Text: John 15:9-17
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
May 10, 2015
I start my sermon this morning with a confession. When I was growing up, though I dearly loved my mother, I also resented her. My father was a stern disciplinarian, my mother thought he was too strict and often sought to protect me from his discipline. In her love for me she also tried to protect me from some of the harsher aspects of life. Intuitively, I thought that would make me weak even as I often played her against my father to get my way. I’m sure none of you ever played those games when you were growing up.
When I turned twenty-one our relationship changed. My father passed away suddenly with a heart attack leaving her with two pre-teen sons to raise. Just when I was gaining my freedom, I was suddenly forced in the role of head of family. Mother became dependent on me. My resentment only increased.
I felt guilty, of course, and often prayed that God would remove the resentment from me. Eventually He did. My mother had several suitors after my father died. She always insisted that that come see her at our farmhouse after dark, so that none of the neighbors would know. That all changed a year after her best friend died and her friend’s husband began to court mother. As my youngest brother said at the time, “When I saw mom riding through town with Newell in his pickup in the middle of the day, I knew things were getting serious. Mother and Newell had 25 wonderful years of marriage together before she died. During those years, I no longer felt responsible for her welfare. A strange thing happened. We became close friends.
In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus telling his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because a servant does not know his master is doing, but I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.”
Unlike most of the gospel passages we hear read during the Easter Season, this passage is not a post resurrection account. Rather is come from the conversation He had with them on the night before He died.
I have always been amazed by the Gospel of John, from which this passage is taken. It is by far the most theological of the four portraits we have of our Lord. It is the most liturgical and in many ways it is the most Eucharistic.
Throughout this Gospel we hear Jesus saying such things as:“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” and “I am the living water, and whoever drinks of this water that I give, shall never thirst again.”
It is John who gives us the most detailed account of the feeding of the 5,000, which is surely seen as a foretaste of the Eucharistic Meal that Jesus will inaugurate on last night before He dies. Yet, when John comes to write about our Lord’s last night on earth, he does not even make mention of that act, that has been central to the Church’s life, the observance of His last supper with his disciples.
Instead, John tells us of another action that Jesus took that evening. After the meal was over our Lord took a basin and a towel and *began to wash the disciple’s feet. When He comes to Peter, who seems always to be the spokesman for the group, Peter protests, articulating what undoubtedly all of the disciples had been feeling. “Lord, you will never wash my feet.”
Our Lord, who is often understanding, in these teaching moments, sharply rebukes Peter, saying “if you do not let me wash your feet, you will have no part in the kingdom.” Peter then capitulates and says, “Not my feet only Lord, but all of me.”
What is going on here, and how does it relate to today’s Gospel? Why does Jesus get so agitated with Peter? Is it that he under so much stress, knowing his pending crucifixion is near and that Peter seems so oblivious to it all? Or is it something much deeper, something more profound?
And why does John, who obviously has a profound understanding of the centrality of the Eucharistic meal in his own theology, leave out that event so that he could insert this foot-washing story?
Many commentators have answered these questions by stating that Jesus is giving one last effort at commutating the absolute importance of service to humanity. There certainly is much truth in this interpretation of the event, but I don’t think it begins to exhaust its meaning..
We live in a society in which “service” has replaced “industry” as the principle economic driving force. While I was Director of the Library at Asbury, we divided our staff in two Departments: Technical Services and Public Services. Our motto was “we are here to serve you.” As I reflect on this, I see two principle relationships by which service is rendered. In the first instance, the lesser serves the greater And in the second, the greater serves the lesser. Let me illustrate what I mean.
A. In the first instance it is the relationship of a servant to the master, a child to a parent, a pupil to a teacher. In such relationships, service is perceived to be the natural order of things. It is simply giving what is due, what is expected. Such a relationship is the kind that Peter understood. That is why he is so scandalized by Jesus’ action. In Peter’s world, he should be washing Jesus’ feet.
B. In the second type of service it is the relationship of the greater tending to the needs of the lesser. The parent caring for the needs of the child until she or he is able to be on her/his own. It is the professor mentoring the star student, the doctor tending the patient the lawyer serving the client.
Was this Jesus understanding of service? At first glance it would appear to be so. The Gospel of Mark states this understanding best: “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” But does this capture the full understanding of what Jesus was illustrating on this the night before his death?
Is this what He meant, when he said, “Even as I have washed your feet, so you ought to wash one another’s feet?”
I would suggest not. All too often such seemingly altruistic situations get perverted--In too many cases a mother turns her child into the answer to her own need to be needed; In too many instances the teacher makes his students into trophies.
C. In today's Gospel, Jesus clearly states another option. “No longer do I call you servants, you are my friends." In a friendship any inequality is rendered irrelevant.
Actions are based on mutual love, not on a pre-existing natural order of things. By washing His disciples’ feet Jesus overcame by love the inequality which existed by nature between himself and those whom He had chosen as his disciples. He established an intimacy with them that superseded His superiority and signaled their access to everything which He had received from the Father. At last Peter understood. He replies, not my feet only, but my head and my hands also.
I experienced both the shock and the joy of such a changed relationship when I graduated from the University of Birmingham My doctor father, Walter Hollenweger, was a typical German professor. He would march into class on the appointed hour, open his notebook and begin to lecture. At the end of the hour he would close his book and march out. The students would then leave. We were almost in awe when he addressed us personally. When I graduated, he held a small party for me afterward in his home. Finally, it was time to leave. “Professor Hollenweger,” I said, as stumbled to try to find the words to thank him for all that he had done for me. “No,” he said as he shook his head and extend his hand to me, “My name is Walter.”
I think the hymn writer captured the theology of John perfectly when he penned the words: “Friendship with Jesus, fellowship divine, Oh what precious sweet communion, Jesus is a friend of mine.” Amen.