Why are you even here?
It’s a question every one of us should be asking ourselves constantly, because otherwise, life slips by and children grow up and it’s all over. A few weeks ago in our gospel, Jesus talked about using him while he was here. In John 12:35, it says: “you only have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you.” If we translate that into metaphorical terms, we can extrapolate that Jesus is trying to build the new church before he is crucified. It is as if he is pleading with them to listen, but they are so full of their daily lives that they cannot see Jesus’ vision….. even though they’re trying. He’s just one of those guys that whenever you talk to him, you come away with more questions than answers. Even today, most of Jesus’ parables are thought of as thousand-word jigsaw puzzles, which is why there are still theologians duking it out on a daily basis. The disciples argued amongst themselves in the same way after Jesus was gone, because the darkness had indeed overtaken them and they wished they’d been more attentive.
However, we’re not there yet. Jesus is still alive, trying to see his vision implemented, and he has a very clear idea of his management style. We’re in the Upper Room with Jesus, where Passover is going on around them. This is a quiet, intimate celebration with just the 13 of them…. the original posse, gathering into themselves. The Disciples do not know that it is their last Passover with the physical Jesus, but he does. The pericope for today begins with him:
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.
It seems to me that if you are looking closely for the heart of Jesus, you’ve found it. These words are sticking with me today…. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. This is not about anyone but the 12 people who voluntarily stopped everything they were doing and said, “yes, I will follow you.” Not only that, they stuck with him while everyone else thought that he was crazy. When he was crucified, people put a sign on his cross that laughingly, sarcastically called him “the King of the Jews.” People SPAT on him. Ultimately, though, who’s loss was that? Jesus did not need those people to believe him. He needed his FRIENDS to believe in him, and that everything else would flow from it. In a very, very real sense, the Disciples served as his defensive line. Jesus is in his bubble. You don’t get to see Jesus. Have some wine.
Because of this, he knows he is indebted to them in a way that he cannot repay. They don’t have any money to speak of. They beg wherever they go. So, in a way, if I had to guess at Jesus’ thought process, it was that he could still give them the gift of himself, because in a way, isn’t that all we have to give?
He takes off his outer robe and kneels at the Disciples’ feet, and you have to understand the context. This is not a time in which people bathed regularly. This is not a time when people generally wore protective shoes for travel. When you are talking about washing someone’s feet in a time like that, you are not lightly wiping. It is hard work, because you are taking off the dust of other times and spaces. It is in this moment that I identify with Jesus the most, because I fall down on the job all the time, but this is the type person that I want to be…. the ideal version of myself that doesn’t hesitate to drop everything and serve when it is clear that I am needed.
That is exactly the mindset he wishes to instill in the Disciples….. leading by example because as the leader with not much time left, he has to prepare the next generation. Has to teach them how to be Christ in the world after the Ascension. Has to go through the pain and suffering and betrayal, knowing that there’s not a damn thing he can do to change the outcome. What is it possible to do in the time we have left?
Show them how to use power with, instead of power over. He doesn’t order everyone to take off their outer tunics. He takes off his. He doesn’t demand that the Disciples wash his feet, he gets a cloth and water himself. You don’t lead people from the front. You encourage them to desire to want to serve you, and there’s a big difference between people who want to follow you and people who feel like they’ve been swindled into it because they love you and don’t want to disappoint. Think of it as the difference between being drafted and choosing to enlist. I have never been in the military, but I would imagine that your outlook on it would be different if that is the life you could voluntarily choose, instead of having it chosen for you.
Jesus takes the power given to him by the Holy Spirit and uses it not to lord, but to serve. He is worthy of praise and glory not because he demands your agreement. Jesus is worthy of praise and glory because that is the life you chose…. you serve him because HE SERVED YOU FIRST.
