I read an interesting article this week on the Internet with the following title: “how to get a girl in your karate class to like you.” And in case you’re wondering whether or not this title is a metaphor for something else, it’s not – I really read an article about how to get a girl in your karate class to like you. Now for the record, I’m not currently taking a karate class, but in case some of you are, the article had some pretty good suggestions. Step one – you friend her on facebook. Step 2 – don’t make fun of her when she does a bad kick. Step 3 – while sparring with her do not go too easy. Always remember, she’s learning the same skills as you are. Step 4 – always compliment her karate skills after class. I’ll stop here but the list goes on – there were like 19 of these steps. And if followed to a tee, at least according to the article, there’s a chance you might just get the girl in your karate class to like you. Of course the article had a disclaimer – “we do not guarantee that if you follow these steps the girl will actually like you.”
In a weird way, that’s kind of how people approached the gods in the Roman world, which is where the Gospel was first proclaimed. It was a world that believed that many gods governed the lives of humans. Ancient Roman religion basically boiled down to one thing: appease the gods that controlled human life. And each god or goddess had a different list that had to be met. And since they controlled your life the point of religion was to get them to like you. To serve them. To do the perfect things, to make the perfect sacrifice, so that maybe – just maybe – you could get the right god to like you. But of course the gods were fickle and because of that Roman religion came with a disclaimer of it’s own– “we do not guarantee that if you follow these steps the gods will actually like you.”
Even we have inherited a belief that God has a list, haven’t we? And because we cannot keep that list our relationship with God is fickle. Yes we believe that God accepts us but that doesn’t mean we feel His love. The problem that follows is that faith gets reduced to routine. We fall short. We feel guilty. We seek to atone for ourselves, perhaps by going to church or by donating money or by doing “good deeds.” And as routine becomes habit we start to think, perhaps unconsciously, that we’re actually serving God! That God needs our worship and our money and our good deeds to get on with His earthly project. We’d never say this but our hearts see faith as a contract. And the terms of this contract go something like this: “we can’t keep God’s list, God accepts us anyway through Jesus, we’re indebted to God, and because we’re indebted our job is to serve. To take make the right sacrifices. To take the right steps.” And so we know that God accepts us. But that God actually likes us? Well, there’s just no guarantee.
Tonight’s gospel wasn’t just written to expose the absurdity of Roman paganism, with its many strategies on how to appease the gods. It was written to mock the very belief that we can serve God. Because the Gospel isn’t about us serving God. The Gospel is about God serving us.
In tonight’s Gospel John writes the following: “having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end. And during supper, knowing … that he had come from God and was going to God, Jesus got up from the table … and began to wash his disciples’ feet.” The point being made here isn’t that Jesus is God, but you know what the heck, he decided to wash their feet anyway. No – that’s not the point. John’s point is that washing his disciple’s feet is what Jesus had to do – not in spite of the fact that he was God – but precisely because He was God! In other words, through a simple act of washing their feet Jesus revealed to his disciples who God is: the Ultimate Servant that loves because He chooses to love, that saves because He chooses to save, that washes us because He chooses to make us clean. This isn’t yet another scheme to slip the pill in the chocolate milk, John’s clever way of saying “the Gospel is about you serving God and look, watch Jesus, here’s how you do it.” No, the point being made is much more scandalous: the Gospel isn’t about us serving God but about God serving us.
What a scandal the Christian Gospel was, and what a scandal it still is! Let’s be honest – isn’t there something about Peter’s objection that captures how we feel? Do our hearts not cry out, “Lord you must never wash my feet!” You see I think part of us would rather just be accepted, that we’d rather just fulfill our end of the contract – a little money here, a little worship there, and perhaps a good deed every now and again – because that way we get to remain in control of our own life. Part of us, to be quite frank, prefers the paganism of ancient Rome. We serve God. God is appeased. We get on with our own life and we fulfill our own plans. Because if the Gospel is about us serving God, well, then let’s be realistic – there’s only so much that God can ask. But the idea that God serves us? Well, an idea like that can shatter our lives and the plans we’re pursuing.
And so this little drama with Peter is funny on the outside, but on the inside it’s a deeply serious matter reaching to the very center of the Gospel itself. “Unless I wash you,” Jesus says, “you have no share with me.” In other words, “you belong to me by letting me wash you, by letting me serve you, by letting me be God.” And you know what’s so ironic? It’s when we let Jesus do that, when see that he came not to be served but to serve that the idea of serving God actually starts to make sense. It’s only when we see that Jesus loves us because He chooses to love us that loving other people even begins to make sense. Because if we let Jesus wash us, His mercy and love will break our heart, we’ll pick up a towel, and we’ll live to wash the feet of others. And by this people will know that we are Jesus’ disciples – because we let Him serve us – and our very act of “letting” will overflow into “loving.”
Now in a matter of moments you’ll have an opportunity to come forward and have your feet washed. If you choose to come forward for this simple act of prayer, here is what I suggest: do not ask God how you can serve Him. I invite you to pray a prayer more scandalous than that. Ask God what you can do to let Him serve you.
Now, if that’s hard for you, then imagine what it was like to hear the Gospel 2000 years ago. In a world where religion was about getting the gods to like you, imagine hearing the good news that God that was trying to win your friendship. In a world where religion was about serving the gods, imagine hearing the good news that God wanted to serve you. In a world where religion was about making the perfect sacrifice for God, imagine hearing the good news that in Christ God had made the perfect sacrifice for you. After all, that simple act of foot washing was meant to point to a much more courageous act of love – a cruciform act that would wash our souls and give us something that no other god had ever thought of offering – a guarantee that we’re actually loved.