Rev Dr Edgar Mayer – Living Grace Lutheran Church, Toowoomba – Date: 16 February 2014
For more sermons and other writings, please check the following homepage: www.livinggracetoowoomba.org
Nothing But Love
I read to you from this morning’s Bible text – the opening verse – John 13:1: “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.”
Astonishing! The time had come for Jesus to leave this world (and return to the Father in heaven) which meant that the time had come for him to sacrifice his life on a cross – to die in pain for us – and then rise from the dead to a new world where – in his name – forgiveness comes to us. The time for the cross had come and can there be greater love? Jesus himself said – John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” Yet – in our opening verse – Jesus felt that the cross alone did not quite communicate everything that was in his heart and isn’t this interesting? Within hours, Jesus would be dead – give his life for love – yet, he still felt the need to show them beforehand “the full extent of his love”.
Before I go any further, let me read what happened and then we want to share in the experience:
John 13:2-5: The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
Experience now what Jesus did for his disciples:
Practical instructions and then the washing the feet of everyone in the congregation.
How did it feel? [Encourage answers. Maybe there were feelings of embarrassment, discomfort, self-consciousness, feeling exposed, etc.] When Jesus removed the dirt and grime from the feet of his disciples, he did the job of a household servant. Someone was always attending to this task because – at a time when everyone walked in sandals on dusty roads – no one sat down for dinner at the end of the day with dirty feet. It was much nicer to be clean and, if there was no servant available, someone of lower rank – (any one of Jesus’ disciples) – should have performed the foot washing. Yet, none of the disciples stirred. [They had a sense of entitlement.] No one wanted to mess up their appearance – (roll up their sleeves, remove the outer clothing and wrap a towel around their waist) – and absolutely no one was prepared to say with their actions: I am of lower rank than you; therefore I wash your feet and serve you.
Then, Jesus stepped in and surprised them with an act of service which they were not willing to do themselves. How do you think that they felt? Was the foot washing a comfortable experience for them – soothing and refreshing after a long day? No, it was embarrassing – even shameful – because it was simply wrong for Jesus to do this for them. [To make matters worse, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The experience was not going to go away in a hurry. The verses in John 13 spell out every detail.] Jesus was the disciples’ “Teacher” and “Lord” (John 13:13-14). What was he thinking?
Jesus was thinking about love. The cross – his death – was the ultimate sacrifice but – so often – the truth of this sacrifice remains abstract – remote from our experience. It’s almost too big to get our head around its meaning but when Jesus makes it practical and personal – wrapping a towel around his waist and washing my feet – I begin to understand what is in his heart about me. He loves me. He loves you.
In the same way, sometimes we rejoice more about Jesus supplying a new car (e.g.: Stephen, Mandee) or guiding us through the week (e.g.: David McDonald, John Alley) than the all-encompassing meaning of the cross. We need help – practical tokens of love now – to take in the enormity of the love which made Jesus give his life on an instrument of torture.
What impacted the disciples was not the gift itself – clean feet at dinner – (they could have eaten with dirty feet or do the job themselves in no time) – but the revelation of Jesus’ character. He cared – he was outrageous in his love – he did not mind to stoop low and pay attention to me. Some time ago, I wanted to attend a conference in Brisbane. The plan was to go for a day but, the evening before the conference, I was getting a cold – one of those where your nose keeps running for a day and you need a new tissue every thirty seconds. This would have been a nuisance at the conference. For the sake of the others, I should actually stay at home. Then, Tatjana was praying for me and she prayed for quite a while. Half way through the prayer, I began to relax and thought: “Why wouldn’t God heal me now? Maybe I exercise some faith.” And I was healed. This was “just” a cold – not the first in my life and not the last. Maybe it was not the greatest healing – like the foot washing was not the greatest act of service – but it meant something to me because the almighty God actually cared about me and what I wanted to do on a particular day and I haven’t forgotten. It made the cross – Jesus’ love – practical and personal. It makes us fall in love again with the character of Jesus.
