Throughout the month of July I am teaching in the Course of Study for Ordained Ministry here at Duke. Twenty-one United Methodist local pastors (nearly all of them rural clergy) are taking part with me in "Course of Study 513 - Our Mission from God: Transforming Agent." The purpose of the course is to gain theological understanding for leading congregations to carry out the mission of the church as God's agent of redemption and transformation in the world. Periodically I will be posting my lectures and lecture notes from the course on this blog. I hope that this will benefit my students: and perhaps a few other readers as well.
The God Who Serves the Least
4. The God of the church’s mission is a God who not only hears the cry, not only moves in, not only seeks the lost, but who THE GOD WHO SERVES THE LEAST.
Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel that he, the Son of Man, the master of all, came not to be served, but to serve. This is serving is not a temporary strategy to achieve salvation, it is who God is: the one who offers loving service.
On the night before he was killed, John’s Gospel says that Jesus, having loved his own, loved them to the end. he gets up from the table, and he takes off his outer robe so he’s down to his T-shirt, and he lays the robe down He wraps a towel around his waist, girds himself, the Bible says. Then he pours water in a bowl, and one by one, ankle by ankle, toe by toe, sole by sole, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.
The disciples, as they watch this, are shocked. They can’t believe he’s doing this. There’s a painting of this scene that I treasure by a man named Francis Maddox Ford, where Jesus’ sleeves are rolled up and his head is bowed, almost in prayer, as he carefully wipes Peter’s toes. And in the background all of the disciples are craning their necks over the table to see. They have this shocked look in their eyes, their mouths stand wide open, one of them has his head in his hands, another has covered his face and can’t even watch.
They can’t believe Jesus is washing feet. They can’t believe Jesus is cleaning up the mess.
And it would have been a mess. Yall know that back then people walked everywhere on dusty and muddy roads, and just wore very simple open sandals. Dr. Scholls had been born yet. You get the idea. The word is funky.
Do you want to know what washing feet was like? As a relatively new parent now I think of changing dirty diapers. Just before my daughter was born I remember watching an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos that was showing these new Dads trying to change their baby’s diaper, so I watched to learn. And these Dads were leaning down, reaching out their arms, holding their nose, trying to keep their distance like this: and then they would kind of retch and not be able to breathe. Some of them were coming at the baby with the kind of extension tongs you use on your grill, or they’d put a surgical mask over their nose. One poor guy was literally dressed in the kind of chemical radiation suit that usually see when there’s been a nuclear meltdown with a green radioactive substance, was treating the changing table like it was Chernobyl. This did not make me look forward to the experience of changing my first diaper.
A friend reminded me that our parents' changing our our dirty diaper is our first true experience of grace, of having another clean up a mess we can't fix out of love. And you know, you’ll do a lot when you love someone. So there’s Jesus: washing feet, cleaning up the mess.
I grew up on a farm. My brother and I worked in the hot tobacco fields all day, and we’d go out there early in the morning when the ground and the leaves were still dripping wet with dew, and we’d slog through the mud priming tobacco. Our shoes weren’t very good, so by the time we’d come in for lunch our once-dry and bright white and ivory fresh socks would smell like a locker room and be wringing wet and some unholy chocolate shade of brown. My brother and I would come in for lunch and my mom had a rule that we had to take our socks off on the porch, before we could enter the house, they were so filthy. And then my poor mother would have to take the socks in and wash them. And they were awful – my mom would have used tongs and a radiation suit if she’d had them; she swore she was going to invent disposable socks just for us.
But every week my mother bent down and she would wash those socks. She cleaned up the mess.
She was a reminder of Jesus.
It’s not that people didn’t wash feet in Jesus’ day. If you were the host, it was actually an act of gracious hospitality to set out a basin of water so that your guests, after their long journey, could wash their own feet. It was a way of welcoming someone to give them that water. Also a way to preserve your new carpet. And if you were wealthy or a powerful person in that day you might even have your slave wash your guests’ feet. But that’s what kind of work washing feet was: it was slave work. It was kind of humiliating, degrading, demeaning, for people that had lost all dignity.
I have a friend who promised himself he would never do that kind of work. When he was a boy he used to go downtown in the city where he was born, and there would be these shoeshine boys out there on the street with their stands. And the shoeshine boys would be kneeling and rubbing with their cloths as fast as if they were sanding wood, their face just inches away from the spit-shine black shoes of some white-collar business or government worker who was disinterestedly reading their paper and treating the shoe-shine boy as if he wasn’t there. And my friend saw how the shoe-shiners were treated and ignored, almost like slaves, and he made a promise to himself that whatever he did in life, he sure wouldn’t stoop to being something so beneath his dignity as a shoeshine boy.
He decided to do something exalted, something that would command respect, so he decided to be . . . a preacher. Then one night in seminary, at a chapel service a visiting pastor preached on Jesus washing his disciples feet’. The visiting preacher said, “Our Savior kneels at our feet like a shoe-shine boy. Jesus is willing to kneel and shine our shoes in the name of his love.” The humiliation of our salvation.
By now then, do you see why the disciples are shocked? Do you realize how upside down this seems? The general doesn’t salute, take orders from the private! The CEO doesn’t take messages for the secretary! The basketball coach, coach K or Roy Williams or Sidney Lowe or doesn’t walk over to the towel boy during a timeout, take off their suit coat, borrow his towel, and then get down on his knees and wipe perspiration off the basketball court. And yet that is what is happening here. The master is washing the servant’s feet. The Lord has become a shoeshine boy. It is like having the grand marshal or honored guest of the parade circle back around to become the guy who follows along to clean up after the elephants.
And yet this is who God is. Jesus says, “I came not to be served, but served: that is how I am, who I always am.” And it’s true, in stooping to wash feet, this is not some isolated act that Jesus does for our benefit. This is one act that captures everything about who Jesus is. The disciples are shocked that Jesus could stoop so low: but he has stooped before. Stooped all the way down from heaven to earth. He took a stable for a maternity ward and a feeding trough for a crib. He grew up, was raised in the small rural town of Nazareth, just a little country farming village nobody knew about with maybe no more than 500 people; never forget that Jesus, the greatest gift the world has ever received, came from a community. Then Jesus traveled around like a gypsy with no place to lay his head and had to ask Peter for a coin to prove a point because there were no coins in his pocket. He rode into Jerusalem not gliding on a Clydesdale but bouncing up and down on a donkey. .
And so it is really no surprise, that this Jesus, who keeps going down, down, down in this limbo of love, how low will you go, it is no surprise that Jesus gets up from the table, just like he had gotten up from his Father’s side, and he takes off his robe, just as he had taken off the robe of his glory to take flesh, and he lays it down, just the way he later says he will lay down his life for his friends, and he girds himself with a towel around his waist, the way a soldier would gird himself with armor for battle, and he will kneel. And instead of the students sitting at his feet, the teacher washes theirs. He doesn’t take them under his wing, he kneels under their toes. He doesn’t just love their souls, he loves them to their soles. Jesus doesn’t brainwash people into the kingdom, he footwashes them in, serves them into submission. He will he even wash the feet of Judas, who he knows is about to betray him.
But that is who Jesus is: a lover of sinners in all our dirt: so it is no surprise that Jesus washes feet.
I don’t know what kind of image you have in your mind when I say “God.” Maybe in the back of your mind is a picture of a wise old bearded man sitting on a high throne. But I hope there is another image there now. I remember encountering these words of a hymn prayer: “We strain to glimpse your mercy seat, only to find you kneeling at our feet.”
They remind us of a God who serves the least.