This sermon is based on John 13:1-7, 31b-35.
The Suffering Servant
It was the night before the crucifixion. The Nth hour. The last meal that Jesus would have with his closest disciples. And the disciples still didn’t get it.
For some time now, Jesus had been telling the twelve that the Messiah was going to have to die. Jesus was not going to be the conquering hero Messiah that so many people had expected. Jesus was going to be the Suffering Servant Messiah. But the disciples still didn’t get it.
On this evening, Judas would leave the company of his closest companions in order to hand Jesus over to the authorities. We don’t really know why Judas betrayed Jesus. His motives are not directly recorded in any Gospel. But I wonder if Judas had hoped to force Jesus’ hand. I wonder if Judas reckoned that, confronted with a situation where they had to fight or die, Jesus would be forced to defend himself and, in the process, become a military Messiah.
I don’t think for one moment that Judas counted on Jesus actively choosing to die.
And then there is Peter. “Never at any time will you wash my feet!” Peter said to Jesus. Peter didn’t seem to want a suffering servant for a Messiah either Or maybe this simply wasn’t even a model of Messiahship that he was able to grasp. After all, Jesus said that Peter wouldn’t actually understand the foot-washing until “later”. Until after Jesus’ resurrection.
Judas and Peter still didn’t get it.
The thing is, if you are going to have a relationship with Jesus, you have to be prepared for him to do things his way.
Servanthood, not Heroics
There are a number of ways to look at this story if you are a preacher.
The first way is to look at this story as being about how Christian leaders should be servants in their communities and then to elaborate on servant leadership. This way of reading the story comes with a time-honoured Maundy Thursday liturgy where the priest or bishop washes the feet of the congregation.
The second way to look at this story is to concentrate on the new commandment at the end of the reading. We could elaborate on how Jesus commanded us to love others as he has loved us.
But these are not new teachings and they are not unique to this last day in Jesus’ life.
Over and over in the Gospels we have heard that the last will be first and the first will be last. Over and over in the Gospels we have heard that we are to love others as God has loved us. It’s partly because I feel like I’ve bored for England over the last seven months on these two topics that I’ve chosen not to elaborate on them tonight!
For me, I think that it’s interesting that John uses the story of the foot-washing in place of the story of the Last Supper. I don’t think it’s because John does not value the story or the practise of the Lord’s Supper. After all, this is the evangelist who takes pains to tell us that Jesus is the Bread of Life and the True Vine.
My suspicion is that John tells us this story in order emphasise that Jesus’ ministry is one of servanthood and that it’s not about being a conquering hero. I think it’s because John wants to emphasise to us that following in the way of Jesus means following a path where all our worldly values are turned upside down.
If you are going to have a relationship with Jesus, you have to be prepared for him to do things his way.
Jesus' Death is Central
There is “something” about Jesus’ servanthood and his dying that is vitally important to the Good News of the Gospel. As human beings, the faithful people of the Church Universal have struggled for centuries to express this “something”: Jesus’ death paid a debt that our sin got us into, Jesus’ death was a victory over sin, Jesus’ death set a moral example, Jesus’ death was the complete and final temple sacrifice.
All these are ways of trying to express something inexpressible: that there is “something” about Jesus’ death that brought salvation into the world. There is something about his death that changed the fabric of existence for all eternity.
Jesus’ eleven closest disciples on earth would not understand – could not understand – the centrality of Jesus’ death until after his resurrection.
But however familiar we are with the concept that “Jesus died for our sins”, it is vitally important to grasp what a scandal his death was. It is vitally important to grasp what a scandal his servanthood was. It is vitally important to understand that The Way of Jesus turns reality-as-the-world-knows-it upside down.
But, if you are going to have a relationship with Jesus, you have to be prepared for him to do things his way.
There is a part of us that – like Simon Peter – does not want a servant saviour. We want a strong saviour. If not a saviour who kills his enemies, then at the very least a saviour who tells them off and punishes them. We want a God who applauds when we cut off the ear of his enemies, not a God who heals those whom our sword has wounded. We want a God who punishes his enemies and who lets us off the hook, a God who brings justice to his enemies and grace and mercy to us.
What we don’t want is a God who kneels at the feet of the both the guilty and the innocent and washes them.
But if we are going to have a relationship with Jesus, we have to be prepared for him to do things his way.