Submission to the Servant, John 13:1-17, 7/7/13

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Jul 072013

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

1Now 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. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then 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.


6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ 9Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10Jesus 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.’ 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’


12After 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? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.’ (John 13:1-17, NRSV)



Families all over Jerusalem were gathering to celebrate Passover, the highest, holiest day of the year.  The celebration would commence with great feast, the Passover Seder, a meal packed full of tradition and symbolism.  When children asked what all the excitement was about, parents would tell them a story, a story which had been passed down for ages, generation to generation.


Children would hear about the time 3000 years before when the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt under the brutal rule of Pharaoh.  As the Old Testament book of Exodus records, at just the right time God sent his servant Moses to set His people free.  Through Moses, God sent nine plagues – things like hail, frogs, a river of blood, locusts – to break Pharaoh, but hard-hearted Pharaoh refused to relent.


Finally, God sent a terrible tenth plague, a plague that would bring death to all the first-born in Egypt.  So that they would be spared, the Israelites, on the appointed night, were instructed to slaughter a young and spotless lamb and sprinkle the blood of that lamb on the doorposts of their homes.  That night, when the Spirit of the Lord descended to deliver the tenth plague, the Spirit saw the blood on their doorposts and passed over the Israelite houses, sparing the families the tragedy that befell the rest of Egypt from Pharaoh’s household on down.  That next morning, Pharaoh finally relented and after 400 years of slavery, let God’s people go.


This was the story told in every Jewish home that Passover night, a story ever Jewish child came to know by heart.  Whether they knew it or not, it was an old story God was using to prepare them for something new he was about to do.  3000 years before, salvation came to Israel after innocent blood was shed causing death to pass over them.  Now, in a far more profound and far-reaching way, innocent blood was again about to be shed, this time to save the whole world from death.


Somewhere in Jerusalem that night, the one they called the Lamb of God gathered with his disciple to celebrate the Passover feast.  John tells us that Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go on to the Father.  In other words, there is nothing spontaneous about what is taking place here.  The events that are about to unfold had been planned for time and eternity in the mind of God.  Jesus knows exactly what he is doing.  Jesus is moving towards the cross with laser-focused intention and purpose and love.


John describes what Jesus is about to do this way: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”  In my view, you will not find any more beautiful words in the entire Bible than these words.  In his death, Jesus showed us the end of love, the full extent of love, love as deep as love can go.


You may remember that last March there was a massive snowstorm in northern Japan which claimed the lives of nine people.  One of the dead was a man named Mikio Okada.  Mr. Okada and his young daughter were driving home the afternoon of the storm when their truck became stuck in the snow.  Stranded, they left the vehicle to seek shelter but the heavy winds and snows, plus the freezing temperatures, made it nearly impossible to travel by foot.  Out of options, Mr. Okada was forced to seek shelter by crouching against the outer wall of a warehouse.  In desperation he took off his jacket and put it over his daughter, and then used his own body to shield the little girl as best he could.  That next morning, when rescuers found his body, they also found his daughter, 9-year-old Natsune Okada, alive and sheltered in her father’s arms.[1]


The end of love for a parent is to willingly die for your child.  There is no greater act of love a mother or father could show to a son or daughter.  That is the end of love for a parent but it is not, however, the end of love.  You see, dying for one you love and for one who loves you is not the end of love.  The end of love, rather, is dying for one who does not love you, one who stands against you, one even who would like to see you die.  Dying for a loved one shows great love.  Dying for an enemy shows the greatest love, and as Paul wrote in Romans 5:8, “God proves his love for us in this, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[2]


Jesus is about to die for those who will abandon him and deny him.  He is about to die for one who has already plotted to betray him by handing him over to those who seek to put him to death.  This is the end of love.  Love does not go deeper than the love we see displayed in the sacrifice of God’s Son on the cross for those who stood against him.


This love is all the more astounding as we consider what John points out here in verse three.  Jesus, he tells us, knew that all things, all authority, had been given to him.  All authority in heaven, all authority in earth, had been placed in his hands.  Among other things, this means that Jesus chose to do what he did.


