Narrative Lectionary John 13:1-17 - Lent II
Last week we spoke about searching for God in the unexpected place in life, even the places we might consider taboo or “off-limits” to God. We considered ways in which to search out the authentic God of love, not the distant God typically presented to us by religious rhetoric. We considered the possibility that no matter how grim a situation appears, God can somehow still be found and ultimately love always prevails - if you and I will be the willing vessels to allow it to prevail. This week our Gospel presents us with another striking image of God. A God who is unlike any other known in the mythologies of humankind. Today, we witness the God who gets on his knees and washes stinky, dirt covered, festering feet.
Jesus was not unlike many other supposed deities and gods of his time: he worked miracles, he taught profound and obscure messages that made people scratch their heads and he rallied large groups together with prophetic proclamations. He was a charismatic leader. If we are honest, we must recognize many of the stories, even legends, and seemingly unique traits of Jesus can also be found in the legends of the Greek and Roman gods. He wasn’t the first to supposedly be born by supernatural means nor would he be the last. Others had been murdered and yet lived on, some claiming to have had bodily resurrections. There were dozens of contemporaries of Jesus who claimed to be the messiah, or some sort of “God come to earth.” Frankly, it was in vogue to be a messiah or searching for one in Palestine 2,000 years ago. These men also worked miracles, claimed to raise the dead and rallied great crowds behind their teachings. The most well known of these contemporaries was a Greek philosopher and teacher named Apollonius of Tyana, who was born only three years before Jesus. I would like to share a brief recounting of Apollonius’s life from Bart D. Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:
“Even before he was born, it was known that he would be someone special. A supernatural being informed mother the child she was to conceive would not be a mere mortal but would be divine. He was born miraculously, and he became an unusually precocious young man. As an adult he left home and went on an itinerant preaching ministry, urging his listeners to live, not the material things of this world, but for what is spiritual. He gathered a number of disciples around him, who became convinced that his teachings were divinely inspired, in no small part because he himself was divine. He proved it to them by doing many miracles, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. But at the end of his life he roused opposition, and his enemies delivered him over to the Roman authorities for judgment. Still, after he left this world, he returned to meet his followers in order to convince them that he was not really dead but lived on in the heavenly realm. Later some of his followers wrote books about him.”
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? I dare presume that many of us would have guessed this quote to be referring to Jesus, if I hadn’t explained otherwise. The academic study of the historicity of Jesus is a vast and incredible field. A field that is worthy of your time and consideration, if you are willing to have your faith shaken in new and exciting ways. Just a few books, based on an academic and historical approach to Jesus’s life, will force you to decide what really makes Jesus worth your time. No longer will you rely on catchy religious clichés such as: “Jesus is God, the Bible proves it.”
Most of us here would never adopt a new faith or religion simply because adherents of that belief system wrote their own books and then used them as sole irrefutable proof. We tend to call that “circular logic” and most of us, reasonably so, take issue with circular logic being used to prove points that affect us in such poignant ways. Well, except for when it comes to Jesus, then we seem to just smile and nod. This Lent, once again I encourage you to quit smiling and nodding, and ask the tough questions. Allow your faith to become genuine.
My goal is not to destroy your love for Jesus today; actually I am hoping to do the opposite. Nevertheless, if your love of Christ is based solely on miraculous abilities or bizarre birth narratives it would be best to move on with your life and time. We must have far deeper reason for our adoration of the man named Jesus. If we call him, Lord, as so many of us profess to do, we must ask ourselves: why do we do this? What makes Jesus the Lord or master of our life? Is it simply because we have been told to believe, because the Bible says so, or is it because we have truly taken him and his teachings on as guidelines for our everyday life and interactions with others? It is easy to say, “Jesus is Lord,” but something entirely different to live with Jesus AS Lord.
