Dirty Toes

This past Sunday we kicked off a brand-new teaching series called, Plugged In. For the next few weeks leading up to Easter, we are going to be talking about what it looks like to live lives that are connected to Jesus. We are going to do this through the lens of the conversations Jesus had with His disciples on the final night of His life, beginning with their final meal together in John 13. You won’t want to miss a single part of this journey as we learn together what it looks like to live plugged in.

Dirty Toes

By a show of hands (or thumbs-up if you are joining us online) how many of you have been to Disney World at least once? When you go to a theme park of any kind, the staff are usually pretty well-trained to stay in character as long as the park is open and guests are present. But if you’re a bit sneaky, sometimes you can catch employees having a conversation among themselves like normal people do. (You can also get this if you go “backstage.” I marched in a laser light parade at Magic Kingdom in high school. We started backstage before marching out. It was an interesting experience seeing famous cartoon characters walking around headless while taking a smoke break.) If you listen to those employee conversations very long, there’s a good chance you’ll start to hear some insider lingo. For instance, if you happen to be at Disney and overhear a park employee refer to a visitor as a “treasured guest,” (and hopefully you are not that visitor), you might think at first that these really are model employees to think so highly of the people who are forking over the exorbitant amounts of money that serve, in part, to pay their salaries. You would be wrong. In the insider, staff lingo of Disney World, calling someone a “treasured guest” is not a compliment. It’s a way to refer to a particularly difficult visitor in such a way that seeks to maintain the positive experience for the problem person without being ugly to his face. Here in the South we might just smile and say to the person, “Well, bless your heart!” 

The world is full of people who are…difficult. Not only that, life is full of situations that test and try our patience; situations that have the tendency to bring the worst out in us. If you’re the kind of person who believes something like the character of Jesus should be reflected in your life, these kinds of people and situations don’t make it easy. We may have a connection to Christ, but sometimes it feels a bit like we are getting by on code words so we don’t let all the ugly stuff on the inside hang out where everyone can see it. After all, nobody posts their ugly pictures on social media. We want to keep up our connection and maintain appearances, but life and people sure make that a tall order some days. 

And maybe you’re not the kind of person who is all that interested in a connection with Jesus. I’m glad you’re here. But even if that’s the case, you still have some standard you feel like you should meet. It may be a standard defined by social media. It could be one defined by the expectations of the people around you. It may be something left over from how your parents raised you. It could be that you don’t even know for sure how to define your standard. But there is nonetheless some standard by which you try to live your life. There is a connection you want for your life to demonstrate. What I mean here is that even though you might not think about it in the same terms I’m using this morning, you understand what I’m saying, and perhaps even a little better than you want to admit. 

If you are a follower of Jesus, though, this connection to Him is something you definitely want your life to exhibit. You don’t want to have to live by code words like a disgruntled theme park employee who wants to keep her job. You’ve pretty well got the part about how you make such a connection down. You confess Jesus rose from the dead, and invite Him to be the Lord of your life. That’s the easy part. Understanding what that connection actually looks like in practice and how to live it out on a daily basis, on the other hand, is another matter altogether. Starting this morning and going for the next few weeks leading up to and landing on Easter, I want to talk with you about all of this in a brand-new series called Plugged In. 

Over the course of the next few weeks—and paralleling our Sunday school, Bible Studies for Life series—we are going to dive into the story of Jesus’ last supper with His disciples and the conversations that followed from there starting in John 13. In these conversations between the Teacher and His students, we are going to see a number of different areas and situations in life where we can make our connection to Jesus something more than perhaps it has been before. We are going to listen in as Jesus Himself tells us how we can not only stay connected, but live connected. You won’t want to miss a single part of this journey. 

