My parents visited us last month for the first time since we moved to the Lower Mainland. And as the time came for us to say good-bye to each other, it was, as it always is, a poignant time. My mom is 70 years old and my dad is 72, and I am very much aware that each time I see them may be the last. So the most important thing for me in those moments is that I want my mom and my dad to know that I love them. And this is not easy with my dad because he is from Norwegian stock, and as some of you may know, northern Europeans don’t tend to be very expressive about their feelings. So we sometimes have some awkward moment as we both try to communicate our love for each other. But it is important, so we do it. With my mom, it comes a little more naturally for her.
And this value of making sure that those closest to me know that I love them goes in two directions, because something could happen to me someday. All of us are mortal and all of us will die one day, unless Jesus comes back to this earth beforehand. And so, I want my wife and my children to know that I love them too. So I make a point of telling them that I love them and I make a point of showing my love for them with a hug or some other appropriate physical sign of affection.
So imagine what is must have been like for Jesus as he gathered to eat and celebrate the Passover meal with his disciples for the last time. He KNEW that this would be the last meal that he would have with them before he died. He KNEW that one of his own followers had already decided in his heart to betray him. He KNEW that the pain and suffering of the cross lay before him. And yet, the most important thing to Jesus, in that moment, was that his followers would know that he loved them. A contemporary paraphrase of the Bible called The Message puts John 13:1 this way, “Having loved his dear companions, he continued to love them right to the end.” Behind our English translation of this verse is one particular Greek word, telos, which means “end, completion, finish” and so we can say that Jesus, having loved his all of his disciples throughout all of their time together, Jesus now loves them right to the finish.
And Jesus shows them his great love for them by getting up and, even though he was the guest of honour, he took off his outer clothing, stripped down to his loin cloth, which is what a servant would wear, wrapped a towel around his waist, took a basin and some water and began washing his disciples’ feet. None of them protested, except for Peter. Peter, along with John, organized this Passover meal at Jesus’ request. Perhaps it was Peter’s job to wash the feet of the guests before the banquet. But this was a dirty, humiliating job and it was usually performed by the lowest servant in the household. And maybe Peter thought that that was beneath him. So he didn’t do it. And now Jesus is doing it for him and to him. Let’s pretend that we are in the room watching what happens.
“Lord, you are going to wash my feet?” Peter asked.
Jesus began untying the straps of Peter’s sandals. “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”
Red-faced and ashamed, Peter pulled his feet away from Jesus, protesting, “You shall never wash my feet.” (v. 8 )
Previously, Judas had faced a moment like this in his heart and decided that he would not receive this humble Messiah who serves and so, even though his feet were clean, the dirt of Judas’s guilt and sin remained. And this God who humbles himself and serves is a challenge for us too, because he calls us to also live a life of service. Later on, Jesus would say, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. (John 13:12b-16) Jesus is calling us to lay down our lives, and all of the rights and privileges that we may have coming to us, and give them up for the sake of others.
This February the Olympics are coming to Vancouver and God is giving us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve people from all around the world as they come here to visit us. But will we step into that opportunity to serve? Or will we rent out our home for big bucks and take a vacation out of town? Next Sunday, we will be having Friendship Sunday. Will we give up the best parking spots and the places where we usually sit and our tendency to talk to only the people we know for the sake of our visitors? Or will we take the best parking spots and the best seats and our best friends for ourselves? When there is conflict in our church, our home or our workplace, as there will inevitably be, will we listen to the other party’s concerns and work out a compromise according to godly principles? Or will we absolutely insist that things must work out the way that we want them to?
We all tend to struggle against being a servant in the self-less, sacrificial way that Jesus calls us to serve. And we cannot change ourselves. The only solution is to let this humble Jesus wash us with his love.
Gently, Jesus took Peter’s feet with his hands and brought them back to the basin. “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me,” Jesus calmly replied as he carefully began to scrub the dust from between Peter’s toes. Table fellowship was so important in that culture, and Peter wanted so badly to be in fellowship with Jesus. Maybe the foot washing Jesus was giving was a pre-requisite to fellowship with him.
“Lord, don’t just wash my feet, wash my head and my hands too!” Peter begged.
Jesus rubbed the grit off Peter’s heels. “The person who has bathed in the morning only needs to wash his feet and he is completely clean. And all of you are clean, except for one of you.” By this Jesus was referring to Judas, who was going to betray him.
As Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he was not only modeling servanthood. Through his actions, Jesus was symbolically telling the disciples ahead of time what was soon going to happen. The guest of honour who became a servant would soon serve those he loved in another way. The hands which tenderly washed would soon be bound with a prisoner’s chains. The back bent over to dry his follower’s feet will soon be bent bare exposed to a Roman flogging. He was stripped, not to a loin cloth, but to complete nakedness, a most shameful thing in Hebrew culture, and he was nailed to a cross to suffer and die. And when he had paid for the sins of the whole world, including yours and mine and Judas’ and Peter’s, Jesus cried out a another form of the word telos “tetelestai” “it is finished!” “It is ended!” and he gave up his life and he died. Jesus loved us right to the very end!
But the story does not end there! For on the third day which followed, Jesus rose from the dead! He is alive and he is with us right now. He gives you forgiveness for all the times you have failed to humble yourself and serve others in love. In the waters of Holy Baptism, he washes you clean of all your guilt and shame. He brings to life a new person within you, someone who truly wants to serve other people in love. He makes you a member of the family of God and he gives you the gift of the Holy Spirit to lead you and empower you. He connects you to him in a bond that nothing, not even death, can ever break. When our life in this world is over, Jesus will take us by the hand and lead us into that home in heaven which he has won for us. And one day, Jesus will come back to this earth in a way that all will see. He will raise us from the dead and give us a transformed resurrection body. We will be fully human, body and soul together. We will see Jesus face to face and we will never grow old, never get sick and never die. Jesus loves us right into a better ending than we could ever dream of for ourselves.
Since our Lord and Teacher has washed our feet in this wonderful way, we respond by washing one another’s feet. And we will be blessed as we do these things. There is something special that happens when we step away from “looking out for number one” and start considering the needs of others ahead of our own. There is a joy and a meaningfulness and a vitality in servanthood that we do not find when we are focused on getting our own wants fulfilled. It is in sacrificing our lives for others that we find our true lives, the life that Jesus has prepared for us. As Jesus said in Matthew 16:25, For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
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.
Our Father in heaven has given all things into Jesus’ hands. So we do not need to be afraid. Let us trust in the commander-in-chief who humbly serves us.
The apostle Paul writes these words of encouragement to us:
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a human being,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
I would like to leave you with this question: ‘Does Jesus call us to humble ourselves and selflessly serve others for their sake or ours?’ Amen.
 ”Service,” Sermon Illustrations; Internet; available at: http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/s/service.htm; downloaded on 15 Nov 2009.