Tonight as you go to church, what will your agreement with Jesus say to you? Will you acknowledge that you serve him because he serves you? Do you see the way that Jesus serves you, or do you only see the ways in which you serve him? Following Jesus tends to take on three basic personalities:
- The Maid
- Constantly serves Christ, but filled with unworthiness, so the love between the self and the Christ is a one way street, one blind to the other. Capable of giving so much, and does… without remembering all of the ways that Christ takes care of them, too. If you think that this is outdated language, think of all the times you’ve served your friends without expecting repayment, because you don’t think you’re worth it, anyway. They get the most out of you, and you get seething resentment because the relationship is so unequal. Think Martha of Bethany, who complained that her sister wasn’t working enough when Jesus and the Disciples crashed at her house. Martha was giving of herself, not realizing that there was just as much in store for her if she stopped working and joined the rest of the group.
- The Mechanic
- Consistently tries to see both sides of an issue because surely there’s a fixit somewhere. They ruminate on facts, trying to put the puzzle pieces together of any problem anywhere. Generally in the middle of the theological spectrum, because to take one side or the other definitively is to declare loyalty, which is detrimental to objectivity, their main strength in the body of Christ. These followers generally allow for tremendous artistic growth in a church, because they are happy to run the business side of things. Someone has to keep count of how much is in the treasury and if we have money for grape juice and challah (Holla!). They are consistently under-appreciated, because the work they do in a church goes virtually unnoticed. Because of this, I have a drive to exalt them, because other churches aren’t so great about remembering that managing the books and making sure that the bills get paid IS serving a church, with gladness and singleness of heart. Remember that Thomas, even though he doubted Jesus’ bodily resurrection, wasn’t being a jackass. He was just a different personality, and as you can tell, Jesus invited Thomas to check out whatever facts he needed.
- The Martyr
- My Palm/Passion sermon re-framed the classic image of the word “martyr” in my mind. The classic interpretation of a martyr personality has become warped over time, so that they look needy in life, instead of what they actually are- the sacrificial lambs of our time. Unlike Biblical literalists, I do not believe in competitive suffering. I do not believe that what Jesus suffered was any more or less traumatic than any of the other people crucified that day. I do not believe that Jesus suffered more than the Jews during WWII in Nazi Germany. I do not believe that Jesus suffered more than the Cambodians under Pol Pot, or the Ugandans under Idi Amin. Martyrdom is when you go against the grain, knowing that something bad could happen, but putting it away. If it is the focus of their thoughts, their productivity wanes. The Martyr functions best in a “honey badger don’t care” kind of way, because to give up their power is to render them useless. Martyrs believe that they can change things through their lives, not by dying. It is just unfortunate that the more people who are moved by your words, the more people there are who become dissatisfied with your style of leadership…. which sometimes ends in tragedy.
Of these three types of Christians, where do you fall? Actually, even if you are not a Christian, can you identify your personality in any of these types? I think we all fluctuate between the three, but in serving Christ we have the ability to become martyrs ourselves, but not in the classic “she’d be fine if there was someone to stop by and wipe the blood off her cross every day” kind of way. That kind of martyr is self-obsessed, while real martyrs are too busy thinking about the ways in which they want to change the world to notice that others are unhappy with them. Martyr is a badge of honor for serving something in which you believe until death. I have talked before about living in darkness because you want to; this is just such an occasion. If you serve a sin, you’ll reap a lot of them. If you serve a mission, you’ll reap a lot of them. It is your choice. This is not to bag on Atheists in the slightest, because it does not require God to know whether you are serving darkness or not… because ultimately, this is not about God. This is about you.
The thing that we ask ourselves in this Holy Week is if we have the power to be that brave. Do we have the power to ignore outside influences to create the dreams that the Spirit will endow IF ASKED? When they wash your feet tonight, remember that they are choosing to serve you. What are you going to do to serve them in return? Lead from the back. Trust that your defensive line will be able to protect you. You have your friends that you will love until death. Those are the people whose opinion desperately matters, because if you have the will to wash others’ feet and the will to lead with soft power, you are literally living in Christ’s name all day long. So be brave. Be BOLD. If there’s anything in the pericope that encourages bravery, it’s that leadership doesn’t have to be top-down. Sometimes the people raise you up.