Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Wedding Sermon on John 13:1-17

In reflection of that timeless and much sought after idea of Christian Service, the passage we just shared (John 13:1-17)  seems to give a very practical idea of charity, but the passage does not simply answer the question of what service looks like. In truth, it actually seems to probe further… deeper. John 13 dares to do something much bolder on the way to defining the concepts of charity and service.  It actually suggests that there is a way to breech upon the very nature of God, and it is in that quest that one finds not only the definition of God’s Love but it’s very being in the person and sacrifice of Christ; the essence of charity lies in the actions of Jesus as He actually stoops down to wash His disciples’ feet. So, as we traverse John 13 today, we'll actually begin by going over two points that John illustrates ARE NOT a part of what Jesus was doing in his act of washing the disciples' feet. Then, I would like to circle back around to what all the background material means for the central message of the passage. We will do this while also keeping an eye on how all this relates to us as we read it in our modern context and the passage's significance as we witness the union of this couple, today.
 So, to begin, there are a couple of things about John 13:1-17 that I think will help us understand where Jesus is coming from as he performs the act of washing his disciples' feet. One of those things is the context of the story itself. You see, Jesus, in this story, is on his way to death. We are told that the disciples and Jesus have gathered to celebrate the Passover meal – a celebration of salvation that commemorates the time when God saved the Israelites from utter destruction at the hand of their oppressors, the Egyptians.  Soon, Jesus will be led to be crucified, and the text tells us that He knows the hour for this is coming soon. Then, in the rest of chapter 13 through chapter 17, the disciples and, indeed, the reader get a long teaching on Jesus’ continuing work through the indwelling Holy Spirit, the nature of the new spiritual reality Jesus is about to introduce with his death and resurrection, the trials that will ensue for his followers, and ultimately his victory and glorification.
            This is significant because many scholars believe that, both here and in the epistles that have his name ascribed to them, John is trying to combat certain religious heresies that have cropped up in the Christian community at the time of his writing. And Therefore, John is likely trying to intentionally show the reader that Jesus' act of service in washing his disciples' feet did not conform to the tenets of certain heresies. You see, the casual reader may simply think that the account of the Bible is meant to be taken as a point for point rendering of the life and times of Jesus. What many fail to realize is that someone had to compile these stories to write them down, which generally happened after Jesus' lifetime.  Thus, it is believed by many scholars that John is recounting his experience with Jesus decades later. In fact, it is probably sixty or seventy years later. So, it is probably true that John, beyond simply trying to get the gospel message out to the world (which is no doubt one driving purpose for the composition of this gospel), may actually be trying orient, or re-orient, his readership to the truth about Christ over and against the heresies that plagued the church he was leading at the time when he was recounting the story, which was in Ephesus.
            The heresies John was trying to fight in Ephesus at that time were certain pre-evolved versions of what would later  become Gnosticism (2nd & 3rd cent. CE). Though it is a bit more complex, for our purposes, Gnosticism was essentially a heresy that had as a central tenet the denial of the union of Christ's divine and human natures. Of course, as Christians, we believe Christ was, mysteriously, both fully human and fully divine, which gives his sacrifice the weight and power to atone for humanity's sin nature. To the Gnostic, however, physical reality was evil and heavenly or spiritual reality was holy. So, some of the more famous proclamations made by different iterations of Gnosticism were that Jesus was simply a man who was possessed by the divine at the time of his baptism, and this divine presence left his body at crucifixion, since God can not experience suffering. Another version of the Gnostic heresy, itself called Docetism from the Greek word "to seem"( doke,w ), said that Jesus only seemed to exist but was actually an illusion and not really a physical being. Under this belief, all of Jesus' human interactions during his lifetime, including his crucifixion, were an elaborate rouse by a divine being (who couldn't actually experience suffering like the events in Jesus' passion). Such theological heresy, obviously, puts a wrench in the notion of atonement that Christians hold to. That John was fighting such blatant heresies as these proto-Gnostic ideas, is important background for understanding what John is trying to do in this passage and some others that we will be going over.[1]  