I come back to the discomfort of the disciples. One of them actually resisted Jesus:
John 13:6-11: He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
Peter understood about honour. He did not fully understand the identity of Jesus but for him – at the very least – Jesus was an amazing leader – to whom he was submitted. There was an order and Jesus upset the order which made Jesus perform a task too humble for him and made Peter receive a gift too great for him. This was embarrassing – made all the disciples squirm in their seats – and it was too much for Peter. He resisted. Are you?
Not everyone speaks out like Peter – there was one around the table who let the foot washing happen to him but planned to betray Jesus – not everyone speaks out openly but resistance to Jesus and his love – or the discomfort around him – is common. Why? For starters, you are not in control. It may feel okay to sign up for discipleship – following Jesus, learning and doing the will of God – but receiving love from him – including something like daily foot washing (John 13:10) – leaves us indebted to God. His gifts make us feel like we are owing something to him (which we cannot even repay) and we do. [For this reason, some people do not like to receive birthday or Christmas presents from anyone. They hate the feeling of being in someone’s debt. It can be easier to give than to receive.]
Then, Jesus did what Peter should have done himself and when Jesus did not let Peter correct the situation, he broke his pride. As Jesus’ hands touched his feet and made them clean, Peter knew that the love of Jesus was undeserved. Later he would understand that the same happened on the cross. Jesus did what we should have done ourselves. We should have been obedient to God but we were not. So Jesus came and was obedient on our behalf. He served us by suffering the consequences of our separation from God so that we would be clean.
If you want to be a Christian, you need Jesus to do this for you – love you and break your pride at the same time – John 13:8: “Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’”
I draw your attention again to the fact that Jesus deliberately set up the foot washing to impress on his disciples the meaning of the cross. They needed this practical and personal object lesson to understand the full extent of his love:
John 13:7: Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
[How many times is Jesus doing something and we only understand later?]
Peter tried once more to regain control of the situation by saying – John 13:9: “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” This may have sounded fervently religious but overstepped the mark in the other direction. Jesus replied – John 13:10: “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” It is best to give in to Jesus, humble ourselves until we stop squirming and simply surrender to his love. Jesus does not resent the washing of our feet – the washing away of our sins – it’s not too much for him but we are welcome because he loves us. This morning, let him love you.
For Jesus, the washing of feet – serving – was not something strange but normal. Serving does not diminish him. On the contrary, it is his glory – an expression of his nature – a demonstration of his holy character which is love. Sacrifice is his glory. According to the human mind, doing the services of a slave is a sign of weakness – to serve others is a sign of insignificance (being of a lower rank) – but not so with God. There is nothing that love would not do and there is nothing that love would not overcome. Love – Jesus with a towel around his waist – is power. Sacrifice is glory.
Jesus knew who he was which emboldened him – made him very secure – pushed him forward into expressing his love in service:
John 13:3-4: Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.
If you know that all things are under your power, you no longer have to prove anything to anyone but can take off your outer clothing and serve those that follow you. You can be you and, in Jesus’ case, this is love.
After Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet – (after they had come into the experience of his love first) – he invited them to share his identity and commissioned them:
John 13:12-17: When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
As the disciples needed a practical and personal demonstration of the love which accomplished everything on the cross, so other people around us are the same – (and Jesus was not even talking about people outside the church but inside) – and (as Jesus’ disciples) we are the ones now that communicate the reality of what he has done on the cross. Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice can be too much to get your head around but practical love shows the way:
Born without her left hip and leg, Michele Perry is no
stranger to seeming impossibilities. So when she arrived in war-torn Southern
Sudan – with little more than her faith in God’s promises – she did what
everyone told her was crazy: she opened a home for orphaned children in the
middle of guerrilla warfare territory and has now become “mama” to over one
hundred little lives.
“How did I wind up here doing this?” asks Perry. “I began a journey. I said yes to a downward trail of humility to find His heart, to find what is really real. I prayed a dangerous prayer a little over a decade ago: Jesus, teach me how to love.” And He did.
