-5, 12-17
3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from supper, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had reclined again, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, slaves are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
Jesus literally makes the Word flesh in this passage. He turns his teaching into physical behavior. He moves beyond ideas and words to demonstrate a way of life for his disciples to follow. It is the beginning of Holy Week—just before Passover. Jesus knew that “he had come from God and was going to God”. Now, after all that he has shown and taught, he demonstrates what it means to follow Him—to “set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Most of us don’t readily relate to foot washing but in the first century it was a critical and important part of daily life. Contrary to Da Vinci’s portrayal of the last supper, the disciples would not have been seated with their feet under the table. They would have been reclining (note vs 12: “ After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had reclined again,”). I’ve always thought this was an uncomfortable way to eat but it was the custom in the first century. This meant that a person’s feet were at or near table height. It was important to have clean feet. To share a meal with dirty feet would be as offensive as working the soil by hand in the garden and coming to the dinner table unwashed. In the first century, foot washing was basic courtesy.
But this passage goes well beyond good manners and good hospitality. Good hospitality would require a host to offer water and a towel. The actual washing would be done by the visitor or perhaps by a servant. It would be extraordinarily rare for a host to do the washing. (There was no telling what those feet had stepped in). Washing the feet of another was a menial job and required unaccustomed intimacy. Such an act would have required exceptional devotion to the visitor as well as great humility. And this is precisely what Jesus meant to communicate. The secular definitions of status and worth are ignored. Jesus, the teacher and host, treasured his disciples and demonstrated that care by ignoring convention and proactively meeting their needs. That is what Jesus was and is about. That is the care he offers us and the care he calls us to show.
The real life problem however, is we are pretty good at seeing what we ‘should’ do but such a ‘to do’ list does not empower people. It is more likely to shame them. We simply can not sustain the mindfulness and effort required to respond to the needs around us unless we are fed ourselves. Unfortunately, learning to receive care first is often very difficult. In the text, Peter, who is famous for missing what Jesus is saying, protests to Jesus: “You will never wash my feet.” It was inconceivable to him that his Lord, the Messiah, would stoop to washing his unworthy feet. Jesus tells him bluntly: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” The whole point of the exercise was to emphasize that the most important Christian value is valuing people—apart from any secular definition of worth. Peter acted like he didn’t deserve such care. His attitude reflected his insistence upon secular definitions of deserving. Jesus tells him he has missed the point and unless he figures that out, he will miss sharing what Jesus has to offer.
Many of us have trouble receiving a compliment without saying ‘Yes, but…’ much less receiving the love that says our human ways to assess and evaluate don’t matter to the God who loves us. When we judge ourselves secularly, we interfere with grace. And when we interfere with grace, we will exhaust ourselves with the list of expectations and responsibilities of our lives. By those standards, we will never be enough. Jesus does not grade people. He shows us the way to a life that gives life.
Instead of focusing upon the enormity of the needs around us, we need to focus upon what we can realistically do. Is there someone you are willing to call? Is there someone you can send a note or a card to. Do you have the energy to tell the children a story on Wednesday night—not every night or every Wednesday. Once a quarter makes a difference. Whatever we have to offer matters. Once again, it is not the amount of care, it is the direction of care that matters. Lobsters must molt in order to grow. That means there is a period of time in which they are particularly vulnerable. Lobsters who insist upon swimming in the ocean without their shells because that is what they ‘ought’ to do usually get devoured. Smart lobsters find a rock to hide under while they are in that vulnerable transition. As Christians, we need to be smarter lobsters. Of course the line between avoiding life and trusting the need to withdraw in order to live life is spectacularly unclear. But know such a line exists. We will make many errors but we do so in the confidence that God loves us—quite apart from our self judgments.
Reciprocally, allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to receive. Many FIRL participants spoke of their embarrassment about how their feet looked when they had received ritual foot washing. It is an ordinary concern but it interferes with our receiving. Presenting well, having the answer, needing to know what to say are also ordinary human concerns. But needing to have it ‘all together’ denies our limitations and our humanity. It is the plague of the intelligent and the achievers. Such attitudes lead to isolation not connection.
We admire competent people but we are close to vulnerable ones. Humility and vulnerability are the marks of both offering and receiving care. Jesus demonstrated that our categories of ‘master’ and ‘servant’ are irrelevant to the activity of loving. As receivers of such care, we must literally risk our dirty feet being exposed. We must risk allowing another to see what we would keep hidden. That is a big ask but it is the way to the life that Jesus promises.
This passage often focuses upon servant leadership. It is a radical inversion of secular values. But it is made possible by the faith that we believe in a God whose care is so deep, he would wash our feet. If you can imagine that, you will be humbled. And you will be grateful. You will receive living water and you will want to share it. It is in being fed that we are empowered.
The good news is both simple and hard. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. Let it be so.
Ron Johnson offered this link in FIRL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
It is the ‘Servant Hymn’ and provides a nice visual to go with the text. Perhaps I see what I need to see but the first disciple whose feet are washed looks noticeably uncomfortable to me. Receiving is often so.