Sermon: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Today marks the beginning of National Volunteer Week.

Established in 1974, National Volunteer Week has grown exponentially in scope each year since, drawing the support and endorsement of all subsequent U.S. presidents, governors, mayors and other respected elected officials.

National Volunteer Week is about inspiring, recognizing and encouraging people to seek out imaginative ways to engage in their communities. It’s about demonstrating to the nation that by working together, in unison, we have the fortitude to meet our challenges and accomplish our goals. National Volunteer Week is about taking action, encouraging individuals and their respective communities to be at the center of social change—discovering and actively demonstrating their collective power to foster positive transformation. [1]

National Volunteer Week is a call to volunteer in your neighborhood with others to bring about change.  All this week, people and organizations from all over the country will go out into their neighborhoods with the hope of making a difference through service and hospitality.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we are also given a call to service.  I just want to quickly point out that today’s lesson is unique to John.  The story of Jesus washing the disciple’s feet is not found in Matthew, Mark, or Luke’s Gospel and the Last Supper is not found in John’s Gospel.  Today’s text takes the place of the Last Supper in John.  This text is influential for Diaconal Ministers, one of the other three rosters in the ELCA.  Unlike pastors, whose call is to word and sacrament, Diaconal Ministers, Associates in Ministry and Deaconesses are called to word and service and today’s text is one of many used as a basis for this calling.

Today’s text is set just a few hours before Jesus’ arrest and a day before his crucifixion.  What happens after today’s text we all know: Judas betrays Jesus, the disciples panic and go into hiding, and Peter denies Christ three times.  The tension at the time of  our lesson is high, to say the least.
Jesus is preparing to share a meal with his disciples.

And during the meal, Jesus, once again turns things upside-down and shows the disciples and us a glimpse into God’s upside-down kingdom.  Jesus, a teacher and rabbi, takes a towel and wraps it around himself.  Jesus shifts gears from being the host to being a servant and washes the disciples feet, something that was not at all pleasant.  People wore sandals and walked on dirt roads.  Animals, as well as people walked these roads and, as animals do, did their business wherever they wanted.  Needless to say, one was bound to step in some crap when walking first century roads.  Regardless of how clean the person was, if they did any travel, their feet would constantly be dirty – and dirty in a way we might not fully get today.  This puts a whole new meaning to John the Baptist’s comment way back in John 1 that he was “not worthy to untie the thong of [Jesus’] sandal.”

Foot washing was a common practice in the first century.  There were three main functions for this act.  First and foremost, it was an act personal hygiene.  Second, it was an act of hospitality.  Or it could be a ritualistic act.  In today’s text, the foot washing falls within the context of a meal and should be considered an act of hospitality.  In this function, foot washing was a way of welcoming one’s guest.  Water would be offered by the host and the foot-washing was usually done by the guests themselves or by servants of the host.  When done by servants, the act of service becomes closely linked to the act of hospitality.

It was unheard of for the host to to wash someone’s feet and it was most definitely not something that someone of Jesus’ status as a rabbi did and Peter points that out.  “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  Jesus answers Peter, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.”  To this, Peter responds, “You will never wash my feet.”  But here Jesus is, cleaning the dusty crap off the disciples feet.  Jesus takes on the role of the servant, comes down and humbles himself by doing the most unpleasant of jobs.

How many times do we respond as Peter?  In what ways do we place barriers to Christ’s transformative call.  Jesus lowers himself to us as a servant to show us how we are to act in this world and we say “No!  You will not!”.  Or we offer up some excuse, “I’m too busy.  There’s not enough time for me to do.”  Author and pastor Craig Groeschel writes in his forthcoming book Weird about our perceived lack of time, “But the truth is, we find time for what’s important to us.  If golf is really a priority, we find time to play golf.  If going to dinner with our friends matters, we make it happen.  If tanning, working out, or getting our hair cut is a priority, we find time.” [2]  The same can be true about serving others; if it is important, we will find the time to do it.

But Jesus does not want us to say no.  Jesus does not want us to “find time.”  Jesus does not want our excuses.  Jesus wants, Jesus demands the obedience of the disciples and Jesus demands our obedience to his call to service to one another.  “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.  Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater that the one who sent them.  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

Here’s the good news for us.  God does not call us to service and then abandon us or leave us to our own devices.  God provides for us so we may go out and serve others.

In our baptism, we are called into the body of Christ and called and equipped for a life of service.  In our baptism, we are marked and sealed with the Holy Spirit, made one of God’s own, and gifted for the purpose of ministry.  We are freed from the power of sin, death, and the Devil to do God’s work in the world.

In the bread and the wine, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are fed and nourished for the life of service.  At the table, God strengthens us to go out into the world to bring the good news that is Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins to the world through word and deed.

The call to obedience and service is not an easy one and no one claims it is.  Sometimes we are called to do unpleasant things because of this call.  Sometimes we are called to go to areas where we don’t want to go.  Sometimes we’re called to serve people we don’t want to serve.  But because Jesus serves, we too are expected to serve.  And in serving, we too will be blessed.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.




[2] Craig Groschel, Weird, (Grand Rapids: Zondervn, 2011), 27.


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