John 13:1-17 (Holy Thursday)
“The Lord Is the Servant”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
March 24, 2016
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The text for today/tonight is the Gospel lesson from John 13:
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 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? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 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. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
Irony—an outcome opposite of what one would expect. Throughout Lent we have been considering the various ironies of Jesus’ Passion. A dying thief and murderer comes to faith in Jesus as his Savior; Jewish leaders who despise Roman rule proclaim, “We have no king but Caesar”; these same Jewish leaders didn’t want to put Jesus to death during the Passover Feast, and yet, that was exactly when they ended up putting Him to death. On this Holy Thursday we join Jesus and His disciples in the Upper Room, courtesy of John’s Gospel. Once again, we get the opposite of what anyone would expect: Jesus, the Lord and Teacher, does the work of a slave and washes His disciples’ feet.
Foot washing was a hospitable amenity in Palestine. It was extended to guests on arriving at the home of their host. It was usually performed by a servant, or by the wife of the host, while the guests were reclining at table. What Jesus does, then, is highly unusual and quite unexpected. Jesus, as the understood host, had no business washing the feet of His guests, removing the dust and dirt of the road from them. He should have selected one of His disciples for the task, or at the least found a servant in the home to perform this customary, menial task. But Jesus doesn’t. The one we call Teacher and Lord plays the servant’s role. What an irony!
And it doesn’t sit well with Simon Peter: “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Implied: “Lord, this isn’t right. This isn’t kosher. This isn’t how it is to be done.” Jesus replies, “If I should not wash you, you have no part with me.” At which point Peter askes Jesus to wash his hands and head, as well as his feet. Jesus reminds Peter that one who has taken a bath doesn’t need to wash any more than his feet on such an occasion as this, because he is completely clean. Then the gears shift when Jesus says, “And you all are clean, but not all of you.” He knew the one who would betray Him later in the evening.
Jesus knew the deal. He knew that “He had come to His hour so that He should depart out of this world to the Father. He knew that the Father had given all things to Him and that He had come from God and was going to God.” This was the plan from eternity. This was the way in which humanity, God’s crown of creation, would be redeemed from sin, death, and the power of the devil. As Jesus had instructed His disciples on multiple occasions, “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mk. 8:31 ESV). Knowing this and, “having loved His own who were in the world,” Jesus “loved them to the end.” He loved His disciples so much that it was necessary for Jesus to enact that love in a surprising, concrete way as a preface to the “main event” of His suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection—the most surprising, powerful, and concrete demonstration of the love of God for humanity.
The washing of the disciples’ feet, then, is an “example” of the love and service of Jesus seen in its fullness on the cross. “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God,” took on human flesh and became man. He dwelt among sinners, ate with sinners, conversed with sinners. He washed the feet of sinners. This Jesus did because He had come to serve the very people who ought to be serving Him! God-in-flesh should have been worshiped and adored, served and attended to because of who He is. But that wasn’t the plan. That wasn’t the way it was going to be.
Jesus, true God and true Man, came to be a servant to those who hate Him, who disobey Him, who rebel against Him. Talk about your irony! He could have come demanding satisfaction for our sins right then and there. He could have come with the full wrath and hot anger of God against our sins and our rebellions and our willful disobedience to His commandments. He could have come in power and glory to judge and to condemn us to hell right on the spot. That’s what we deserve. That’s what our selfish, self-centered nature merits from God—eternal death and hell. But Jesus came in humbleness and gentleness. Jesus, true God from all eternity, “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8 ESV).