Maybe, some of this info on Gnosticism is a bit over your head, and that is okay. It won't have too much bearing on the rest of what we flesh out. However, it is important to remember that John is trying to show that Jesus' ideal of service is real, true, and practical! And, this is the first thing I think John is show us that true Christian servant-hood is NOT. It is NOT a "pie in the sky" or overtly mystical notion like an ancient Gnostic might attest to. Sometimes, as Christians, we need to get our hands dirty, we need to serve now and not wait for some heavenly ideal, and we need to show up. And, as we continue with this passage and as we watch the union of this couple, today, it will be important to remember that often, in my experience, serving your spouse and your family is where the "rubber meets the road" when it comes to sacrificial service. Okay, moving on...
In addition, I believe Jesus is showcasing a spiritual reality, through the example of washing his disciples' feet, that has as its pinnacle sacrificial service, and this can be seen by another thing Jesus is NOT doing in John 13:1-7 . What Jesus is not doing is enacting a religious ritual, which was probably the expectation the disciples had when Jesus began to wash their feet.  For example, in the portion that depicts Peter’s response to Jesus as he tries to wash his feet, Peter initially rejects the idea that his master and Lord would humble himself enough to wash the feet of the disciples. Surely, Jesus is the one who deserves to be served, not the other way around. And yet, Jesus insists. Here, it can seem funny that, as he relents, Peter’s actions hyperbolically swing from one extreme to the next – “oh no! You will never wash my feet” to “well you might as well get the hose out to clean all of me!!!”  I think, what is actually happening, however, is that Peter is confused about what Jesus is doing. To illustrate, I would like to take an example from one of the greatest cinematic gems of all time – “Analyze This” (or maybe it is “Analyze That”...there are two... I can’t remember, and I am clearly being sarcastic!). If you have never seen the film, the basic plot is that Robert De Niro’s character is a mafia Kingpin who is suffering from depression after leading a life of violence and crime. So, at the behest of his friends, he decides to see a therapist – the unwitting and unwilling character played by Billy Crystal. And, as you might imagine, many comedic antics ensue. But, there is a scene where Crystal’s character, obviously Jewish, is following De Niro’s character into church for mass, and as they come to the basin of holy water, they both simultaneous dip their hands into the water. However, as DeNiro’s character makes the sign of the cross, Crystal’s character begins to wash his hands vigorously and  even takes a finger to get behind his ears. 
The water meant different things to them. The way I interpret that scene is that for De Niro's character, the water was a ritualistic SYMBOL meant for him to remember his baptism, but for Crystal's character the water signified REAL, RITUAL, and PRACTICAL cleansing before you entered a holy place to pray. That Crystal's character could make such a mistake should not be surprising, because there have been ritualistic cleansing practices in the Jewish faith, probably, since its inception. In fact, there were similar rituals that took place in Jesus’ time as well. When one wanted to enter the temple area, one would immerse oneself in a large pool of water in order cleanse away ritual impurities. And, I should note that the word "ritual" is important, because the practice was not so concerned with getting "so fresh and so clean clean" in the way one showers, today. Rather, it had more to do with fulfilling one's duties to be presentable in the holy place as part of the religious obligation. This practice was called miqweh, and it was very important in the make up of Jewish ritual practices. 
Given this background, I think Peter interprets Jesus' actions as having something to do with this ritual practice. Peter has his sanctity in mind. That is probably why Peter is confused. Jesus is not doing it "right," if his washing their feet is a miqweh ritual. Again, one is supposed to immerse themselves fully into the water, which may be why Peter tells Jesus to wash his hands and head as well. But, Jesus only wants wash Peter's feet?! If this is not miqweh, then Jesus is doing something VERY socially unacceptable by humbling himself so low as to do a servant's task. Jesus is letting Peter know that his example of service is not simply another ritualistic motion that he can check off his "to-do" list. Jesus' act of service is not a religious obligation so much as a CHOICE to humble himself and soon to lay down his life.
In fact, as Jesus is addressing Peter in verse 8, before Peter asks him to wash his head and his hands, Jesus says that if Peter doesn’t let him was his feet, then he has no "part" with him. Now, “part” is the Greek word meroj [meros], which in its most basic meaning means exactly that – a part of something. However, in certain contexts this word, especially as it is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), is often used to refer to a part of an estate or an inheritance.  It makes me wonder whether, as soon as he heard this, if Peter’s heart didn’t start racing or he didn’t get a lump in his throat from anxiety. I wonder if, when Jesus said this, Peter was thinking that he was on the cusp of losing his stake in the eternal kingdom. I mean, he had invested years, at this point, essentially campaigning for the fact that Jesus was the Messiah – the One the prophets had told about! The one who would bring unity and peace and dominance and salvation back to the Jewish people! But, I believe Jesus is not so much telling Peter that he is losing his stake in heaven so much as he is trying to reorient Peter to how true spirituality will express itself at the dawn of Christian age. One will not worship God as much through ritualistic practices as she will through true and unfettered acts of service!