Jesus has stood the test of time. While Apollonius and others had similar life stories and even cult followings after they left this world, millions are still talking about only one man each and every day. Why is this? I strongly believe it’s because Jesus was the God who was willing to wash stinky, dirt covered, festering feet without a moment’s hesitation. Jesus walked in a way that attracts the normal human being towards him and it has little to do with angels coming down from heaven or flowing white robes. It’s about the love Jesus demonstrated on a regular basis to his friends and followers. It’s about a man who was so authentically human and inexplicably divine, and always interested in the well being of those around him. Jesus was and is a God of the people, not one above the people, as most gods are.
Christianity has traditionally referred to Jesus as being: “God incarnate in the flesh.” These are fancy theological words making a very simple point, for the first time Jesus brought God close to us; God became one of us in the man named Jesus. No longer was God some ethereal spirit hovering over us in the heavens waiting to strike us with fire and damnation, rather God was walking upright on two feet. Jesus had hands and a heart just like yours and mine - finally God was one of the people. Now, many would expect a God in the flesh to take up rule, to exert upon others his way and make all things right in the world through brute force. However, Jesus did not function in these ways. Instead this God-man walked around in sandals embracing the greatest of sinners and those who society had rejected completely. He feasted with the despised and hated. He conversed with those who were considered outside the religious system of his day and he did on a level of equality and friendship.
Our Gospel reading tells us that Jesus, “loved his own who were in this world, he loved them to the end.” Keep in mind loving his own was not an easy task. Soon he would travel to the Garden of Gethsemane where he would pray to the point of utter exhaustion. Exhaustion resulting from the inner conflict over the mission of love he was about to bring forth, a mission requiring his very life and breath. Yet, all of his friends do what? They stand by his side, the wipe his brow, right? No. They just fall asleep ignoring his inner turmoil. Peter would soon deny he even knew Jesus, the same Peter who Jesus referred to as a rock of stability and purpose. One of Jesus’s closest friends would even kiss him on the cheek, a silent but emphatic scream declaring, “This is the one, take him!” Still, Jesus loved to the end. How I wish I could say I would do the same. My love tends to end the moment I get uncomfortable with someone or dislike their attitude, forget the possibility of them handing me over to my death.
Yes, Jesus continued to love because that is what a real God does. A God that is worth remembering isn’t afraid of entering into real life. A worthwhile God interacts with others in a way that many would consider to be beneath themselves. Jesus demonstrates his love for all his friends by humbling himself and washing their feet, one at a time. He puts his words and teachings of love into action, even on the way to the cross. Even as death is but moments away Jesus continues to concern himself with the wellbeing of others.
Jesus spoke a lot, he was after all a teacher, but his actions were always first and foremost paramount to his teaching style. The Gospel ends today by calling each one of us to do the same. Jesus says, “For I have set you and example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” We are called to become like Jesus, to become God manifested to the world around us. We do this through a holy love that knows no end and a complete willingness to even wash stinky, dirt covered, festering feet.
It isn't an easy calling. It wasn't for Jesus and it isn't for us. However, if we want to call Jesus Lord and have it actually mean something to the world around us then we must pick up the mission Jesus left for us. You and I must continue to walk his path on behalf of him, as his body on this earth. Even when the cross looms before us and we fear ridicule, embarrassment or even death…we continue to walk forward. When individuals, who would betray or easily forget us, surround us, we must still be willing to get on our knees of humility and “wash” their feet. The washing of feet can be done in so many different ways, perhaps words of kindness, a gift of food or time or even a smile. God became one of us in the person of Jesus. The question is: will God become one of us again in you and I?
At the end of the day I am and continue to be a follower of Jesus. Not because his story and legends are filled with goose bumps and miraculous events but because of his unending dedication to caring for the “least of these.” I call Jesus, my Lord and God, because he makes real the possibility of a future where peace and justice govern each one of us and where love conquers all fear, hatred and yes, even death. I do not find the substance of Jesus to be in how he came to this earth nor how he departed it, but rather in his actions and the life he lived fully in-between. God isn’t found in the legends but God is found in the actions of Jesus. God is found in the humble act of foot washing, whether we do so literally or symbolically.
Where will you find God this week?
Where will you become God for others this week?
How will you wash feet?