by David Baer, February 25, 2018
Text: John 13:1-17
“[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” This Lent we’ll be listening for the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd in the texts that we read, understanding that Jesus is the one who leads us, ultimately, to the cross, through the tomb, and out the other side into life eternal. Last week we heard Jesus’ voice calling Lazarus out of his tomb, and calling Martha, his sister, to trust that where Jesus is, the promise of resurrection is here and now.
“The sheep follow him.” We’re also meant to pay attention to what Jesus does. He says so in our text today. I have set you an example, he says. So what he does here is very important. We need to understand just what he is doing, and how, and why, and especially for whom. The gospel says that, “[h]aving loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And the story that follows illustrates this. What we have is a story that paints a picture about how Jesus loves them to the end.
He loves them. But his love is not just a warm feeling. It’s expressed in actions. Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. In the ancient world this was not something that people who were social equals did for one another. If you arrived at someone’s home, you would have expected them to provide you with a basin of water so that you could wash your own feet. In another story from the gospels, Jesus wags his finger at Simon the Pharisee, who neglected to offer Jesus even this basic form of hospitality (Luke 7:44). But washing a guest’s feet wasn’t done. Now, if the host was incredibly wealthy, perhaps servants or slaves might be assigned to wash a guest’s feet. Or, in very rare cases, someone might show absolute devotion to another person by washing their feet, something we hear about in the stories about the woman who did this for Jesus. But people tend to get excited or upset when this happens, and that’s what Peter does in this story. Jesus is their teacher. He’s in authority over them. They learn from him, they listen to him, they follow and obey him. The last thing they would expect is for him to put himself in the position of a slave and wash their feet. But that’s what he does. And this is how Jesus loves. It’s a love that does not insist on privileges and powers; it’s a love that freely, willingly puts itself at the service of others. This is how Jesus loves.
Jesus loves… them. Jesus loves the ones in the world who belong to him. Who are they? Who are the ones Jesus loved to the end? John’s story about Jesus begins with Jesus calling Andrew, Philip, Simon, and Nathaniel to follow him. He even gave Simon a new name, Rock—Cephas in Aramaic, or Peter in Greek. There’s Thomas, who we heard last week was willing to follow Jesus even if it meant losing his own life. These are good, trustworthy friends. But do you know who else is there? Judas Iscariot, who is planning to betray his teacher. And Jesus knows it. But he washes Judas’s feet with the rest. Jesus loves them, all of them, even his enemies. There’s darkness in that room where Jesus gathered to eat the Passover meal with his friends. Someone who is breaking bread with him is going to hand him over to be killed. What does Jesus do when confronted with evil? He loves the wrongdoer, he puts himself at the service of the sinner, he makes himself vulnerable. He washes Judas’s feet. Jesus loves all of the ones entrusted to him, even if they repay his love with betrayal.
Jesus loves them to the end. In Greek, that word is “telos.” It means a goal, a finish line. In John’s story of the crucifixion, he uses a related word in Greek for Jesus’ last word from the cross: “It is finished.” Jesus loves his disciples, even the one who betrayed him, to the end of his life, to that moment on the cross. But “telos” also has a second meaning. It means perfection or fullness. In other words, Jesus loves them to the utmost. He loves them in a way that is perfect. The way he loves them leaves nothing wanting. No one has greater love than this, as Jesus says it, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. This is the greatest possible love, and it takes Jesus to the cross. But it begins in this room. It begins with Jesus putting himself below the people who look up to him, with taking the position of a slave.
This is how Jesus loves them to the end. He demonstrates it that night by washing their feet. And he tells them that this is an example that they are to follow, that we are to follow.
Will D. Campbell a Baptist minister and civil rights activist who lived in Tennessee, told the following story about an encounter with a circus performer, when he was a young man and trying to sort out his own sense of calling.
I once cornered and talked to a high wire artist in a small traveling circus. I asked him why he chose that particular way of making a living. The first few minutes were filled with circus romance—the thrill of hurling [sic] through space, feeling at the last instant the pasty flesh of two always welcomed hands pressing around the wrists, swinging you forward to the next set of pasty hands which in turn deliver you safely back to the starting platform; the joy of laughter and approval and applause in the eyes of “children of all ages,” the clanking of train wheels moving you on to the next city; even the part about it being a comfortable life with good pay. But finally he said what I had not expected him to say. “Now you really want to know why I go up there on that [darned] thing night after night after night?” I said I did. “Man, I would have quit it a long time ago. But my sister is up there. And my wife and my father are up there. My sister has more troubles than Job. My wife is a devil-may-care nut and my old man is getting older. If I wasn’t up there, some bad night, man… smash!” His foot stomped the floor with a bone cracking thud.
He started to walk away but I had one more question to ask and ran after him. “But why do they stay up there?” He looked like he didn’t want to answer, wasn’t going to answer. But then he did. Turning from the door of the boy’s locker room in the county seat high school, with a brown craft cardboard box and heavy crayola sign: MEN’S COSTUMES above it for the evenings performance, he looked me up and down and then, as he disappeared, blurted it out: “Because I drink too much!”1
Why do you do it? Because they need me. Why do they do it? Because I need them. And out of this circle of need and service, service and need, comes an acrobatic show that delights others.
We are fragile, fallen, fallible people. Whether we’re drunk, deranged, or distracted like those circus performers, or else in our own particular way anxious, hurting, conflicted, confused, and uncertain, there is no such thing as a Christ-centered fellowship where we do not rely on and serve one another. I have washed your feet, says Jesus. I have put myself at your service—now you serve one another.
When I’ve asked members of this church why they’re here, it’s those of you who most inspire me that say something like that old acrobat: because I can serve. Because my neighbor in the pew next to me needs my prayers, needs my listening ear, needs my encouraging words. But maybe you also find that in bearing the burdens of others, you become more willing to let them bear yours. Because when you put yourself at the service of people with material and emotional needs, the fact of being in need starts to seem like it’s just part of life. And out of this circle of need and service, service and need, comes a community that demonstrates the love of God for the world.
Jesus loved his own to the end. He loved them, loved us, even when we weren’t at all lovable, even when one of us, when some of us meant to do him harm. He loved by putting himself at our feet, by washing, by serving, by setting aside the dignity and distance he was entitled to, not only as teacher, but as Messiah and Lord. He loved his own to the end, and he set us an example of a love that has the power to change us, to change our communities, to change even our enemies. Jesus loved, he loves, to the end. Thanks be to God. Amen.
William D. Campbell, “Vocation as Grace,” in Callings! ed. James Y. Holloway, and Will D. Campbell (New York: Paulist Press, 1974), pp. 279-280.