Michele Perry: Love Has a Face, Grand Rapids: Chosen 2009, p125-127: I have been privileged to witness the blind see and the deaf hear. But honestly some of the greatest miracles I have witnessed are the ones when the hearts of our children are healed by the power of God’s love. The transformation of their little hearts from shattered, traumatized and rejected to loved, restored and cherished is something only heaven could bring to pass.
Ania’s (not her real name) story was a miracle that happened quite literally in the mud. From this little girl I have learned more about God’s extravagant grace and persistent compassion than I have from any other person in my life to date.
Ania came to us at three and a half years old with her two brothers. She was a shadow of a little girl. She refused to play. She would not let anyone touch her. She had radar for the dirtiest, filthiest place on the compound. She would find it, lie down in the dirt and wail for hours.
If someone tried to pick her up, she would scratch, flail and head straight back to the filth as soon as they let her go. Most of the mamas gave up trying and let her lie on the ground and cry. Her cries were especially haunting.
Often I wondered how many times before she had cried like that and no one heard her or came to her. She had the epitome of an orphan spirit. She was sure that no one would love her or want her, and to prove her point she made it as difficult as possible for us.
Papa, what do I do? How do I love her? Immediately a passage from Philippians 2 came to mind:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
Jesus came where I am. I must therefore go where Ania is.
So I did. I found her lying in the mud, and I lay down right beside her. I did not touch her or talk to her. I did not look at her, for I knew that would only make her wail louder. I simply lay down with her. She knew I was there. I was just there.
The next day I lay down beside her in the same manner, but this time I put my hand out in view. Nothing seemed to happen. Refusing to be discouraged, I tried again. The next time I found her I again lay down and put out my hand. This time her small hand found its way into mine. Slowly we got up together, only to have that scene repeated over and over again throughout the following weeks.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a miracle was happening in Ania’s heart. She began to realize that she was loved and safe and wanted. She was worth getting dirty for. She was worth looking foolish for. She was worthy of love. She was not alone or abandoned. Her cries no longer echoed unheard in the silence.
I will never forget when I saw Ania smile for the first time. I burst into tears. I could not help it.
Now she is five, and she smiles a lot. She curls up in my lap and loves to help our younger children. The other day she broke up a brewing fight. She plays and laughs and loves to be hugged.
Ania is no longer an orphan. She has come home.
Journeying with her has taught me about the richness of Papa’s grace. He did not tell me to get up out of the dirt of my own pain and shame. He did not ask me to get it all together and then let him know when I was ready to shape up. No. He lay down in the mud with me. He put out his hand and just waited – for me to see, for me to trust, for me to put my hand in his and for us to stand up together.
Lying in the mud was Michele Perry’s way of washing Ania’s feet. The little girl was so broken but she knew that adults do not normally lie in the mud next to a crying girl three years old. This radical act of love won her over – melted her – won her trust and, by God’s grace, put her on a path of healing.
Can we do the same? How can you serve? I am always blessed when I see that our chairman (Gary Anderson) vacuuming the floor after morning tea. It’s a good sign for our church.
How can you serve? I remind you again that serving did not diminish Jesus and it will not diminish us. On the contrary, washing on another’s feet is our glory (as it was for Jesus) – an expression of our redeemed nature – a demonstration of holy character which is love. Sacrifice is our glory. There is nothing that love would not do and there is nothing that love would not overcome.
In her book – a few pages after telling us about Ania – Michele Perry records the following. Serving in Jesus’ name comes with a certain life-style that knows that everything has been placed under Jesus’ feet. Those that lie in the mud are with Jesus who said: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”
Michele Perry: Love Has a Face, Grand Rapids: Chosen 2009, p128-131: God wants his supernatural realm to become our normal, everyday reality. He wants to bring us miracles in the mud … Sometimes, however, I do not have eyes to see what he is doing in the moment. In the middle of caring for children, meeting needs and running a ministry, it can be easy enough to miss.
One morning one of our short-term volunteers and I had a powerful time with Jesus. As we spent time in prayer together, Jesus showed us a warehouse in heaven that is filled with different body parts. Eyeballs were blinking on a shelf. Lungs were inhaling in a corner. Bones were neatly organized in rows.