This morning, we are going to start with something that, if we are going to live our lives connected to Jesus, is probably the most foundational piece we can have in place. The challenge of this piece, though, is that while it may be foundational in terms of the kingdom of God, in terms of how we are most inclined to think on our own, it runs completely counter to everything we’ve ever known to be true about the world. Jesus’ revelation of this was absolutely revolutionary. And it all began when He got up from supper and did something the disciples’ never imagined His doing. If you have a copy of the Scriptures, find your way to John 13 with me and let’s take a look at this starting right at the beginning of the chapter. 

Because John was writing so much later than the other Gospel authors, he included stories they didn’t. And because he was an old guy at this point, he often included editorial notes in those stories that the other Gospel authors didn’t. Chapter 13 starts out with one of these editorial notes. In fact, it starts out with two of them. These help set the tone for what’s to come. Look with me at v. 1 here. “Before the Passover Festival, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” What John is doing here is helping us see that everything that follows from this point forward in his Gospel (including all of the stories we are going to be looking at together over the next few weeks) is an outworking of Jesus’ love for His people. Even when He tells them things they don’t want to hear, He is showing them love. 

Now, after something like that, you might expect John to go straight into one of Jesus’ demonstrations of His love. And he does…almost. But first John offers one more editorial note. “Now when it was time for supper, the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray him.” So, why does John feel the need to include this note? Well, that’s not totally clear here, but like the last verse, this verse casts a shadow over everything that follows. In fact, this shadow is wrapped all the way around the story here in such a way as to make what happens even more remarkable. 

As for what actually happens, come with me now to v. 3. Now, with Jesus’ intent of love and Judas’ impending betrayal in mind, “Jesus knew that the Father had given everything into his hands, that he had come from God, and that he was going back to God. So [in other words, because He knew all of that] he got up from supper, laid aside his outer clothing, took a towel, and tied it around himself. Next, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel tied around him.” 

Footwashing was a basic social courtesy in first century Judea. Shoes like we have today were not available. Most people walked around everywhere they went in either rudimentary sandals or barefoot. When someone came to your home then, they had walked there and their feet were tired. One of the first things you had done for them was to see that their sandals were removed and their feet were washed. This wasn’t a thorough washing to get them completely clean. It was just a way to remove the dust and to send the message that you cared about them from head to toe. But, because feet are gross—especially when they’re dirty and smelly—no one really wanted to do this kind of thing themselves. As a result, it was a duty assigned to whomever was the lowest servant in the household. In a wealthy Jewish family, it would not be given to a Jewish servant. It would be given to a Gentile servant. In this particular case, the disciples’ would not have considered washing each other’s feet, let alone Jesus’ feet. They all considered themselves above that particular duty. For Jesus to do this for them was not just shocking, it was scandalous. It wasn’t just humiliating for them that He was now down on His hands and knees washing their feet, it made them deeply uncomfortable. This was not how the world was supposed to work. 

Peter reflected all of this back to Jesus when his turn came up. Look at v. 6: “He came to Simon Peter, who asked him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered him, ‘What I’m doing you don’t realize now, but afterward you will understand.’ ‘You will never wash my feet,’ Peter said. Jesus replied, ‘If I don’t wash you, you have no part with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.’ ‘One who has bathed,’ Jesus told him, ‘doesn’t need to wash anything except his feet, but he is completely clean. You are clean, but not all of you.’ For he knew who would betray him. This is why he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’” 

Now, this has always been an interesting little interchange to me. It’s an exercise in missing the point on Peter’s part. Peter thinks one thing is going on while Jesus is talking about something else entirely. Peter thinks the world of Jesus. He doesn’t want Him washing his feet because of the obvious and gross impropriety of it. That’s why he resists. He is certain he should be the one washing Jesus’ feet if anyone is going to wash anyone else’s feet in the room. When Jesus responds to him, though, He’s talking about Peter’s—or anyone else—receiving the washing clean from sin His blood will soon provide. Peter thinks Jesus is talking about the footwashing and means he can’t be one of His disciples unless He washes his feet. That’s why he goes from resistance to an over-the-top embrace of what Jesus is doing. And then Jesus includes a little barb about Judas’ betrayal which, again, seems wildly out of place. 