Jesus was among us as One who serves, as One who would die our death and suffer our hell so that we might live forever with all our sins forgiven—cleansed in body and soul by the very blood which He poured out for us on the tree of the cross. As a model and foreshadowing of this great event, Jesus, the humble servant, washed His disciples’ feet. It was as if He were saying to them, “I am the Lord God. I am the Teacher. But I am here to serve you in love, to serve all people in love. What I am doing now in washing your feet, you don’t understand. But after you are witnesses to the service I will perform for you and the world tomorrow on the cross, you will understand. You will understand that this act of love and service today is pointing you to the very reason I have come—to be the Servant who saves you and all people from sin, death, and hell. I will be the One who dies your death that you should have died. I will be the One who suffers abandonment from God so that you will not have to. I will shed my blood for you to make you clean, all of you, even the One who betrays me. I will serve all people in my death. I will rescue the whole world from sin with my death. I will redeem everyone from sin, death, and the devil by dying on the cross.”
The irony of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, washing the disciples’ feet pales in comparison with the irony of Jesus, true God and true Man, giving up His life into death to save those who hate Him and who have sinned against Him. Yet, that is what He did as the very Servant Isaiah described in his book: “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; . . . He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 52:13-53:5 ESV).
We are healed! Our sins stand forgiven; we are made clean by the blood of Jesus shed for us on the cross. We are saved from eternal death and hell because Jesus died for us. He gives us this forgiveness, life, and salvation with His true Body and Blood, in, with, and under the bread and the wine in the Supper that He instituted on this very night in which He washed feet and was later betrayed. Through this holy Sacrament, Jesus delivers to us the forgiveness which He won for us on the cross. And where there is forgiveness, there is also eternal life and salvation. In the eating and drinking of Jesus’ Body and Blood with the bread and wine, He also strengthens our faith and empowers us through the Holy Spirit to live the new life of faith, following Christ’s example of love and service.
You and I are saved from sin and death so that we might be empowered to freely love and serve one another as Jesus first loved and served us. Our response to the love and grace and forgiveness of Jesus is a life of love lived out in Jesus’ name. Jesus has given us an example that, just as He has done, we should do also. We are not greater than one another. We are not better than any other sinners, for we have all been redeemed and saved by the loving service of Jesus to us in His life, death, and resurrection. In Jesus’ we are empowered to love and to serve others with the same kind of love and service that Jesus demonstrated when He washed the feet of His disciples and when He went to the cross in our place. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34-35 ESV).
That love is made know in the mutual service and helpfulness that we give to others in our everyday relationships. The love and service of Jesus to us is our model and our power, through the Holy Spirit, to do these things. We are taken from the sublime to the mundane, from the grand to the menial, the lofty to the nitty-gritty, from high-flown principles to dusty acts of service. As Christians, we are not afraid to get into the “dirt” with our neighbors. We are not afraid to meet them where they are at and to serve them with the love of Jesus, even if some would consider it beneath them. There is nothing beneath the believer who lives to love and serve Jesus, because there was nothing beneath Jesus that He wouldn’t do—washing feet or suffering death in your place.
A few months ago, I received a phone call while I was at the Food Shelf with our group. It was from a man named Charles. I met him at the sitting area in Big Y. Charles is homeless. He needs a wheelchair to get around. He wears an eye-patch because his eye was put out once when he was beaten up. He’s a widower. He makes his living by recycling cans and bottles. Charles suffers from a myriad of health issues including incontinence. Charles is a Christian. In his words, “I want others to see me and what I am and know that God is with me and is helping me. I want to tell people what Jesus has done for me.” A man who needs to be helped and served is also a man who desires to serve Jesus in his own way. Charles was on his way to Providence, ‘cause that’s where he felt he needed to go. I sent him off with some diapers and a little cash for bus fare and a Bible. I have no idea where Charles is today. I don’t know if he made it to Providence; my guess is he did since he’s gotten to a whole lot more places than I ever have. And I would imagine that he’s had some pretty good opportunities to tell others about Jesus, who came to serve Charles and be his Savior.
Jesus has served you with His cross and resurrection. You’re forgiven. You have life everlasting because you are saved from death and hell. By the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, serve others in love as Jesus first loved and served you. Be available to others, even to do the menial tasks that no one else would do for them. Give people the good news of Jesus, the Lord and Savior, who is the Servant who died and rose for all! Amen.