Yes, I agree, that sounds incredibly strange. It was indeed a tad on the sci-fi side. But since Jesus died and paid the price for our healing, it makes sense that he would have room in heaven filled with what we need.
A little later that day the volunteer and I decided to go check email. The Internet café was a half-mile trek down a road on which even heavy-duty vehicles went only five miles an hour to keep from flipping.
We were walking on the muddy road and chatting about the things Jesus was showing us when a truck pulled up, seemingly out of nowhere. The whole scenario should have struck me as odd right away, but it did not. In front of us was an old Land Rover-esque delivery-type truck with safari memorabilia fixed to its patchwork rainbow paint job. It was driven by two very white, blond, European-looking men.
“Hi, guys, what organization are you with?” I asked nonchalantly. No one comes to our parts unless they are affiliated with an organization of some sort.
They hesitated and then smiled. “We are … well … tourists!”
“Wow, tourists? Where are you going?”
“Cameroon and Central African Republic. What do you do here?”
“We have a children’s home. That is our gate over there.”
While I talked with them, my friend was peeking in the windows, thinking how strange it was that their truck appeared to be completely empty. She saw no luggage, no water, no food, not even a map! Yet the truck was actually there in the natural. It was there. I leaned on it.
“Which way is Maridi?” they asked. Maridi is a city to our west.
“Go to the end of the road, turn left, then go straight for nine hours. God bless!”
I waved them off in the right direction, and my visiting friend and I kept walking. I looked back over my shoulder not a minute later, and the truck had vanished. Hmmm. That is odd. Oh, well.
“Wow, tourists in Sudan,” I said. “Who would have thought?”
“Michele … don’t you think that was a little strange?”
“Well, now that you mention it, I guess so.”
“Try tourists from another realm! You really were entertaining angels unaware. I think they missed the how-to-blend-in-on-earth class!” We wondered about the encounter but then continued with our day, which went on without further angelic incident – and without any million-dollar pledges in my inbox.
Back at home that evening we began our favourite pastime of telling God-stories. With only one, lone, intrepid short-term volunteer and me to oversee our growing Sudanese family and with only one kerosene light, what else were we to do at night?
In the middle of our storytelling session God opened my spiritual eyes to see a myriad angels step through the walls into the small room. That night I did not see them with my natural eyes. What I saw was with the eyes of my spirit. They were translucent forms superimposed on the room around me. God’s presence began to grow stronger and stronger. Then one angel stepped forward with a huge grin and held out a spinal column.
I needed a spine, too, but I saw that this one was for a person much taller than I. So I looked at my friend and asked, “Honey, you don’t by any chance need a spine, do you?”
Surprised, she replied, “Why, yes, I do. I have battled with scoliosis and am often in pain.”
“Well, I just saw an angel walk into the room carrying one that looks to be about your size. Maybe we should pray.”
I placed my hand on her back and immediately felt as if an electric current magnetized it there. God’s glory came so strongly that she was unable to sit up and slid off the bed to the floor, still with my hand glued to her back. It was not convenient. It was not comfortable. But it was God.
Waves and waves of current flowed down my arm through my hand. As she lay immobilized by God’s presence, I saw the angel place the spine on her back, and it dissolved into place. My hand was stuck to her back for almost four hours. Then she got up and went to bed. I did the same, thinking, Wow, what a day!
The next morning I opened my eyes to see my friend about three inches taller than she had been. “Whoa, check your back!” It was straight, and she had absolutely no pain.
Then it dawned on me. One heavenly visitation to the body parts room the morning before. One angelic encounter with a “delivery” truck on the muddy roadside in the afternoon. One supernatural delivery of a spine! It all went together and made a kind of otherworldly sense. Yet in the moment it felt completely and totally normal. Perhaps that was because it was supposed to be.
God is good. This morning, enter into the experience of Jesus washing your feet – let him open your eyes to everything that he has done on the cross for you – and then serve like him. There is nothing that love would not do and there is nothing that love would not overcome. Amen.