During Sundays in the Lenten season as we bring our offerings to the altar, we often pray: “Almighty God, you gave your Son both as a sacrifice for sin and a model of the godly life…”
Of course, what’s most important about Jesus is not the life He models. You and I could repeatedly resolve that we are going to live like Jesus...and repeatedly fail.
Not that people haven’t tried. In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin, a deist who didn’t really believe in the God revealed in Jesus, decided to live his life around a set righteous virtues he had identified. Franklin wrote each of these virtues on the top of a piece of paper and gathered them in a small book. His plan was to conquer one virtue, then move to the next, conquering it, and so on. He never conquered the first one.
Without realizing it perhaps, Franklin had learned the truth of the apostle Paul’s words in Romans 7: “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19) Paul concludes: “Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (Romans 7:20) In other words, we cannot live a godly life in our own power.
When we try, we seem to get in the way.
Some of you know that last year, I was losing the weight I needed to shed. But more recently, I’ve been eating too much and putting weight back on. God’s Word says that our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). That means that the abuse to which I subject my body is a spiritual issue. It’s a sin issue.
Right now, I must report, that as it relates to the food I’m putting into my body, sin is winning out.
And why has this happened? Because I took my eyes off of Jesus.
To be sure, I took Jesus as an example of the godly life because Jesus was always self-disciplined in the use of His mind and body. I also became subtly proud of my virtuous self-discipline.
I forgot what Jesus tells all who want to follow Him: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:5-6)
The point? If we see Jesus only or even primarily as our example as we set out to lead virtuous lives, we will fall on our faces every time.
We need help.
We need Jesus.
We need Him infinitely less as a model of the godly life than we need Him as the definitive sacrifice for our sin.
We need His righteousness because we are completely unrighteous.
We need His goodness, because God alone is good.
That’s why Jesus does and says things in the order in which He does and says them in tonight’s Maundy Thursday gospel lesson.
John is the most sacramentally minded of the four gospel writers. He begins his account of Jesus' earthly ministry with Jesus' first miracle, turning water into wine, pointing to the two sacraments, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. He draws the curtain on Jesus' pre-resurrection earthly ministry with a soldier piercing Jesus' side and water and blood emanating from the wound, again pointing to Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
Yet in recounting events on Maundy Thursday, John doesn’t talk about Holy Communion, which Jesus instituted on that night. Instead, he focuses on three things from the events of Maundy Thursday:
- Jesus washing the feet of His disciples;
- Jesus telling the disciples to serve each other similarly;
- Jesus giving a new commandment, the only new commandment Jesus ever gave.
During the course of the meal, Jesus ate with His disciples, got up, stripped down to nothing but a towel wrapped around His waist, and prepared to wash the disciples’ feet, starting with Peter’s. You’ve lived through enough Maundy Thursdays to know that washing people’s feet in the first century AD was the work of servants. It seems to get mentioned in every Maundy Thursday sermon.
But feet were seen predominantly in two ways in that culture.
One was to look on them with revulsion, encrusted as they were with dirt from walking in sandals through the sand and rocks of Judea.
The other was to regard feet as euphemistic representations of the most private places of the human body. This is what’s behind the otherwise cryptic passage of Ruth 3:14, which tells us that: “So [Ruth] lay at [Boaz’s] feet until morning, but got up before anyone could be recognized; and he said, ‘No one must know that a woman came to the threshing floor.’"
So, Jesus washing the feet of His disciples was not just an act of selfless servanthood, but also one of loving intimacy, the Bridegroom serving His Bride, the Church.
And Jesus points to His washing of the disciples’ feet as symbolizing the great act of servanthood and love that He’s about to accomplish at the cross. “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand,” Jesus tells Peter who, at first protests Jesus’ intention of washing the disciples’ feet.
Hebrews 10 tells us that through Christ’s act of servanthood and love on the cross, all who believe in Him “have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10)
And, Hebrews says that, through this sacrifice, we have an advocate for eternity: “...when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:12-14)
Baptized believers in Christ are washed clean of their sin. That's why Jesus says that we don't need to be completely rewashed of our sin again and again; once we have been born as children of God in Baptism, we only need to come again to God in the name of the Lord in which we have been baptized to repent and be renewed as God's people.
