7 Questions God Has For You: Do You Understand What I Have Done for You?
Rev. Louis Timberlake
August 7, 2016
John 13:1-15 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
I read a story this past week about Pope Francis. About four months into his tenure, he was preparing for his first trip abroad as the pope. They were at the airport in Rome, about to board the plane to fly to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day. 3.5 million young people from 178 countries were waiting to greet the new pontiff. As they were making final preparations, Pope Francis couldn’t find his briefcase. He asked an aide, “where’s my briefcase?” The aide explained that it had already be taken on board the plane. “But I want to carry it on.” “No need, Your Holiness, it’s already on the plane.” ”You don’t understand. Go to the plane. Get the bag. And bring it back here please.”
The members of the press had already boarded, so they watched out the windows as Pope Francis moved towards the plane. Carrying his black briefcase. This was a story: previous Popes had never carried their own luggage. A little later, during a press conference, one reporter asked him about the briefcase. “What’s in it?” “Well, it’s not the keys to the atomic bomb,” the pope joked. He explained that it contained his razor, his diary, a couple of books. The point wasn’t the contents of the bag. The point that he wanted to make, four months in, was that he felt it was important for him to carry his own bag.
Pope Francis did a couple other odd things at the beginning of his tenure. He traded the papal limousine for a Ford Focus. Instead of living in the luxurious papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace, he lives in a small two room suite of the Vatican Guest House. And, he has been known to sneak out of the guest house in the middle of the night, dressed as a regular priest, in order to go feed and sit with the poor.
I think my favorite story involves his motorcycle. Yes, the pope has a motorcycle--or had a motorcycle. The grandson of the founder of Harley-Davidson gifted Pope Francis with a 110th anniversary Dyna Super Glide. I don’t know anything about motorcycles, but that might mean something to some of you. Anyways, the pope auctioned off the Harley, along with a Harley that had been given to Pope Benedict, for nearly $400,000 and gave the money to charity.
It’s interesting, we hear these stories and we think, wow, that’s incredible–what humility. And then we do the same thing that we do with stories about Mother Teresa or someone else that is famous for their service to others. We allow these examples to become distant, unrealistic. After all, this is the pope. We ascribe them to superhuman levels of humility or commitment. We conceive of these people as so utterly different from each of us that we make it easy to appreciate their examples from afar.
I am fascinated by the story of Pope Francis, because he was not always known as a humble person. As Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he rose quickly in the ranks of the Jesuit religious order, ending up in a significant position of leadership at a young age. And, when he was forced to deal with a number of challenges–some from within the Roman Catholic Church and others from living in South America during the Cold War and the rise of Marxism–he developed a rigid, authoritarian leadership style. He believed that his way was the right way and did not invite the input of others. He finally became so divisive as a leader that his superiors essentially exiled him to a life of scholarship and prayer. And it was transformational.
During this period of introspection and prayer, he began to more fully understand and learn from his mistakes. He made a habit of engaging with others from all walks of life. In particular, he was moved by his interactions with the poor. He began to seek the prayers and guidance of others more deeply and regularly. His disposition changed dramatically. Yet, he knew that deep down, the driven, authoritarian, self-assured tendencies remained. So, he worked hard to cultivate the humility and grace that has defined his papacy so far. He made it a conscious choice. This doesn’t cheapen it. Rather, it recognizes that the pursuit of holiness requires effort. He doesn’t carry his own luggage because he cannot bear the thought of someone else doing so, but because he recognizes that the impact that it has on himself and on others, in that act, is significant.
It’s difficult for us, isn’t it? We live in a society that is so steeped in the Christian tradition that it is awfully difficult to distinguish between the religion of Jesus and the religion of, well, us. It is tempting to mold the Christian faith to fit our convictions and sensibilities. I think about the way that both presidential candidates are vying for votes from people of faith. Both have recruited faith leaders to speak on their behalf and both have faced outspoken criticism from people of faith. It’s really quite amazing how many arguments we have over whether or not someone is truly Christian. I cannot find where Jesus gave us a checklist of the qualifications of a Christian and assigned us the job of drawing those lines. What he did say, though–actually later in this very chapter–is this: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
It sounds nice, doesn’t it? It makes for a good bumper sticker or refrigerator magnet. But, it’s really quite a difficult commandment. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” We use the word love in relatively pithy ways at times, yet, for Jesus, it’s a quite radical thing. Out of love, Jesus spoke out against injustice, subjecting himself to persecution, harassment, and ridicule. Out of love, Jesus challenged the ways that religion was used to oppress, the ways the God was co opted to justify misguided and self-serving desires. Out of love, Jesus gave himself up to torture and execution, so that people might see the sins of the world on display and witness the power of God to overcome even death. Out of love, Jesus–God incarnate–became a servant.
This is particularly difficult for Peter. Peter wants to win; he wants to come out on top. This is not to say he isn’t committed for the right reasons. He is. But, Peter’s one of those guys that just doesn’t tolerate losing well. So, when something threatens Jesus’ movement, Peter is the first one to react. When Jesus foretells his own arrest and death in Matthew’s gospel, Peter takes him aside and begins to rebuke him. “That cannot ever happen!” When the soldiers and priests come to arrest Jesus, Peter grabs his sword and cuts off a guy’s ear. And, when Jesus kneels to wash Peter’s feet, as a lowly servant, Peter jumps up so fast he almost knocks over the basin. “You will never wash my feet! You are our Lord, our Teacher, you shouldn’t be washing feet. What will people think?” Peter is concerned with what this kind of behavior could do to their movement. And Peter wants to win.
But, as Jesus kneels to wash Peter’s feet, he tells him that it’s not about winning. It’s not about power. It’s not about control. It’s not about attracting the most followers. It’s about serving one another. It’s about loving one another.
“Do you understand what I have done for you?” Jesus actually answers his own question, if you keep reading. He says, “You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
There are a lot of models for living well. Many of them are centered around ideas of power, fame, wealth, status. Many of them are about winning. And yet, Jesus’ model is to serve, to give of yourself for the sake of others, to love. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
What is the model that shapes the way you live your life?
What compels you? What guides you?
I think about Pope Francis and the way that he changed to become who he is today. Most of us, to some degree, have stories of personal transformation. And yet, I wonder what needs to change? In my life, in your life, in our community, in our world. Where are things not as they could be? As they should be?
And, as I read this passage, I’m struck by Jesus’ extreme practicality. His desire is to shape disciples that will transform the world with his message of love and redemption. But, he doesn’t get into all of that. He gets on his knees and washes their feet. He serves them. And he gives them these simple instructions, “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
It’s really a very simple question, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” Jesus’ answer is, I’ve loved you, I’ve served you. I’ve given you a clear model for what it means to live well, to live right with God. Now go and do it.”
It isn’t complicated, but it is difficult. Love is not some pithy thing. It does not allow us to remain where we are. It demands something of us. It is a tremendous responsibility. To love as Jesus loves us is to love sacrificially. To love until what we want far less important than what others need. To love like Jesus is to become a servant. And that’s what we are called to be, servants.
- Share a time that you've served someone else or been served by someone else and the impact it had on you.
- Share your thoughts on the importance of humility in following Christ.
- Share an example of societal standards (like who washes whose feet) being contrary to God's standards.
- Share your reaction to Jesus washing even Judas' feet, knowing that Judas would betray him.