A sermon on John 13:1-17 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 28 April 2019
Red is the new black. 70 years old is the new 50. And what we learn from John chapter 13 is that down is the new up.
This morning I want to begin a new series of sermons. Yes, today we say good-bye to the Gospel of Mark. And start looking at two words: one another. Time and time again in the New Testament we are told to do something for each other. Love one another. Be at peace with one another. Tell the truth to one another. Submit to one another. And two other words are very similar: each other. As in, carry each other’s burdens.
These words remind us that the Church is a group of people. God’s purposes are not about the salvation of one individual person. That’s the whole problem with modern life. We have become so individualistic. Everything is, what’s in it for me. The modern person lives at the centre of their own universe and everything else – their job and family and neighbourhood and yes, even God – are just planets in their solar system that revolve around them. But “each other” and “one another” remind us that there is a group at the heart of God’s plans for the world. More than just a you and you and you and me. But an us. We are the Church.
And these words “one another” remind us that this group, this Church is called by God to be a community, a family, like a single body made up of different parts and whatever we do, whatever good that we are called to do, we do it for each other. I live for you and you live for me. We live for one another. This is the great plan, the great purpose for the church that will be driving our messages over the next few months. I don’t have any great program. All I’ve done is pick about 20 passages from the New Testament and I’ll go through them roughly in order to let them speak for themselves.
Today we are looking at John chapter 13, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. He taught us that down is the new up. In this passage we find two things: a sign and a command. The sign is a sign of the gospel. And the command is to follow the example of the Lord Jesus. Of course, I’m talking about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
Washing people’s feet was the job for the lowest servant in the pecking order. Someone had to do it. In Jesus’ day people walked. They couldn’t afford horses and if they had a donkey, they used it to carry their belongings not to ride on. If they had to go to the shop, they walked. If they had an important appointment, they walked. And as they walked, their feet got dirty. They didn’t have shoes or boots. They wore sandals or walked barefoot. So their feet got dirty. If you were in the middle of the pecking order, you had to wash your own feet. But if you were at the top, someone else did it for you. And if you were at the very, very bottom, you were that someone. It was below the butler’s dignity and it would have got the cook’s hands all dirty. It was the job of the lowest slave, the servant’s servant. The one in the household who had to do what he was told, whether he liked it or not
Now we, of course, wear shoes or boots and we can’t afford servants. Our feet don’t get so dirty. And if they do we wash our own. But in every household there is a job that no one wants to do. Someone has to wash the dishes. Maybe someone has to change the baby’s nappy. Maybe someone has to take the compost to the compost bin. Maybe someone has to give great grandma her bath. Someone has to do it. And anyone could. But nobody wants to. They are the jobs that we would walk 100 kilometres over broken glass to avoid.
Jesus was sitting with his disciples. It was the last supper. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas to betray Jesus to the religious authorities. Within hours Judas would be leading a mob of soldiers and temple guards to the garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus. The next day the crowd would be baying for Jesus’ blood. That afternoon they would be taking the body of Jesus down from the cross and putting it in a tomb. But the night before, Jesus got up from the meal. He took off his coat. He wrapped a towel around his waste. He filled a bowl with water knelt in front of each of his disciples in turn and washed their feet. When Peter questioned him, Jesus was insistent. And when Peter tried to stop him, Jesus rebuked him.
In this action, there is a message for us to hear. It is the message of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. Because the man who kneels on the floor and washes their feet is the Lord. The opening verses of chapter 13 make that clear. We see that Jesus knew that his time had come. Jesus knew that he was going to leave this world and go to the Father. He knew that the Father had given him everything. He knew where he had come from and where he was going. Jesus was not a victim of forces beyond his control. Jesus was not unaware of what people were plotting against him. In the Apostles Creed we acknowledge Jesus to be “the judge of the living and the dead”. In this passage we see clearly that he was no less Lord of his own life and death. Jesus is the master of his own fate, the architect of his own destiny.
He said to his disciples
“You call me teacher and Lord and rightly so, for that is what I am.”
These are the words of a man who is very confident of his place in the grand scheme of things. He is the Lord. The Son of God. The image of the invisible God. The reflection of the brightness of the glory of God. The stamp of God’s own nature. He is at the top of the pecking order. He is as up as you can go. He has the name that is above every name. At his name every knee will bow in heaven and earth. He is up. You can’t get “upper” than that.
And yet Jesus got down on his own knees and did the job that not even the lowest servant would want to do. Do you understand the meaning of the sign? Do you hear the message here? This is a sign of the gospel because this washing of their feet points to the purpose for which Jesus lived and died. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus going here and going there and doing this and that. Crowds followed him. People did what he said. The powers of nature were at his beck and call. But at the climax of his life, when Judas acts on what Satan has put into his heart and mind, when the soldiers come with their swords and clubs, like children with sticks, they led him away only because Jesus chose to go with them. For this was his hour, his moment. This was his purpose, his destiny. He was the Lord and he chose the ropes that they tied him with. He chose the verdict they brought against him. Guilty. He chose the whips they lashed him with. He chose the crown of thorns they put on his head. He chose the nails they drove through his hands and feet. He chose the cross that would be the instrument of his death, but our life. Of his pain, but our peace. Of his despair, but our hope.
“You call me teacher and Lord,” he said, “and you speak well, because I am.” And yet by the blood of his cross he washes us clean. He washes our feet, our hands, our head, our body, our mind, our spirit, our soul. By the cross we stand before the holy God forgiven, not guilty, accepted, unashamed and unafraid. This is the message of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. This is the sign of the gospel for us to believe. That
though he was in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but he emptied himself and took the form of a servant and came in the likeness of man. He humbled himself and became obedient to death even death on a cross.
He who was up got down.
Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. It is a sign of the gospel. A message to believe. But it is also a command to obey and an example to follow. Jesus said,
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. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
It’s a good reminder that our forgiveness is not the goal of Jesus’ death and suffering. Our forgiveness, the fact that we can stand before God, our maker and judge, and not be ashamed or afraid is not the goal, but only a means to that goal. For example, if I get my feet muddy working barefoot in the garden and then I wash my feet, I don’t do it so that people will admire my personal hygiene. “Mr Keith, what clean feet you have. And, hmmmm, a beautiful aroma as well.” No, I wash my feet so I can go inside and put my socks and shoes on and go about my everyday life. In the same way Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to leave them an example to follow. To call them to a way of life that does not just transform peoples’ feet but that results in transformed lives, set free from selfishness, set free from guilt and fear, set free to do the jobs that no one else will do.
It reminds us that the gospel is not just a message to believe, promising unlimited benefits. The forgiveness of sins. The assurance of salvation. The promise of eternal life. It is also a command to obey. It is not a suggestion. It is not an optional extra. It is a call from the Lord to live a different kind of life in his example. Jesus, the Lord, washed his disciples’ feet so that they, his servants would wash each other’s feet. Jesus, our teacher, did it so that we, his students, would do the same. So that we would do for each other the job that no one wants to do, the job that no one will give you a standing ovation for. The job that needs to be done. And anyone could do it. But no one wants to. Jesus set you free with the blood of his cross so that you would do it. So that we would do it for each other. You for me. And me for you.
He who was up got down on his knees, so that we would get down for each other. And so Jesus made down the new up. Or as Jesus said, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”