Each time we repent and trust Christ with our sins and our lives, remembering that we are baptized into His death and resurrection, Jesus cleans us again from the grime of sin and death that’s always dogging us and attaching itself to us in this life.
Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for our sin and when we trust in Him, He takes up residence within us. We experience what Paul talks about in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Martin Luther may have had this passage in mind when he said: "When [the devil] comes knocking at the door of my heart, and asks, ‘Who lives here?’ Jesus goes to the door and says, 'Martin Luther used to live here, but he has moved out. Now I leave here.'”
After pointing to His cross, Jesus gives us two commands, one a re-expression of the Old Testament law regarding hospitality, the other a totally new law with Jesus.
Command one: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:17) In other words, Jesus is telling us, “Serve as I have served you. Without thought to your status in the world, or to how humbling it may be.”
Command two: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) In other words, Jesus is telling us, “Love your sisters and brothers in the faith sacrificially just as I have loved you.”
It’s no accident that Jesus gives these two commands after pointing to the cross, because it’s only after taking up residence in our lives through our faith in Him that Jesus can change the ways we live, the ways we respond to our neighbors.
Jesus may be an example for godly or wholesome living to the whole world, Christian and non-Christian alike; but unless Jesus lives in us and powers us, we cannot lead godly lives.
On Monday, I drove to Cincinnati, where God allowed me to administer Holy Baptism to Jameson, the little guy for whom we’ve been praying through his three years of life, and his older brother, Jackson.
After getting back to Dayton, I went to Columbus to be with my mom and my family at a hospital ICU, where mom died on Tuesday morning.
To tell you the truth, my thoughts weren't prone to focus on the homeless guy standing at the freeway off-ramp that day.
And the Old Mark battled with the Lord Jesus Who has taken up residence in my life. “Who knows if he’s really homeless,” I argued. “Besides, I’m out of the McDonald gift cards I keep for situations like this. And on top of that, I’m busy, I’m tired, I’m concerned about my family. Is this guy really that big a deal, God?”
But Jesus won the argument. (He usually does when you start talking with Him!)
I pulled out a five-dollar bill and handed it to the man at the ramp.
Listen: I would not have done that had I relied on my own reasoning. If I'd only been arguing with myself, I would have easily convinced myself to drive on by. Instead, because Jesus lives in me and I have the assurance that no matter how much duping, using, or humiliation this world may subject me to, I still belong to the God we meet in Jesus, Jesus set me free to part with a little of money.
It was, for all its simplicity and humanity, a divine moment that wasn’t done by me, but by Jesus living in me.
I’ve gotten to the point where I believe the line in the old Amy Grant singalong song: “If there’s anything good that happens in life, it’s from Jesus.”
And when you know that, in the words of the late Baptist pastor, Gerald Mann, through Christ you have "God's cosmic okie-dokie," the humiliations meted out by this world become less important to you. You know that the world cannot rob you of you dignity, because by God's grace through faith in Christ, your life is imbued with an eternity dignity.
I don’t have to know whether the ramp guy spent those five bucks on cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, lottery tickets, or food.
I don’t care to know whether he was, from the standpoint of the world, “worthy” of my help.
But I do know two things.
First, I know that on the night of His betrayal, even though He knew what Judas was going to do, Jesus washed Judas’ feet. Jesus gives grace to all, worthy in the world’s eyes or not. Think of that!
Second, I know that, in the eyes of heaven, I’m not worthy of the grace, forgiveness, and love God makes available to us through Christ.
I’m a sinner. So, who am I to withhold from another person any smidge of grace God puts it in my power to give away?
Despite my sin, Christ served, loved, and died for me anyway. Romans 5:8 reminds us that, “...God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Christ is the “sacrifice for sin and a model of the godly life.”
But Maundy Thursday reminds us that if we would live a godly life, a useful life, a life that even unbelievers would acknowledge to be a life filled with goodness, it doesn’t begin with any of us trying to be good.
It begins and continues only with Christ loving us, serving us, dying for us, rising for us, and our day in, day out, letting Him into our lives so that God’s will becomes our will, God’s love for others becomes our love for others.
It begins and ends with Jesus alone!
Jesus’ message for us tonight is simple. Don’t try to be a good person on your own steam. Let Jesus into your life, let Jesus live in you, and He will lead you in the godly life, empowering you to love and serve today and preparing you to joyfully love and serve for all eternity. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]