What do you do when authority is placed in your hands?  Which of you were, like me, the oldest in your family growing up?  Can you remember the first time that your parents left and put you in complete charge of your younger siblings?  I remember, and let me tell you that was a glorious, glorious day.  At last I was in charge.  Finally, I had the authority to do exactly what I had always wanted to do, which was to make certain that my younger brother had everything that he needed to be happy and healthy.  Immediately I released him of the tyranny of our parents and by cleaning his room and doing his chores for him so he could go out and play.  Finally in charge of the television, I decided we would only watch the shows he wanted to watch.  Ruler of the kitchen, I made sure that it was he, instead of me, who got the biggest slice of cake for dessert that day.  I took my authority and I willingly and joyfully used it for the benefit of my little brother.


Now, if you were to talk to him today, my brother, oddly enough, has a very different memory of the events of that day.  I’ll let you be the judge of who has it right.


Absolute authority corrupts absolutely.  Human tendency is to take authority given us and to use that authority in service of our own interests.  This is not something we have to be taught to do; it’s just in us, even as children.  In contrast, what does Jesus do with authority when given to him?  It’s radical when you see it.  Jesus uses his authority not to raise his position but to lower it.  Of course, he would have been completely justified if he had taken his authority and used it to wrap himself in the robe of a king and forced his disciples to kneel at his feet.  But no, he uses his authority to wrap himself in the towel of a slave and kneels, instead, at their feet.


Now, from our modern perspective there is something quaint about Jesus’ decision to wash the feet of his disciples.  Make no mistake, there was nothing quaint about it for the disciples.  You see, people in those days traveled mostly by foot and so even if they bathed before they left home, by the time they arrived at their destination their sandaled feet would have been filthy.  Not only would they have been covered with dust, but the roads in those days were also full of animal waste and even human excrement which was simply tipped out of houses into the street.


You can see why footwashing was the job of slaves in those days, usually female slaves.  Footwashing, in fact, came to be synonymous with slavery.  A person of upright standing, especially a respected rabbi, would never wash another’s feet.  Never.  In fact, there is no existing parallel anywhere in ancient literature, Jewish or otherwise, of any person of superior status voluntarily washing the feet of someone of inferior status.[3]  What makes this particular example so stunning is that in Jesus we have not simply a figure of authority, but the very Son of God, God himself, the one with sovereignty over the whole cosmos, taking on the role of a common slave.


One by one, Jesus works his way around the table washing the feet of his disciples.  We can only imagine the awkward, stunned silence that must have filled the room.  With the exception of Jesus, nobody was comfortable with the way this Passover feast was unfolding.


Try and imagine if somebody for whom you have great reverence, somebody you look up to with deep respect, came to stay as a guest in your home.  Then imagine that after dinner one night you go down the hall to see if your guest needs anything that can make him more comfortable and you discover your honored guest on his hands and knees in your bathroom cleaning your toilet.  How would you respond?  Would you say, “Thank you, Mr. Mandela.  Boy, that toilet really needed cleaning and I appreciate you taking care of it.  While you’re down there, would you mind scrubbing out the tub as well?”  Of course not!  You would be mortified!  No way would you stand by and let such a thing happen.


When Jesus finally gets around to Peter, Peter does what he always does.  Peter says exactly what everybody else is thinking.  Peter says what you would have been thinking.  “Lord, you don’t think you’re going to wash my feet do you?  No way.  I will never, never in a million years, let you wash my feet!”


Now, we know that Peter is in the wrong here because we read the rest of the story already and we have heard Jesus reprimand him.  Before we’re too hard on Peter, however, let’s understand that he is simply acting the way most of us, if not all of us, act much of the time.  If there is one thing I have learned in my 20+ years of working in the church it’s that churches are filled with people who are so often willing to serve others and at the same time so often unwilling to let others serve them.  Like most of you, I like to help other people but I don’t much like to let other people help me.


What is it about us, us and Peter?  Well, partly I think it’s that we don’t much like to be indebted to one another.  It’s why we are also so insistent about returning a favor done to us by somebody else.  It’s why I’ll only let you take me out to lunch if you promise to let me pick up the bill next time.  It’s why when somebody gives you a Christmas gift you feel you must rush out and buy something for them in return.  It’s why when we have no way to adequately repay a person for their kindness we feel so uncomfortable about receiving it.  There is a pride-filled indebtedness that corrupts the kindness and generosity of others who serve us and expect nothing in return.  And this is all just made worse by the fact that we don’t like to admit when we need help in the first place.  To admit that we need to be served by another requires us to swallow our pride in humility and pride, on the way down, doesn’t taste all that good to us.


