A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sermon (March 1) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Different Robes of Jesus: Serving Robe"

     Much has been written and preached on this passage about Jesus washing the disciple’s feet.

     It is John’s telling of the last supper story, or the Passover meal. The big difference is that in John’s account, there is no bread that is broken and no wine that is served.  In John’s story, the action revolves around Jesus washing the disciple’s feet and how he explains what he has done with his disciples.

     This scripture about the serving robe teaches us about what it means to serve others in God’s kingdom. It teaches us about a new commandment that Jesus gave the disciples which is to love one another.

     These are themes that are almost always covered on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week, because this is the appointed gospel reading for that night in the church year.

     We’re using a little different approach during this Lenten season.  We’re combining the choir anthems and the sermons, and taking a look at how the different kinds of robes that Jesus wore can teach us some important lessons about Jesus, that can then draw us into a closer, deeper, and more personal relationship with him.

     As I was thinking about what Jesus’ robe might teach us from this story, it hit me that we can learn some things more from the actions of Jesus with his robe, than from the robe itself.  The first thing is, Jesus took off his robe.  He served the disciples by washing their feet.  And then, he put his robe back on.

     I’d like to use this story today to think about how we can become more like Jesus through what we take off, and by what we put on.

    The disciples were probably pretty shocked when Jesus took up the basin and the towel and began to wash their feet. He was Jesus.  He was their teacher.  He was their Master.  He was their Lord.  Foot washing was not something that masters did.

     Imagine your surprise if you saw a King shining someone’s shoes.  Or, what would you think if you saw the Queen of England giving someone a pedicure?  Either of those two scenes would be out of place. You’d never expect to see either one of those things happen.

     In the days of Jesus, foot washing was done by the servants of the household.  And it was no more glamorous of a job in Jesus day, than it would be today!  People’s feet get really dry and dirty and calloused and cracked when they walk around for miles wearing sandals. To wash someone’s feet was an act of hospitality and care.  It was also an act of servitude and humility.

     No wonder Simon Peter told Jesus, “You will never wash my feet.”  Not Jesus.  Not his master.  Not ever.  Still, there Jesus was with his wash basin and his towel.  He knelt in front of them one by one and washed their feet, calluses and all.

     When he was done, he told them why. He said, “I’m setting an example for you.”  “You also should do what I have done to you.”

     Just what did Jesus do?

     Well, John tells us that when the festival of the Passover had come, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.  He had loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

     So, he got up from the supper, took off his robe, and tied a towel around himself.

     What an act of humility that was!

     There is almost nothing more humbling than to feel underdressed in public when it is out of place.  Ever since the Garden of Eden when the man and the woman realized they were naked, human beings have had a fear of “being naked” both literally, and metaphorically.

     We feel much more in control and like we have more authority when we’re dressed for success, when we look the part of being in control and having authority.

     Jesus has authority and control, yet he laid it aside.

     He set aside the glory and eternal praises of heaven, to come to earth where people would reject him.

    He set aside his outer garment at the supper so he could fill the role of a slave and wash the disciple’s feet.

     And all of this is to foreshadow the ultimate laying aside that Jesus would soon demonstrate…willingly laying aside his own life, and dying on a cruel, hard, cross.

     Being a servant is hard.  And being a slave?  It’s a repulsive idea to us. Yet that is what our scripture says.

     So, what attitudes must we willingly lay aside or take off, if we are going to follow the example of our Lord Jesus, and serve?

     How about our ego?  We can’t think about how good we are, or that we’re above serving.

    How about a lack of compassion for others and the needs of others?

     Here’s another piece of clothing we need to set aside - being judgmental.

      We need to take all of these attitudes off, if we are going to be able to serve with same mind that Christ served. 

     On that night in the upper room, as Jesus washed their feet, in that moment, I wonder if the disciples finally ‘got it’. They had been hand-selected by Jesus from the crowds.  From the smelly dregs of farms and boat docks he had called them, and given new meaning to their lives. With him they were something special. He had elevated them above the plow and the fishing net… or so it seemed.

     The disciples were special. Jesus called only twelve of them out of everyone he could have chosen.  But Jesus didn’t call them from the crowds of farmers and fishermen so that they would enjoy a greater status. Jesus called them to serve. He called them to teach them so they could carry on his ministry of loving people after he departed.  

     And we can almost imagine the disciples asking after Jesus was taken up to heaven, “What in the world are we going to do now?”   Throughout the rest of their lives, as many rejected them, persecuted them, and eventually killed most of them, can’t you just hear them asking, “What do we do with these people now?”

     It reminds me of a story I heard several years ago about a man who was awaiting the birth of his first child a couple of generations ago.  This story happened in the days before dads were allowed in the delivery room with their wives.          