Once He finishes washing all of their feet—including Peter’s and Judas’—Jesus sits back down and explains what happened to them. Stay with me in the text at v. 12: “When Jesus had washed their feet and put on his outer clothing, he reclined again and said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done for you? [They thought they did, of course, but He was about to explain what had really happened.] You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are speaking rightly, since that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done for you. Truly I tell you, a servant is not greater than his master, and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.’” 

Now, some folks over the centuries of the church have taken what Jesus said here pretty literally and incorporated the practice of footwashing into their worship rituals. And, I understand why someone would think that from reading what we just did. Jesus said He was giving them an example to follow right after washing their feet. But I think He was aiming higher than just footwashing here. 

The way the world has always worked in every single human culture that has even been conceived is that there are some people who are higher up the social ladder than others and that those folks who find themselves at the top of the ladder are served by the folks at the bottom. This is just the way the world has always worked. Jesus may have come talking about a new kingdom and a new way of relating to God, but all of His followers assumed that His new kingdom would look pretty much like all the other kingdoms they had ever known. The only difference is that Jesus would have been in charge instead of someone else…and that as His closest followers, they would have positions of power in the administration that would entitle them to certain benefits which would be provided to them by folks who weren’t as high up in the administration as they were. 

But Jesus was aiming at something entirely different from this. And if they were going to live their lives connected to Him, He had to help them see this. So, He washed their feet. He washed their feet, as John went out of his way to tell us at the beginning of the passage, and Jesus Himself went out of His way to point out to them after He was done, in spite of His power and position over them. Actually, check that. He did it because of His power and position over them. The example they—and we—were to follow was not just footwashing. It was much, much bigger than that. He was giving them an example of the kind of kingdom He was proclaiming and how life in it was to work. It was a kingdom in which the whole ordering of society they all knew and understood was to be turned on its head. Those with the most were to selflessly serve those with the least, and anyone who had any kind of advantage in this life was to leverage it for the benefit of someone who didn’t. If they were going to be the heralds of His kingdom in His forthcoming absence, they were going to have to understand how it worked. And they still didn’t after this. But He was going to make sure they did the next day by giving them an example they couldn’t miss. In fact, it would be an example no one in the world would be able to miss because He was going to be raised up on a cross for all the world to see. 

Having said all of this, Jesus shifts gears on them and says something that once again just seems odd. He says, “I’m not speaking about all of you; I know those I have chosen. But the Scripture must be fulfilled: ‘The one who eats my bread has raised his heel against me.’ I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am he. Truly I tell you, whoever receives anyone I send receives me, and the one who receives me receives him who sent me.” 

So, what is all of that? Well, the last part is a claim about the nature of His relationship with the Father, but that first part is about Judas again. What’s with the obsession about Judas here? Why does John organize his telling of this story so thoroughly around this idea that Judas is going to betray Jesus? Because it helps us understand just how dramatic, powerful, and important is what Jesus is doing. 

In a day when there weren’t visual aids of any kind, storytellers had to rely on other means to help audiences remember what they were saying. They had to use creative techniques to help the people who would later tell their stories to others convey the parts that were most important. One of those methods—and one John uses all the time—is called a chiasm. The word sounds scary, but the idea is not. A chiasm is basically a place in a story where the author says something, says something else, and then comes back around to say the first thing again. 

In this case, John opens and closes this story with a word about Jesus’ mission and our mission in light of that. Most notably, things are being handed over to us. He had been sent from the Father and was now returning to Him. We, on the other hand, were being sent by Him to the world. That’s why He’s talking about being received. In other words, what lies in between these two bookends has to do with how we should understand the mission God has given us. Moving in one step we find something about Judas’ betrayal in both places. In other words—and as I said at the beginning—we are not meant to understand what comes in between these two parts without the idea of Judas’ betrayal hanging over it all. Moving one step closer to the center of the chiasm we find Jesus performing and explaining the footwashing. In the very middle of the whole thing is v. 11. And what was that about? Why, Judas’ betrayal yet again. 