Jesus says to us as he says to Peter, “Listen, you just don’t get it.  And even when you do get it, right away you forget it.  Unless I wash you,” he says to Peter, “you have no share with me.”  What’s he saying?  This is what Jesus is saying.  Unless we are willing to receive the Son of God as a slave, as one who comes to humbly serve us, we will have no part in the life which he comes to bring.


This is where the Christian Gospel sharply distinguishes itself from religion.  You see, religion teaches us that we must somehow make ourselves worthy before God so that God will then grant us something in return, such as salvation, heaven, blessing, reward, status, health, and so on.  You see, religion is all about indebtedness.  We do good and then God owes us.


The Gospel, on the other hand, is all about grace.  The Christian Gospel declares that there is nothing you can do to put God in your debt.  Nothing.  The Gospel is Jesus, God Himself, coming to us in the midst of our filthy mess and unworthiness, when we have absolutely nothing to offer in return, and in spite of it all Christ bends down as our slave to serve us and make us clean.  The Gospel is simply receiving in humility this gift from God and if you are going to have a share with Christ in the abundant and eternal life he came to bring, you must let Jesus be your Lord and your Savior by letting him be your servant.


This is what we must do but it is not easy.  I mean, isn’t it we who are supposed to serve Christ?  He is God, after all.  We are his servants, not the other way around.  And of course, ultimately, this is true.  We are called to serve Christ.  But it is always his service which precedes our service.  Furthermore, our service does not earn his service, nor does it come as payback, as if we could ever pay God back anyway.  Our service, rather, is simply a response of love towards one who has already loved us to the end.


Again, this is hard.  As one writer put it, “[Letting Christ be our servant] is hard on our pride, but [in the end] it is medicine for the submitting…soul.”[4]  We simply do not deserve to be served, especially by Christ.  Even so, you must give in and let Jesus serve you, let him forgive you, and wash you, and claim you, and adopt you, and save you simply because he wants to.  That is the choice Jesus puts to Peter and, in doing so, puts to us.  “Let me wash you,” he says.  “For unless I wash you, have no share with me.”


As we just read, Peter does become willing to let Jesus wash his feet.  Only now he has doubts that having his feet clean will be enough.  “Okay, Lord,” he relents, “but not my feet only, also my hands and my head!”  And once again we see ourselves in Peter.  Once again we see just how hard it is for us to simply receive the grace of Christ.


I’ve been in church nearly my whole life.  From the time I was a young boy, I have read in the Bible and had it explained to me more times than I could possibly count that Jesus’ death on the cross and subsequent resurrection from the dead were absolutely sufficient to completely cleanse me from my sins and elevate me to the status of a beloved son of God who will live eternally in his favor.  I have heard this message of the Gospel time and time again.  And I believe it…for other people.  But I have to be honest with you and say that sometimes I struggle to believe it for myself.  Certainly there must be something else that is required from me.  There must be some way I need to prove myself worthy.  No gift, especially a gift so priceless, could come so freely to one so undeserving.  I know what Christ did for me on the cross but sometimes I’m just not sure it’s enough.


I know many of you are in the same place.  I know because I’ve talked to you.  In counseling many people in the church over the years, the one verse in all of scripture which I quote more than any other verse is Romans 8:1 which reads, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.”  I come back to this verse again and again because when I listen to people I so often recognize that they do not yet fully believe this to be true.  I quote it to myself for the same reason.  Zero condemnation now!  How hard this is for all of us to accept.


And Jesus responds, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.”  He says to us, in other words, “Trust me, it is enough.  My grace is enough.  Your sin is deep, yes.  My grace and my love are deeper still.  Far deeper.  Even for you.  Let me wash you in the way I choose to wash you and then trust me that you will be made entirely clean.”


Will you let Jesus serve you and will you trust that what he has done for you is enough?


After washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus puts back on his robe and returns to the table.  He has just given his disciples a parable, one that was acted out instead of spoken.  Now he is going to explain the parable.  It’s too important and he wants to make sure they get it.  Listen again to his words.  If you can, let Christ speak them to you.


‘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. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.


