John 13:1-17, 31b-35
In his book, The Journey: How to Live by Faith in an Uncertain World, Billy Graham recounts an incident from his long evangelistic ministry. He and some of the members of his team were invited to a remote and mountainous area of India called Nagaland. As Graham tells it:
“Nagaland has one of the largest concentrations of Christians in India...the occasion [for our visit] was the one-hundredth anniversary of the coming of missionaries to that area. Tens of thousands came to the celebration--some walking for days over rough jungle trails. One hundred thousand people, we were told, would be gathering each morning for a Bible study, in addition to the evening evangelistic meetings.”
He goes on to say: “When we arrived at Government House, where we were to stay, a man unloaded our baggage from the car, then took our shoes to wipe mud off them. I protested, saying we could do that, but he insisted. Only later did I discover that he would be leading the Bible study for those one hundred thousand people the next morning!”
“Here,” Billy Graham concludes, “was a man who truly exemplified the attitude of Christ by his humility and his willingness to serve others.”
On the first Maundy Thursday, Jesus, “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself...poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”
One of those disciples, Peter, had already confessed that Jesus was “the Christ [God’s Anointed One].” And He also confessed Jesus to be “the Son of the Blessed.” That second title indicated that Peter saw that Jesus was one with God the Father.
So, here was God, washing the feet of His disciples, servant’s work, and Peter didn’t like it. You may remember from our Lenten readings the insight of Richard Foster into why Peter didn’t like Jesus crawling around on the floor to wash filthy feet. Peter’s initial refusal to let Jesus wash his feet, Foster says, “was an act of veiled pride. Jesus’ service was an affront to Peter’s concept of authority. If Peter had been the master, he would not have washed Jesus’ feet!”
During this Lenten season, we have focused on Jesus’ call to be servants of God and of our neighbors. The logo for these 40-Days to Servanthood is inspired by this incident from that Maundy Thursday when Jesus gave His disciples a command to love others as He had loved them and then showed them that true love and true greatness are about the willingness to serve.
But I have to confess something to you again tonight. It’s something I mentioned at the very beginning of this Lenten season and in spite of all my study and prayer, it’s still the way I feel: I would like to be a servant. I know that’s Jesus’ way. I know that a life of service to God and to others is the appropriate response of a person saved from sin and death by Jesus Christ. I know that I have a place in God’s kingdom because of what Jesus did for me on the cross and because I believe in Jesus. I know that love so great given so freely deserves my surrender. But it’s hard to surrender. I realize that in my sinful heart, I’d rather be served than be a servant.
By contrast, on the first Maundy Thursday, on the brink of His suffering and death, with every reason in the world to be turned in on Himself and filled with self-pity, Jesus served His disciples, faced His cross, drew strength from the Father, and commanded each of us to love just like He loves.
How do we do that? How can we be servants when everything inside of us and all the warped values of a selfish world fight against it?
First: We admit that both the sin on the inside of us and the selfishness we find so appealing in the world are too big for us to overcome. We admit that while we want to be servants, another part of us doesn’t want that at all. We pray like the man who sought healing for his child from Jesus: “Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.” “Lord, I do want to be a surrendered servant; help the rebel in me.”
Second: We rely completely on the God revealed first to Israel and ultimately, in Jesus Christ. A few years ago, a young man from New England, in the beginning phases of recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, happened on my blog and contacted me. After we’d been corresponding for several months, he wrote to me to say that he sensed a call to a particular area of service, helping others to recover from their addictions. He said that he sensed this call even though he had never been religious and wasn’t even certain what he believed about God.
Several weeks later, for reasons he couldn’t explain, he was walking down a street in his home city and felt drawn into a church where worship was happening. He later wrote to tell me about it. “I think I’m beginning to get it, Mark,” he said.
One week later, he made a presentation to some addicts taking their first tentative steps down the path to recovery. He wrote that he was frightened and yet at peace about it. He also said that he was relying on the God he was just beginning to get, but who, I could see, had been reaching out to him all along.
So, to be servants when everything inside of us and everything around us tells us to look out for number one, we must first, admit that the call to servanthood is too big for us to meet and second, rely completely on Christ. And there’s a third thing we need to do: We need to dare to serve.
On that night when He was betrayed, sitting with His disciples, Jesus could have simply told them to love. But Jesus wasn’t one of those, “Do as I say, not do as I do” preachers. He lived the love He commanded. He not only washed dirty feet and instituted Holy Communion, which allows us to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” He also left that room to face kangaroo justice, violent beating, hateful rejection, and a painful death on a cross. Jesus’ love was more than mere words. He dared to live it. He served. He served each one of us and every member of the human race.
And He calls us to love and to serve others in the same way, a fitting response to His love and service, a powerful way to demonstrate what happens when imperfect people like you and me rely on the perfect Christ and let His goodness and power work in us and through us.
The Savior Whose death we will remember tomorrow and Whose rising we will celebrate on Sunday has so much that He wants to accomplish in and through you and me. All of it can happen...
- when we admit the sin inside us and around us is too big an impediment for us to be servants without His help;
- when we rely completely on Jesus Christ; and
- when, fortified by the power of God’s Spirit, Christ’s gift to all believers, we simply dare to serve.