Are you starting to get a picture of what’s going on here? Jesus did this incredible thing for the disciples in washing their feet. He gave us a great example to follow and spelled out exactly what that example was. And most often, when this story gets told, the footwashing is the only thing that gets any attention. But when you really look at how John wrote this story, while he obviously doesn’t want us to miss that, the way he layered the different parts tells us that he really wanted us to understand the footwashing through the lens of Judas’ betrayal. In other words, Jesus did all of this knowing one of them would betray Him. More specifically than that, He did it for Judas knowing that Judas would be the one to do it. Think about that. Could you selflessly serve someone else who was in a position in which they would normally be serving you in spite of the knowledge that this person would eventually betray you? Jesus wasn’t just giving them an example, He was giving it to them in the context of showing them what it looked like. They didn’t understand it at the time, but they would later. The way John presents the story here tells us he got it. 

Do you get it? Jesus’ example here combined with John’s point in telling it like he does amounts to a very simple idea: We show Christ most when we serve others best. In a world fairly begging us to be connected to something other than Jesus, if you want your connection to Jesus to mean anything, this is where it has to start. Jesus was humble. So. Incredibly. Humble. There was no bottom floor to His willingness to come underneath someone and lift them up by His love. There still isn’t. And if we are going to claim to be connected to Him, there can’t be for us either. We show Christ most when we serve others best. This is the mission we have from Him. Our mission to advance the Gospel into the world must be understood in terms of this humble service to others—even to those others we aren’t like us, don’t like us, and who we don’t like. 

Okay, but what does this look like in practice? Well, for starters, it looks like serving people who are like us. Jesus performed this incredible act of service for the people who were most like Him in the world. If you aren’t active in serving this community using the gifts God has given you, you’re missing out. You’re not reflecting your connection to Christ as well as you could be. 

That’s just where things start, though. Too many believers—and too many whole churches—never get past that point. This winds up creating churches where all the members really love each other, but no disciples are ever made. That’s just a bunch of believers doing life together, not a group of people who have been called out to serve the world with humility and grace. In other words, it’s not a church. We show Christ most when we serve others best. And the thing is, these “others” aren’t always like us. But we serve them anyway because that’s what Jesus did. This is a little more complicated—not to mention it’s sometimes a lot more uncomfortable—but that’s the example Jesus gave us. If we want to follow Jesus’ example, we need to find folks who are not like us—and our unbelieving neighbors would be a great place to start—and serve them like Jesus did us. 

But it even goes one step beyond this. We don’t just serve people who are like us; we don’t even only serve people who aren’t like us. We serve people who don’t like us—a sentiment we just may share. That’s the Judas element here. Judas was set to betray Jesus to the most painful death anyone then could have possibly imagined. Judas didn’t like Jesus. And for Jesus’ part, while He loved Judas, He couldn’t have been really thrilled with his betraying Him. In other words, to a certain extent, Jesus returned Judas’ sentiment. The same thing goes for us. We show Christ most when we serve others best, even when those others are people we don’t like. They may hate us. We may feel the same about them. But we serve them anyway. Humility demands it. Living connected to Christ demands it. 

This all means we are not afraid of leveraging our resources to advance anyone else around us toward the kingdom of God. We still aim to do it wisely and well. For instance, only rarely should you ever give benevolence money directly to someone asking you for it. Instead, give generously to ministries like West Stanly Christian Ministries, who are uniquely positioned to help in ways that are helpful, addressing both the physical and spiritual needs of the people they assist. But in all of this, there is no one for whom we wouldn’t do it. We serve everyone. And the higher we think we might be on the social ladder, the lower we go to lift up those who aren’t. This is what our Lord did, and if we are connected to Him, we must follow suit. We show Christ most when we serve others best. Let’s live lives that are plugged in. 

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