So, to recap, we have gone over two points concerning John 13:1-17 that John wants  to make sure the reader understands are not being illustrated by Jesus' act of service. One, of course, is that Jesus' real life service did NOT conform to Gnostic beliefs. Thus, Jesus really did come in the flesh and he really was fully human and fully divine, and when he served others he did so in a very real and practical way. And, a second point John wants the reader to understand is that in Jesus' praxis of real and practical service, his actions were NOT simply meant to create ritual and religious obligations. So, that leaves the question, what was Jesus actually doing when he decided to serve his disciples by washing their feet? What sort of symbolism was he enacting by humbling himself in this manner? Well, verse 1 tells us that he did this to “show the full extent of his love” and later in verse 15 Jesus says that washing their feet was meant to be an example for the disciples, and presumably us, to follow. 
Does this mean that we are mandated to literally stoop down and wash each others' feet? I don’t think so. To me, the actual mode in which Jesus serves, by washing feet, is not as important as the extent to which he humbled himself. Here’s what I mean, one key thing to note is how the text says that Jesus took off his robe before he washed the disciples’ feet, and then the text explicitly makes note of him putting it back on when he is finished. Some scholars have tied this passage in with John 10:17-18 where Jesus says that the Father loves him because he freely lays down his life only to take it up again. You see, when Jesus lays down his garment he is actually, symbolically foreshadowing the act of laying down his life.  Such foreshadow is aided by the fact that the word for “example” in the Greek is the word u`po,deigma [hupodeigma] which some scholars note is associated, in the Septuagint and some of the contemporary Jewish writings, with someone giving an example of how to die, as in how to die honorably in something like battle or in reference to having been martyred honorably.
Another thing we need to remember about John 13:1-17 is that this act of washing the disciples feet, of course, was the lowliest position possible in Jesus’ culture.  Washing feet, in first century Israel, would have been social suicide for someone of prominence like a rabbi, but anyone familiar with the gospels knows that this type of risk was probably of little concern for Jesus, a revolutionary teacher.  Christ chose, in this act, to become nothing in order to show the “full extent” of his love; he chose to reveal love as service. And, I would argue that Christ’s CHOICE to humble himself by washing his disciples' feet is the main focal point of Jon 13:1-17. This act of service foreshadows Jesus' greater work in giving his life on the cross, and it becomes an example for his disciples and ultimately an example for the reader. Jesus isn't serving his disciples because it would make him feel good or to stroke his ego or to check things off a religious "to-do" list. Instead, Jesus' CHOICE to serve his disciples reveals that service, in Jesus' example here, has to do with his intent (he is doing it even though it may not feel great or make him look great) and it is sacrificial (humbles himself to do it). Often, in serving others, and especially in serving your spouse, it is not going to feel great. You're going to have to CHOOSE to serve, like Jesus does here, even though it would be easier or more glamorous to be self-seeking. And, what Jesus demonstrates in washing the disciples' feet is that when CHOOSING to serve, many times that choice will be sacrificial in nature - you will have to put your spouse's needs, wants, and desires above your own.

You see if Jesus is talking about his ultimate sacrifice on the cross as the example that he is setting for us, there is something much more profound going on in this passage than simply another lesson on Christian charity. It does take up this subject as a dimension of its message, but it takes up charity in relation to our POSTURE within it.  The message, in that case, is transformed into something like that song "The Wonderful Cross" sings - "[it] bids me come and die!” Come and follow me even unto your death! Come and serve the church, the world, your enemies, even if it costs you your very life! Christ is inviting us to CHOOSE to serve, even though it might cost us everything. When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, he isn’t enacting a cleansing ritual, the way Peter probably, initially thought he was. Jesus isn’t literally commanding us to wash everyone’s feet. Instead, Jesus is showing the cost and nature of Christian service in general. To serve the way Jesus served means to give all of ourselves for one another even when it means humbling ourselves to lowest degree. Jesus wants us to serve one another even when it is uncomfortable or socially unacceptable or humiliating or dangerous.

