I would be willing to wager that the face of Jesus is the most frequently painted face in all of human art. What other single face has captured the imagination more than Jesus? I love the two we have here – the one Paul Welch did this year and the one his father painted thirty years ago. They are different – as all of them are. Everyone who paints a portrait of Christ tries to convey what he means to them: his compassion, his suffering, his connection with his Heavenly Father, his glory as the Son of God – the possibilities are endless.
I cannot paint, but if I could, I think I would try to capture the sense of compelling leadership in Jesus’ face. He was able to say to fishermen, “Come, follow me,” and they would leave their nets, their jobs, their whole old way of life, and follow him. He could enter a synagogue, and they would hand him the torah scroll to read and they would listen to what he had to say.
I know some people who are compelling; they walk into a room and just seem to fill it; people turn towards them and want to get a bit of attention from them. I have heard that Nelson Mandela had that effect on people – even on his prison guards. Jesus must have been like that, only more so, in the best sense.
And so, even though the disciples have become familiar with him over time, nonetheless, his commanding presence is still a reality for them as they sit around that supper table in the upper room in Jerusalem.
It’s evening by now, the light is low. Oil lamps provide pools of yellow light on their faces and project shadows on the walls behind them. After supper, Jesus gets up, slips off his tunic, and dons a towel. He takes a foot-basin and pours water into it. All eyes are on him. This is normally what a servant does. What is he going to do with that water?
Jesus comes up to the first disciple reclining towards the table, and he kneels down at his dusty, calloused, earth-coated feet, and starts washing them. He towel-dries them, then moves to the second. They all sit in stunned silence; I think it was embarrassed silence. This is the kind of man in whose presence you get tongue-tied because you are so worried about saying it right – and now he is handling your smelly, filthy feet – a thing that you would not ask anyone to stoop to doing but, well, as I said, a slave.
Peter, the one in the group who is least embarrassed about saying what is really on everyone’s mind just cannot let this happen any longer, especially not to himself. When Jesus gets to Peter, he objects. It just is not right at all for his “Lord” his “master” to act in this un-Lordly, un-masterly, undignified way.
Jesus looks at him with those eyes – those eyes that thousands of artists have tried to capture in their own way – knowing eyes, understanding eyes, intelligent eyes, resolute eyes, and of course Peter’s protests melt like butter in the oven.
Jesus put his tunic back on, returns to the table, and says to them all:
12“Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
Two words that seem small and un-remarkable to us have just exploded in that quiet room. The first is “example.” Jesus says he has washed their feet as an “example.” We use this word all the time – when a person helps someone with a burden they are carrying we say, “that’s a good example, a model; we all should do what they just did.”
It turns out, however that this is the only place in the whole New Testament this word is found. It’s not a simple common word for “model behavior.” In other Jewish literature this word seems to come up primarily in one context: when a person lays down their life for what they believe. (see LXX 2 Macc 6:28; 4 Macc 17:22-23; Sir 44:16).
Jesus has handled dirty feet, a bowl of water and a towel; but the example he has just given was of a Master becoming a slave. It’s death to the privileges of the free, master-class, death to pride, death to vanity, death to self-importance and self-assertion. The word “example” explodes into their tidy views of “how it’s supposed to be, how it’s always been done, how I deserve to be treated.”
And then the second word bomb goes off: Jesus says, “as”.
15 I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
It’s not just a “Jesus did it because he is Jesus” thing, like raising Lazarus from the dead, or walking on water. No, this one is exactly the opposite; this one is custom-made to be portable.
This word explodes a second time, just moments later as Jesus sums it all up at once saying,
34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
“Love as I have loved.” He tells them. All the way – to the end; even to death for each other. This will show the world who you are.
The old commandment had a different “as”. The old commandment was “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) That’s a strong “as”. Who can do that? I can’t. I want to, but I can’t love anybody, think about anybody else’s needs, feelings, goals, desires, dreams, like I care for my own.
This “as” is even stronger than “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” This is “love one another just as I have loved you.” This “as” has an effect. Loving with this kind of “as” will be a high-definition screen, 3-D, viral video to the world that says, “We are Christians; see how we love each other; as Jesus loved us.”
I have to stop and report some bad news. This is not how it has been going. A book recently published, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons called UnChristian; What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity (2007) tells what the wold thinks about us. “Kinnaman’s three-year social scientific survey by the Barna Group documents how an overwhelming percentage of sixteen to twenty-nine year olds view Christians with hostility, resentment and disdain.” (reported by Dan Clendenin in his blog, “The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself, ReflectionsEssay” posted 26 April 2010)
According to the study, here are the percentages of people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity:
- anti-homosexual 91%
- judgmental 87%
- hypocritical 85%
- old-fashioned 78%
- too political 75%
- out of touch with reality 72%
- insensitive to others 70%
- boring 68%
35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
I know what you are thinking: not all of us are equally guilty. OK, maybe not, but we all get painted with the same brush. My guess is that 16-29 year olds are not making fine distinctions. We are Christians, we go to church, we get painted with these colors in their minds. Look around this morning: how many 16-20 year olds are there that aren’t related to the pastor?
