John 13:1-17; 31b-35
It’s Thursday night of Holy Week. Jesus and his disciples are gathered for dinner in an upper room. The disciples are still riding the high wave of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and all the actions of the week.
Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple and no one dared to lay a hand on him. The Pharisees, the priests, and the Sadducees had all tried to trip him up, to no avail. Who knows what the disciples were thinking as they gathered to celebrate the Passover? Did they still expect Jesus to somehow defeat the Romans and throw them out? Did they expect him to walk away from Jerusalem unscathed? Several Gospels make it clear that the disciples still didn’t understand what was about to take place.
Look at the encounter between Peter and Jesus. Suddenly Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his outer cloak, ties a towel around him and proceeds to wash the feet of his disciples. This is a task that was always performed by a slave in the culture of that time.
So when he arrives at Peter’s place at the table, Peter refuses his service. Peter is reflecting the common understanding of his culture, that doing the job of a slave would somehow demean his Lord. Jesus almost threatens Peter by saying he must submit or not share in Jesus’s portion. At that Peter goes to the other extreme and expects Jesus to also wash his hands and his head.
Peter, so often quick to speak and slow to reflect, is rebuked mildly by Jesus, who reminds him what is proper and necessary. When he is done washing their feet Jesus returns to the table and asks them, “Do you know what I have done to you?”
How would you answer that question? What has Jesus done to the Disciples? He has waited on them like a slave, thus overturning the “natural order” of that time. He then teaches them that they must do the same for each other. They must also defy the rules of their society by taking on a role that is beneath them.
He also reminds them that the servant is not greater than the master. Isn’t that an odd thing to say? He has turned the usual order upside down, so it seems, yet this statement makes it clear that he is not just reversing the usual order, thereby making the slave greater than the master. No, he is stating that all are equal. This is far more radical than just turning the hierarchy upside down. This is a new paradigm, a new pattern for understanding the relationships between people.
As usual, Jesus is calling his followers to change, to new understanding, and to new behaviors. He shows them the way to personal transformation through service. How many times have I heard people talk about how they were changed by serving the terminally ill and their families? To serve others is a privilege and it is an act that may well change the server, giving them new insights, and enriching their spiritual life.
As usual, Jesus is also calling his followers to public or political transformation. Envisioning a new order, a new society where all are equal, implies the necessity of public action and political action to create this new society.
Although Christianity has been around over 2000 years, the same inequalities and same old behaviors are still with us. Look around our community. I’ll bet you could each describe some part of the pecking order that’s part of our culture. Who looks down their nose at us? To whom do we feel superior? We don’t have slaves any more, but some people are certainly still treated like slaves, aren’t they?
And we talk about the disciples “not getting it”! Christians have had 2000 years to bring about the kingdom and we’re still struggling to grasp what Jesus had to teach us. What we so often fail to see is how the transformation Jesus offers us is also an offer of freedom.
Marcus Borg has said that transformation is the central act of Christianity. That transformation is what changes us from ordinary people into disciples of Jesus. This transformation seldom happens overnight; instead it happens little by little. In the Gospels we can see it happening to the Jesus’s followers, and so it may also happen for us. The transformation, the big change, happens through lots of little changes over time, changes we make for ourselves or changes that happen due to things we see, hear, feel, or experience.
The Old Testament lesson tonight is about the Exodus, the primary story of the Jewish bible. It’s about God leading his people from bondage to freedom. As I have thought about change this Lent, I see more clearly that the transformation that occurs when we mindfully change ourselves or open ourselves to change is always, in one way or another, about moving from bondage to freedom.
The changes we talked about at the Lenten services this year were all about changes that can free us: free us from being locked into bad habits, locked into our own plans and expectations, locked into our own way of doing things, locked into any particular point of view, etc. In other words, they can free us from our resistance to change.
Jesus proposes a society in which all are equal, where a person would no longer need to worry about their position, reputation, or status. We can all be different, but if we know that all are equal in God’s sight, we can relax and just be who we are. We would not need to feel better by putting others down. Bullying and the most painful forms of gossip would disappear.
We could spend three or four sermons exploring the political implications of Jesus’s teaching. Just remember that what he proposes is indeed a radical new order, one that frees us from the restrictions and pop idols of our culture; frees us from hierarchy, one that frees us to be the best we can be without having to step on anyone else along the way.
And it is in service to others that we can come to understand what Jesus teaches in new ways. We don’t do mission work outside the church just for the fun of it, or because we have to, or because we want to help the less fortunate. We need to do this kind of work because it puts us in touch with some of God’s children that we would otherwise not meet.
Jesus calls us all to service, both to one another and to those who are OTHER. Jesus asks all of us, “Do you know what I have done to you?” He has set us an example and shown us the way to become more like him by loving one another. Go thou and do likewise. . . . AMEN