St. John's & Zion Lutheran Churches

Hands of Humility

Sermon on John 13:1-5,12-17 (Maundy Thursday)

Text: It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 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.
12 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. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

It was a celebration. The two of them were seated at a restaurant with white linen tablecloths, fine china, and champagne flutes. They began to peruse the menu and waited for their server. Ten minutes passed, and then 20. Nobody came to offer them even a glass of water. Each of them was waiting impatiently, and they were really hungry. But the couple was celebrating their wedding anniversary and since they were happily reminiscing, they opted to avoid any public confrontation. When the wait stretched to nearly 30 minutes, he pretended to go to the restroom so that he could find someone to give a piece of his mind. Seeing a man who looked like he had some standing in the restaurant, he began to unload on the man and explain his displeasure. Just as he started, though, he was interrupted. “I’m sorry, sir, but my attention is needed at another table. I’ll be with you in a moment.” That was it! He had been put off for the last time. He returned to the table, gathered up his wife, and left in a huff.
Have you ever had a similar experience? Whether you’ve been to a retail store where the clerk paid you no attention, or you’ve been to a hospital where you felt the nursing staff neglected you, or you’ve tried to negotiate a reasonable window of time for the cable man to show, you know that good service is hard to find. The internet has spawned rating systems, presumably so you can discover those merchants who do a good job, but most of them are filled with jilted customers who just want to tell their horror stories.
God created people to depend on each other and their acts of service. Many of us have an expertise in one field or another, but the time will come when we need someone else’s expertise to help us through life: taxes, health care, home or car repair, etc. The world doesn’t work without people serving one another. Serving one another is so crucial to our existence, and good service is so rare that we’re often willing to honor those who do their jobs especially well with handsome tips and enthusiastic referrals.
If that’s the case, then you will certainly be ready to refer your friends and relatives to Jesus (and maybe your enemies too) when you learn about the kind of service God provides. In tonight’s lesson, Jesus not only provides incomparable service to his disciples, but he does it for free. With no demands of payment, without pulling rank, without excuse making, or being condescending or patronizing, Jesus serves his disciples with his . . .
Hands of Humility
Jesus had a lot on his mind that night. John repeatedly records the interplay between Jesus’ divine and human nature, especially how Jesus knew ahead of time what was about to happen. “Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father” (v. 1). He knew! He knew ahead of time that within 24 hours he would lay down his life for the sins of the world. He knew ahead of time that Satan had baited Judas to betray him (v. 2). He knew that the Father had laid all things at his feet (v. 3), and he entered the evening with complete omnipotence and omniscience. Yet rather than leveraging his full authority in some dazzling display of the divine, Jesus exercised abject humility.
While Jesus’ mind raced with anticipation of the pain of sin and suffering of hell, while he foresaw the cross he would endure, lovingly conscious of the souls he would redeem, his disciples were engaged in a petty argument over which of them was greatest! Can you imagine anyone being more oblivious or more insensitive to the needs of Jesus? Their quibbling carried over into the upper room where they realized that there was no servant on duty to wash their stinky feet before the Passover. Then who was going to do it? Which one of the disciples would step up and volunteer? Even in the middle of their silly fight, wouldn’t someone do it for Jesus? They stood there with their arms folded, glaring at each other with snobbish superiority. Not one man even reached for the bucket.
Jesus once fed 5,000 people, but most of them never truly believed. The political elite in Jerusalem were busy plotting his death. And now his own disciples were arrogantly arguing over who is greatest on the night before his death! Who would blame Jesus if his frustration boiled over and he walked away? “Forget it. These people don’t deserve me. I’ve done enough for these boys already; it’s time for me to think about myself!” Even more maddening, Jesus had settled this argument before. When James and John sent their mother to advocate for them to sit and Jesus’ right and left in heaven, Jesus taught his disciples how to be great. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Mt 20:26,27).
On this Thursday evening, Jesus didn’t opt for another lecture but chose instead to model for them what humble service looks like. “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” (Jn 13:4,5). If Jesus would have blown a gasket, we would have understood. But Christ’s love never wavered. Without even a hint of frustration or exasperation, Jesus handled their pride with perfect patience. He overcame their arrogance with humble service. The King of creation, the One who has all authority in heaven and earth, bent the knee to serve his disciples with a task so menial that servants jockey to avoid it. Christ came from heaven on a mission from his Father to redeem the world, and he wasn’t about to quit in the 11th hour. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (verse 1).
Most of our Christian service falls short because we base it on the behavior of our neighbor. We shun people who don’t agree with us. Doctors are slow to follow up on the patients who are the most belligerent. And when we order off the menu or ask for something on the side, we’re labeled as difficult and treated differently. Inside our own families, we tiptoe around the hothead and walk on eggshells around the opinionated relative. Worse yet, we sinfully justify our poor Christian service by suggesting that they had it coming because they were being obnoxious. The irony, of course, is that while we justify our behavior and blame our neighbor, we’re the ones who are truly being obnoxious!
If Jesus based his service on the disciples’ behavior, no one would have had their feet washed. No one would have had their sins forgiven because Jesus would have never made it to the cross! Jesus’ humility shines brighter and greater than ours because it’s not based on human behavior. Jesus’ humility is based on God’s love and grace. He serves us because he loves us. His love is unconditional. His love is perfect. Not our behavior, but God’s love moved him to wrap the towel around his waist and wash their feet—and he even washed Judas’ feet too.
You don’t get the idea that Jesus would ever walk out of a restaurant upset over poor service. He didn’t walk out on his disciples, and he didn’t walk out on you either. He came to serve you. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). Christ’s obedient death served you well; it paid the ransom price for our pride and entitled attitude, for our obnoxious rank pulling, for making people feel smaller and lesser, and for every other shallow and insecure excuse we’ve ever offered God for failure to serve. “The blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7).
The disciples had a history of missing the point. After Jesus washed their feet, it would be very natural for them to feel ashamed. Their disgraceful bickering and pompous preening had been laid low by Jesus’ humble hands. Jesus, though, wanted to do much more than shame their pride; he wanted to rewire their attitudes and invite them to use their hands of humility. “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” (Jn 13:14,15).
Jesus was their Lord and Teacher, and by virtue of his office he was their superior. But he didn’t wag his title in their faces. He didn’t shove his superiority down their throats or use it to avoid humble service to anyone. “Washing one another’s feet” means to show Jesus’ love toward our fellow man. That’s a kind of love that forgets to feel superior, a love that stoops to the lowliest of service and is blind to what it is doing or who it is serving; it’s a love that serves so freely it pays no attention to what it costs, and a love that is so humble it voluntarily serves, regardless of human behavior; a love so pure it seeks not the recognition of man but only the approval of God.
Jesus came to serve, and the service he provides is incomparable, and it’s free. Jesus’ humble death purifies us of our poor service, and Jesus’ perfect humble, hands satisfy God’s holiness and provide us the motive to serve our neighbor. Then heed Christ’s call and wash each other’s feet. Love and serve your neighbor like Jesus did, with humility. Humility permeated Jesus’ life and teaching; it colored his servant attitude. Let Jesus’ humility and servant attitude rework your attitude, too. Ask “How can I serve?” and “Who I can serve?” “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (v. 17). Amen.