Perhaps, this is a little confusing, so let me give you an example through a personal story of mine. I am not sure if any of you know, but I lived in Juarez Mexico for two years doing a missions internship. I was trying to serve people in the way Jesus served. Mexico was one of the most profound experiences of my life. It shaped me in ways that I am still, years later, trying to flesh out in my life and my spiritual walk. I mean, when I think back on the friendships I made and the great times I had there, I can’t help but feel a certain sense of joy come over me.  There wasn’t a week that went by that I and my fellow interns weren’t at some church fiesta eating amazing Mexican food, or hanging out at someone’s house in the community just...doing life. I worked in a soup kitchen, and I have countless stories of some of the guys, Gerardo, Francisco, Noe, clowning around or pouring their lives out to serve the people in their community or even to mentor me. And, there was a sweet woman who worked in the soup kitchen, who was a master at making tortillas. She had come to Christ after escaping  the sex-slave industry (literally with just the clothes on her back). We worked in a women’s shelter doing programs and things for moms who were escaping poverty and abusive relationships. That was one of the most amazing places to be, because the kids were so joyful and curious and you could tell that sometimes the moms just needed a break!

I say all that not to pat myself on the back but because, the truth is, my time in Mexico was also one of the hardest times of my life. Almost, everyday I battled an urge to just LEAVE – get out of the chaos!  More times than I can count, I had to CHOOSE to trust that God had led me to that place, and that He wanted me there. I often had to CHOOSE to serve people even when I knew they didn't appreciate the help or even when I knew that the aid would only be a blip on the radar of a long term solution for them. Mexico, for me, was a constant struggle to CHOOSE to follow Christ, because it often meant following him to the cross.
Sometimes, my spirit was just so broken by some of the things that I saw.  I mean, regularly, my team and I would see crazy things – gang beatings, corrupt policemen, someone once set a car on fire outside one of the churches I was working at (only by the grace of God did it start raining, because the flames were close enough to the church that you could see it lipping up over the side of the roof!). Our house was constantly robbed from or vandalized.  Extortion was a common occurrence. I once met a woman who was so poor that the only thing she had to feed her baby was instant coffee... this baby had been drinking only instant coffee for two days before one of my team members was able to help her. My wife (then girlfriend) and I were carjacked, once... life in Mexico wasn’t always easy. The majority of the time, I found myself struggling with a sense of defeat, with a sense of loss. That isn’t to say that God didn’t prove himself over and again, but more often than not I really battled a sense of hopelessness.

I can remember distinctly, one evening, after a particularly hard day, I was sitting outside my little barrio home on the porch, watching the sunset, and I could see in the distance one of the ministries that we worked with called Juventud con Vision “Youth with a Vision.” I could see the three crosses they displayed on the crest of their roof as the fading rays of the days’ last light slowly engulfed them. And in my mind, I began to go over the passage we’re talking about today, John 13, and another passage in John 20. In John 20, Jesus has already been crucified and buried, and there is a moment, in the book, when all seems lost for the disciples. It is at this point that the reader is introduced to a bit of a funny story. You see, Mary Magdalene had gone early in the morning to the tomb, had found it empty, and was confronted by the living Christ. She then immediately reported this to the disciples. John 20:3-9 (you don’t have to turn there, I will just relate to you what is happening) tells the story of Peter and the “Beloved Disciple,” who many think is actually John (the author of the Gospel) trying to offhandedly paint himself into the narrative, in a bit of a foot race to the tomb. So, in John 20:3, we see Peter and John racing to the tomb to see for themselves, and... John beats Peter there. Now, all my life I have heard this passage preached simply as a funny anecdote. Many think this story was simply meant to show the rivalry that existed between these two apostles in the early church, as if this was John’s way of taking a pot shot at Peter – “look at you Peter! You can’t even win a foot race!” But...I do not actually think this was John’s intent in including the detail of him reaching the tomb first.

There is a sense here, I think, that John is actually a little hesitant to enter the tomb. Although he reaches the tomb first, the text is very clear that John did NOT go into the tomb. But, wait here comes that little chubby, out-of-shape, fat boy Peter trudging behind him. At this point, the reader would suspect that it would be PETER who would be hesitant to go into the tomb. Why? Well, we spoke earlier how Peter was confused at Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, because he expected Jesus to conform to traditional, religious, and ritual procedures, though that isn’t something Jesus was doing in that particular instance. And actually, Peter’s expectation fits his character. In ALL the gospels, Peter is portrayed, even more than the other disciples, as a person who is concerned with upholding the popular religious and ritual Jewish traditions of his day; Peter was religious; Peter kept up standards; Peter did things right. Therefore, John’s audience (who would have been familiar with Jewish expectations of the day) would have expected that, since both John and Peter knew Jewish law prohibited them from coming in contact with a dead body or the things a dead body had touched, Peter of all the characters would have been the one to protest entering the tomb. Yet, lo and behold, it is PETER NOT JOHN who enters the tomb first! See, I don’t think that John is badmouthing Peter so much as showcasing the resolve it took for him to enter the tomb first, over and against his own religious inhibitions. It is Peter who is willing to follow his master even into the darkest of places.

