This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on March 25th, 2012. To listen to the audio of this sermon, just click on this link – Lent #5 – 2012.
JOHN 13:1-11 – OUR ONGOING NEED FOR FORGIVENESS
This is the 5th Sunday in Lent, the heart of the Penitential Season. We have been moving, through Lent, towards Good Friday and the Cross. This is the Sunday where we pray for forgiveness and healing in our relationship to God, and ask him to write his new covenant on our hearts.
I have been thinking a lot about this: There are two aspects of Christian culture I want us to be thinking about as we look at the sermon today. The First is what I would call “BIg Commitment Style Faith”, which I think we tend to see in some Christian seminars and Revival type services. “Big Commitment Faith” is the style of teaching that covers a topic or aspect of the spiritual life – showing us, for instance, why we should reject gluttony and eat right – or why we should read our Bibles every day – and then calling us to make a contract style agreement with God – promising that we will keep our commitment – as though that stated commitment, given at a time of conviction, has settled the issues of the heart once and for all. And, of course this inevitably leads to an understanding of the christian life as a life of commitments which we maintain so that God will continue to be pleased with us. And of course, when we fail, we feel condemned.
The Second aspect of Christian culture I want to point out is the neatly packaged picture of the Christian life and family which is so often promoted and sold by ministries – which is a picture that has more to do with impressive appearances and our own pride than anything remotely resembling reality. This image is a trap for us, and the harder we try to conform our families to it, the more our families tend to break down.
What I love about John 13 is that it counteracts these ways of thinking, powerfully. Jesus’ words and actions, as he washes the disciple’s feet, are a profound picture of the gospel and our need for it. We cannot maintain the perfect pictures of Christian life sold to us. We cannot keep our “Big Commitments”, sometimes even in the most basic and superficial ways. We need regular washing and restoration. This is exactly what Jesus does for his disciples. Jesus washes their feet as a symbol of their ongoing need for forgiveness. He strips off as a servant and he washes their feet. Peter objects but Jesus says three things to him.
1. You don’t Understand what I am doing – but you will later.
2. Unless you accept what I am doing you can have no part with me.
3. You just need foot washing because you are already clean.
WE NEED ONGOING FORGIVENESS AND WASHING.
Jesus Initiates The Disciples‘ Need for Regular, Ongoing Washing: Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand Jesus begins by saying – you don’t really know what is going on – but you are going to get this later. Right after that Jesus gives the teaching on servanthood – so I am guessing that he is not saying – You really don’t get the whole servanthood thing, but you will understand it later. Rather, I think Jesus is referring to the cross – the great sin bearing act. In the next verses he talks about their need to be clean. In essence he is saying, “What you don’t understand is that this act is a symbol of forgiveness and washing – but after the cross you will recognize it.”
So to start, Jesus is saying – look, you need to understand – and it will be clear after the cross – that you need my ongoing forgiveness. And it’s so interesting that Jesus does this by washing their feet – because the one thing they are always bickering about is who is the greatest. Jesus is cleansing them from the sinful attitude that they are constantly falling into in a way which both convicts and heals them. And this is a clear symbol of what our lives are like: we sin – and we need Jesus to wash our feet. We are proud, lustful, angry, deceitful – and yet we are in Christ. Rather than great commitment keepers, we are followers who get filthy. Christ doesn’t berate us, roll his eyes and let out a sigh. Instead he takes off his robe and kneels down in front of us and washes our feet. Jesus is making a statement here about who we are as followers: imperfect people, continually getting filthy as we sin, and continually needing to be cared for and washed by Jesus.
ONGOING FORGIVENESS, BEING WASHED, IS HARD FOR US TO ACCEPT.
In Our Pride We’d Rather Be in Control: When Peter objects Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” – If you don’t want this, you have no part in me. In other words, if you can’t receive the every day forgiveness in which, I as a servant wash your feet – If you do not have the humility to receive this forgiveness, then you aren’t going to have the humility to receive the cross.
This is telling for me and I think for others of us who have trouble receiving forgiveness after our initial commitment to Christ. The problem is really less an issue of our sorrow or guilt and more an issue of our pride. Like Peter we object. We make our commitments and we are going to be good Christians and keep them. “Failure is not an option”. What arrogance! I don’t know about others necessarily – I can’t say I know another person’s heart – but here, I see mine. I want to perform. I want to be able to say – “I made a commitment and I have kept it.” Having Jesus strip off and kneel down at my feet to wash them is humbling – it reveals my neediness and the nature of the cost of my sin to him.
Pride drives us to obsess about forgiveness – to do more and more “good things” for God until we are overwhelmed by a spiritual life of trying to perform. Pride drives some people to retreat into systems of theology that they can control and manage – to be gate keepers who keep everyone else straight. We tend to do these things as a way of trying to maintain pride and to distance ourselves from Jesus who is kneeling at our feet half naked with a towel.
Forgiveness is Humiliating: At the same time, there is a embarrassing exchange going on here. Jesus is the master and he is never supposed to be washing their feet. Peter’s objection sounds like panic. He really doesn’t like or want the exchange that is happening.
Peter and the disciples are always arguing about who is the greatest because they despise lowliness. No one wants the job of scrubbing out the toilets while everyone else is sitting down to dinner – they hate the thought of serving like a slave. Here is Jesus, taking the slave job. He does the job they all despise and, in doing so, reveals how prideful and self serving they are.
This is what sin is about – our sinful attitudes and actions reveal what we despise – we hate being taken advantage of, so we retaliate. We hate not having the power to do what we want and please ourselves, so we steal and covet and lust. We hate saying “no” to ourselves so we over eat and get drunk. We hate having our true motives revealed so we lie. And then we come to the humble servant Jesus, who exchanges his righteousness for our sin, and washes our feet, and we are ashamed at who and what we have been. It’s hard to be exposed – we all hate it – we all need it. We all need to see our sin for what it is if we are ever going to turn away from it.
OUR NEED FOR WASHING DOESN’T CHANGE THE TRUTH THAT WE ARE STILL LOVED AND ACCEPTED THROUGH JESUS.
Though We Are Sinners Who Need Washing, We are Still Clean: “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…”
Peter’s response is interesting. He is doing two things: (1) he is trying to save Jesus from being the slave by making him more like a personal servant. In other words, don’t just wash my feet because that is the job of the lowest slave – rather be like my personal valet, and (2) he is telling Jesus that, more than anything, he wants to be his follower – even more his follower than the others who had their feet washed.
Jesus’ response is perfect: (1) he refuses to be anything but the slave washing feet – the picture of humility and grace, (2) he makes it clear that, while the disciples need their feet washed, they are clean already. This is what we need to hear – that although we sin and fail and compromise ourselves in many ways – we remain clean before God because we belong to Jesus. We don’t need to keep reestablishing our relationship with God – we don’t need to fix it – we are his and he washes us.
Jesus Gives Us an Intense Picture of Daily Washing As Gripping As Our Sin: As we move towards the cross this morning – this is what we need to see. Sin is so heinous and horrible – it is worse the more I understand what I have done. I often pray as thought I needed conversion. But Jesus has dealt with my rebellion. Now what I need is to receive the kneeling, half naked Jesus, acting like a servant – being a servant, as he washes the full horror of my ongoing sin away. The horror of my sin is gripping – and the image of daily forgiveness is gripping and humbling.