Why is it that Christian groups can become toxic? Why is it that we can be more known for our fights and intolerance than by our love?
I would like to offer on plausible explanation, and then some pastoral advice. By way of explanation, we are people of high standards. We are not perfect, but we know what perfection is supposed to look like. We expect each other to be kind, forgiving, patient, understanding and considerate; in short, we expect people here to be loving towards us “as” Jesus was. We have high standards for each other.
Standards: high for whom?
That is the problem. We need to have high standards, but they should be high for ourselves, not high expectations of anybody else. Why?
You have heard people (other people) say, “Who does he think he is? He isn’t any better than me!” And it’s true!
I should not expect anyone to be any better than I am: at forgiving when I get my feelings hurt – and I’m not good at it. I shouldn’t expect anyone to be more patient than I am; and I’m not patient. I shouldn’t expect anyone else to be better than me at keeping their mouth shut, at apologizing, at being sensitive to the needs of others – or any other high-minded virtue. I should not expect anyone to be any better than me – and I should realize that I’m not a very good “example.” I don’t lay down my life for anyone.
Rather, we need to have higher standards for ourselves. Our model, our pattern, our example must be Jesus Christ. I am supposed to be loving as Jesus loved. I am to become more Christ-like today than I was yesterday. I am supposed to be able to forgive more, accept criticism better, tolerate differing views better, understand weaknesses better, and respond to needs better today than yesterday. I am supposed to have high standards for one person: me. It is not that you are supposed to love as Christ loved – that’s your business. I am supposed to love as Christ loved.
One of the scariest things Jesus ever said was:
35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
But this is exactly what we are called to do. Our mission statement says that we are people committed to Loving God, Growing in Faith and Sharing Christ’s Love. It starts with love and ends with love, and in the middle is growth. This is who we are and who we will be, by God’s grace. Sixteen to twenty-nine year olds in Gulf Shores, sit up and take note.
I have often wondered if the Gospel of John were going to be written today, instead of the late first century, if it would have been made as a film instead of a text? John pays great attention to setting before he tells a story. It’s as if he were a director, looking at the scene, making sure that the people watching the film will understand the feeling, the mood, and what is motivating the actors. Everything John’s camera finds is significant.
As the scene opens, I picture a helicopter shot – we see people from a distance, doing some kind of group activity. As the camera zooms in closer, we see them in celebration. We continue to zoom closer, and now we can see the decorations specific to one holiday, and, being good Jews, we recognize it: “Ah, Hanukkah! The festival of Dedication! The celebration of the time we broke free from the powers that dominated us.
“We threw off that pagan yoke and became free people in our own land. They had desecrated our temple, turning it into an alter to Zeus, but now it has been re-dedicated it to the true and Living God. Now once again, we can celebrate the presence of God among us; the temple in our capital city, Jerusalem.”
John’s camera shows not only what the people are doing in celebration, it also shows how they are dressed: for cold weather. It’s winter in the capital. I have been to Washington DC in winter. The monuments and museum buildings are still impressive, but when it’s cold and gray and bare, it feels a bit depressing.
It’s supposed to feel depressing in this scene. John lets us see that it is truly winter in that ancient capital in every sense; it’s the season of dormancy. A dark cloud hangs over everything. Jerusalemites may be celebrating Hanukkah, but they are no longer independent; they are a tiny, ethnic client state, in the vast Roman Empire. In this context, celebrating a past era of independence brings on nostalgia for days of glory past.
John’s camera zooms closer still. We can see Jesus; he is walking in the temple, in the portico of the glorious ancient king Solomon. Talk about nostalgia for past glory days, long gone! “Solomon’s time was when the kingdom was at it’s height. See how the mighty have fallen.”
Why would John, the film-maker, have bothered to show us all these details? Because in that time and place, the memory of the past, and the hopes for the future all come together. There, in the capital, Jerusalem, in the dormant winter, in the re-dedicated temple, during the festival of past victories, in the nostalgic portico of Solomon, Jesus is being asked “Are you the answer to our greatest problem? Tell us plainly. Are you Messiah?”
How would we define our greatest problem? We are like onions, aren’t we, with layers and layers. We might complain about rainy Saturdays on the surface, and just beneath that layer is the problem of the recession and the politicians in Washington. But below that layer, deeper, we think of our families and their struggles, of our health concerns, of our own future. What is at the core? Beneath all the other layers, what is our most basic need?
We are here right now because we have discovered that at the center is our need for God. More than a healthy economy and a back that doesn’t ache, we long to know God and to know that he is with us. At the very center, we long to experience the truth of the twenty-third Psalm:
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.”
But in the story before us (and the story we live) it’s not so simple. In this story, it’s winter. The branches are bare. The portico of Solomon is not sufficient protection from the chilly wind. There is a plot-complication in this story. John’s camera has panned back from his close-up of Jesus in the temple, and we have seen that he is not alone. People have come up to ask that question: “Are you the answer to our biggest problem?” The complication is that they have already decided how God must act in order to be their answer.