So, on that day in Mexico, in the midst of my own conflicting attitude in my service to Christ, I was thinking on these two passages in John. And, I believe the Spirit led me to a greater understanding of Peter's struggles, especially as it related to my own attitude in the midst of the sacrificial service I was a part of on the missions field. As I thought about it, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to be Peter as he comes up behind John and stands in front of the tomb. It is so obvious in chapter 13 that Peter is desperate to “get it right,” to “play by the rules,” or to enact a ritual, that he completely misses the fact that Jesus is asking him to give of himself, not for his own glory or sense of religiosity, but simply because it brings praise and honor to God. But, then in Chapter 20, I get the sense that, with all of that in the background, with all of that as a precedent, Peter has to CHOOSE. Will he be overcome by the religious impulses that drive him to an ingenuine faith, or...will he follow his master? Will his devotion to his pride in “being right” win out, or will he charge ahead to chase after the Lord that he loves? Will he take the easy road or will he be bold in serving his master? You see, what I realized as I watched the sunset in Mexico was that, when combined, the ultimate point of these passages, John13 and 20, is a call to service, yes, but more it is a sign of God’s beckoning call for us to chase after him unabashedly through that service. Will we CHOOSE to chase after him even when it is the hardest thing to do - when it leads us straight into the tomb? Will we CHOOSE to serve each other even when we have to totally and completely humble ourselves?
Now, I would hate for any of you to walk out of here thinking that John 13 doesn’t promote Christian charity. That is not what I am saying at all.  But, the thing I think we need to remember – that is CRUCIAL to remember – about this passage is that simply practicing charity is not where our obligations end. Anyone can feed a hungry person to satisfy their own compulsive needs to feel prideful or accomplished or to decorate their own laurels, but Jesus, as we have seen, is showing us in this passage that the extent to which we serve and sacrifice ourselves ultimately and necessarily needs to emulate Him as he is dying, as he is crucified. This passage is profound because it speaks to our attitude in service – that we do this FOR THE GLORY OF GOD and not our own petty self-interests. And, not only that, but Jesus’ example here calls us to follow him even into the darkest of places...even unto death.
Now, the good news is that most of us are not called to be martyrs every day, nor do I think this passage is telling us to go and flippantly get ourselves idiotic situations for the faith.We don't have to spend two years in Mexico or Africa or wherever. For most of us, in fact, God is going to call us to be servants right in our own homes, in our own churches, in our own neighborhoods, in our own schools, in our own city! He's going to ask us to serve by trying to be better husbands and wives, better neighbors, peacemakers between family and friends, or any number of seemingly "mundane" roles. That's because the question surrounding Christian service is not about the "where" or the "how hard." The question is: why do we serve? Do we do it for the great feeling it gives us or because it checks off our list of religious requirements? NO! Romans 12 says it well when it calls us to be “living sacrifices." That is what this passage, I think, is saying to us, too! Every aspect of our very lives is meant to be lived for the glory of God; we serve each other because, by this, we serve God. And, sometimes, as with Jesus' example, serving others will mean humbling ourselves to the nth degree.
Therefore, it is with the idea of utter humility in service that I must take this opportunity to charge this man and this woman, to CHOOSE, and the choice is of each other – the choice is divine in nature.  In fact, I believe this day and these vows mean nothing without that CHOICE. We have learned in John 13:1-7 that Christ set an example for us to serve to the most humbling degree, and I can tell you from experience that such humility begins in your own home as you serve your spouse and your family. Today, we have seen how John demonstrates over and again that service is a CHOICE. Many times, that service won't "feel" good - in marriage, you'll have to CHOOSE to serve even when you're angry or annoyed or it goes against your immediate happiness; often, you'll have to CHOOSE to serve even when it means humbling yourself, giving all of yourself to serve your spouse. Husband and Wife, Christ convicts us to love the world through service – let that begin in your own home as you wash each others feet.  Christ demands that we follow Him even in to the darkest places (straight into the tomb!)– let your love for each other be that discipline that would bear you on such a steady course. The Bible tells us that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God – let your marriage be that unfailing example which would proclaim such a message to the world.
And since the savior has given us this example of His love, Husband and Wife, serve each other, love each other from the will as well as the heart, and on that cold day when sun and warmth seem like fairy tales and joy farther than the reaches of the cosmos, choose love –choose to serve each other!