Christ is a king, the King of Kings.  But because Jesus is so far above us, we can tend to imagine that when we submit to him we are submitting to a King who comes to rule over us.  How hard it is then to come to grips with the fact that when we submit to Christ we submit to a King who comes first to serve beneath us.


If we submitted to a king who was lifting himself up above us, it would almost be natural for us to assume our loyalty to such a king would lift us up as well.  In the political world, people all the time attach themselves to leaders who are gaining more power and prestige in hopes that in doing so they, in turn, will also gain more power and prestige.  Attach yourself to a rising star and you will rise as well.


In Christ, however, we submit to a King who turns everything around and upside down.  Christ lifts himself up by lowering himself down.  Greatness, for Christ, is found in humility and sacrifice.  The last beneath all is the first above all.  When authority is granted he does not first require people to bow down but instead first bows down himself.  So if Jesus, who is so much higher than we are, becomes a servant and loves people, even his enemies, to the end of love, then to follow Jesus means that we must be ready to let him teach us to do the same.  “No servant,” as Jesus says, “is greater than his master.  No messenger is greater than the one who sent her.”


This is why Jesus always demands that our relationship to him has everything to do with our relationship to others.  If you submit to a King who has become a servant to all, you yourself will eventually become a servant to all.  If you love God with all of yourself you cannot help but come to love others God loves as you love yourself.  As you receive the undeserved forgiveness of God you will extend that undeserved forgiveness to others.  The fact is, if you never humble yourself enough to allow Jesus to be your servant you will never then allow Jesus to be your Lord.  You will never then become the sort of servant God has made you to be and you will, in the end, have missed the whole Kingdom of Heaven which itself completely revolves around this ethic of selfless love.  On the other hand, the more you live into the reality of what Christ has done and wants to do as your servant, the more your hearts is set free to, without even thinking about it, love and serve Christ and, after his pattern, love and serve those he loves.


I would go as far as to say that the success of this church, like any church, depends ultimately on one thing.  Not money, or political power, or cultural influence, or sophisticated technology, or big buildings, or creative programs, or superior organization, or inspired preaching or music.  None of this.  The church, this church, will only thrive in the ways God has called us to thrive when we humble ourselves enough to let Jesus become our servant so that we can be transformed ourselves into servants to another and, ultimately, to those in the world around us.  If you do not let Jesus wash your feet you never become the sort of person who washes the feet of others which means that nobody will ever mistake you for a disciple of Jesus.[5]


Once again, all this begins when you do the Lord the honor of believing his promises here instead of believing your conscience, your merit, your deserving.[6]  All this begins when we let Christ serve us and make us clean and receive, in faith, his declaration that we are, by his grace, completely and forever clean.






The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application



Read John 13:1-17.  What stands out for you from this remarkable story?


Why do you think Peter was so resistant to Jesus washing his feet?


Are you willing to allow Jesus to be your servant?  Why or why not?


What do you need Jesus to “wash” in you?


Why are people in the church generally more willing to serve others than they are willing to allow others to serve them?  What’s going on here?


Is it always important for leaders to become servants?  Why is this often so difficult to do?


Are you a person who naturally serves others, often placing yourself in the lower position?


A writer named Gerald Sittser describes Jesus vision for the church this way: “Jesus envisioned a community of disciples who would dare to move downward instead of upward, to retreat from ambition so that others could get ahead.”  What do you think?  Does this describe the community at Faith Presbyterian Church?



Suggested Scriptures for the Week: Taken from the Seeking God’s Face resource our church is using daily.

Monday:                               Psalm 121 ~ Acts 8:1-8

Tuesday:                               Psalm 122 ~ Acts 9:1-6, 17-19

Wednesday:                         Psalm 123 ~ Acts 10:9-16

Thursday:                             Psalm 124 ~ Acts 10:19-24, 34-35, 44-46

Friday:                                   Psalm 125 ~ Acts 15:1-2, 6-11

Saturday:                              Psalm 126 ~ Acts 17:16-17, 22-31

Sunday:                                 Psalm 127 ~ Romans 1:16-23

[2] NRSV.

[3] Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), p. 762.

[4] Bruner, p. 766.  His commentary on this passage provided some great inspiration to this particular part of the sermon.

[5] I was helped here some by Gerald Sittser, Love One Another, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), chapter 7.

[6] Dale Bruner says something like this.