     This new dad stood there in the hospital waiting room, nervous as he could be, and finally after what seemed like forever, a nurse called him back into the nursery to meet his newborn son…

     Only it wasn’t a son. It was sons – twin boys! Of course, back then they didn’t really have ultrasounds and sonograms.  This dad found out he was having twins the minute he looked them right in the face!  

     The nurse let him hold them both at once.  He said he remembered standing there with a tiny bundle in each arm, asking God, “What in the world am I going to do?”

     And, in that moment he imagined what God might say back to him. The answer was, “Just love them.” “Just love them.”

     When I think back to the births of my children, I remember holding each little bundle in my arms and seeing them face-to-face for the first time.  Suddenly, I was a father.  And holding each softly swaddled newborn, the world had suddenly changed for me.  

    While certainly overcome with joy and elation, I also had a healthy dose of anxiety and uncertainty mixed in.  How would I be a father to this child?  Each of those amazing events was one of those moments when I asked God “What in the world am I going to do?”  And once again, the answer came: “Just love her. Just love him.”

     I think that’s really Jesus’ message to his disciples, too.  He’s preparing them for a time when he will no longer be with them, and they’ll be the ones doing ministry.  They’ll be the ones standing in front of the crowds of people, staring right into the faces of sinners of all shapes and sizes, all suffering from their own brokenness and longing to be made whole by God’s grace.  

     When Jesus left them, I’m sure the disciples had plenty of those “What in the world are we going to do?” moments.  But then they will remember Jesus, with his wash basin and towel. They’ll remember his example of how he expects them to treat other people. It’s like he’s saying, “See? It’s simple. I’m sending you out into the world, into those crowds of people from whom I called you. What are you to do?  Just love them. Just love them.”

     After Jesus finished washing the disciple’s feet, he put on his robe, and returned to the table.

    Just a few verses later, In John 13:15, in the same scene with this story, Jesus must have astounded the disciples yet again.  He had just finished being a servant to them, and calling them to be servants like him. But then he said, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father.”

     No longer servants, but friends.

     Peter found it difficult to let Jesus be a servant to him.  But Jesus told Peter that if he wanted to have a share with him, he had to let him wash his feet.

     To have a share with Jesus is to have fellowship with him.  It is to participate fully in his life.  What he does, who he meets with, where he goes.

     A person’s share with Jesus is the gift of full relationship with him and of friendship with him.

     In order to have a share with Jesus, we are called to accept the gesture of love that Jesus has demonstrated through the washing of the disciples’ feet.

     In order to have a share with Jesus, we must willingly take off the attitudes that prevent us from being like Jesus, and then put on friendship with Jesus. And this is a friendship that helps us to become like Jesus and to serve like Jesus served.

     One of my favorite spiritual books is Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster.  One of the spiritual disciplines which Foster writes about in the book is the discipline of service.

     He contrasts the serving from selfish motives, versus serving authentically like Jesus.  Listen to what Richard Foster says:

     Self-righteous service comes through human effort.  True service comes from a relationship with the divine “other” that comes from deep inside us.

     Self-righteous service is impressed with the "big deal."  True service finds it almost impossible to distinguish the small from the large service.

     Self-righteous service requires external rewards.  True service rests contented in hiddenness.

     Self-righteous service is highly concerned about results. True service is free of the need to calculate results.

     Self-righteous service picks and chooses whom to serve. True service is indiscriminate in its ministry.

     Self-righteous service is affected by moods and whims.  True service ministers simply and faithfully because there is a need.

     Self-righteous service is temporary.  True service is a life-style.

     Self-righteous service is without sensitivity.  It insists on meeting the need even when to do so would be destructive.  True service can withhold the service as freely as perform it.
     Self-righteous service fractures community.  True service, on the other hand, builds community.

     Jesus told the disciples that night, after washing their feet, “I am with you only a little longer.”

     Then he gave them a new commandment. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

     As we go through our day to day living, we encounter pain and brokenness in our community and world. There are people who have lost hope, who are discouraged, and who are struggling to make ends meet. We wonder what we can possibly do in these situations.

     And once again the answer will come.

     “Just love them.” “Just love them.”


Phyllis Fetzer said...

Enjoyed this very much, Robert. I like what you did with service and love and how you drew from the text. Nice added bonus was the surprising reminder that this servant robe of Jesus was really about his taking off his robe and "getting down" with serving! Thank you for the insights and putting this all together so well. Peace and joy, Phyllis

Robert McDowell said...

Thanks for the feedback, Phyllis! I like this robe series. The only problem has been the really bad weather these past few Sundays.