Their question, “Are you the Messiah?” is really, “Are you going to be the new nationalist leader who will restore the glory days of Solomon (or at least of the Maccabees)? We have already decided that that is how God must answer our greatest need. So are you with us or not, Jesus?”
Works tell it
Jesus’ answer is telling:
25 “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
There is a Shepherd. The Shepherd wants to be with us as us walk through our valleys. The Shepherd wants to be the answer to our greatest need. The shepherd wants to bring us to a place of green grass and quiet waters in the presence of God. That is where he is going; that’s were he is leading; the only question is, will we follow? It is the role of the Shepherd to lead, and the sheep to follow.
So, John’s camera shows us Jesus telling the ones asking the question that they should have been able to see the path he has been on – they have seen his works. He has healed the sick, he has fed the hungry, he has embraced outcasts, he has opened the eyes of the blind – his path has been clear.
Jesus was not walking the path towards revolution, towards a political kingdom with a nationalist flag in an ethnically pure state. The sheep who were rushing head-long down that path were not following the Shepherd – they had no intention of being his sheep; they were not listening to his voice.
There are many paths that Jesus is not on today too, and many alternative would-be “shepherds.” They are on TV
a lot. They are angry. They want us all to take up their call to panic. They demand that we build walls around our wealth, around our privilege, around our access, and make sure that those who are different from us are kept out.
The Voice to the Path
What is the path that Jesus, the Shepherd is leading us on? It is not a mystery; it is a matter of simply listening to our Shepherd’s voice, and, like sheep, staying behind him as he leads.
Our 3 Objectives
We, in this congregation, have been listening to the voice of the Shepherd in order to follow him. We have summarized what we have heard him call us to do, and be, in three central, fundamental, basic objectives. It’s our mission statement.
We are here first and foremost, to Love God – to sing him praise, to bend the knee in worship, to lift our hearts in praise to him for being our God; our Shepherd, always with us.
Growing in faith
Loving God leads to our second objective, Growing in Faith. Growing means getting better than we were before; getting stronger and more able. How do we grow in faith? By focused, intentional listening to the Shepherd’s voice. That’s why we have Sunday school classes and bible study. That’s why we have small groups; so that we can hear the Shepherd’s voice and grow in faith. The voice may call us to expand our comfort zone, change old opinions, see life in a new way – that is exactly what growth means; it is the opposite if stagnation – it is spring, not winter. The test of whether or not we are growing is the question: when was the last time I needed to change my mind? Am I open to growing? Our answer is Yes, we are.
Sharing Christ’s Love
There is only one outcome possible for people who are growing in faith; our third objective: Sharing Christ’s Love. The Shepherd, whose works were so evident in his life, was always motivated by love. His healing, his feeding, his inclusion of the outcasts, are exactly what we who are following him on his path do.
We share Christ’s love for each other as we serve each other in this congregation through our ministry teams, shepherd groups, and all the kinds of service we give, from singing in the choir, to teaching Sunday School to cleaning the church.
We share Christ’s love for others as we give to support ministries of compassion like the One Great Hour offering that allows Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to immediately respond to crises like the earthquake in Haiti.
We share Christ’s love by our personal participation in works of service like the Christian Service Center, Habitat for Humanity, Family Promise, Blood Drives, and all kinds of ways.
We share Christ’s love by our own personal witness to what God has done in our own lives through Jesus Christ, and by supporting others in ministries of evangelism.
This is the huge difference between those who follow the Shepherd’s lead on his path and those who rush in another direction on their own path. The people in Jesus’ day who rejected him had decided that what they needed most was a way of self-protection. “Make a kingdom with a wall, keep out the bad guys and keep in the people like us.”
But the opposite is true. The one path to the kind of security they needed was the one on which Jesus was leading. Listen to the security that Jesus describes:
27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.
The Shepherd’s path
What we need the most, under all the other layers, is to know that God is with us. To be secure in the knowledge that even in our darkest valleys, we are not alone; the Shepherd is there, he is leading us, and that he knows where he is going. Our deepest need is the security of being on the path with God – no matter where it leads.
The secure path that Jesus, our Shepherd is leading us on, is the path of listening to the voice of the Shepherd and following him as he leads us towards Loving God, Growing in Faith, and Sharing Christ’s love.
Our text has two scenes, set one week apart. Both take place on the first day of the week, the day we call Sunday.
In scene one, it’s Easter evening. Three people have been to the tomb where Jesus was supposed to be, and found it empty: Mary Magdalene, Peter and the disciple Jesus loved whom we know as John. They have all seen that the tomb’s stone had been removed; it was strangely open. Peter and John have seen stranger things – grave clothes with no corpse; a neatly rolled up head cloth – but what do these things mean? John starts to believe that Jesus is not dead anymore, but alive, but Peter is simply puzzled – they return to their homes.
Mary alone stays behind, and it is Mary who is the first to see Jesus, risen from the dead, alive. Jesus commissions her to go and tell the others whom Jesus calls, “my brothers” – and she does. She returns to the place where they stayed and says, “I have seen the Lord.”
Hiding for justified fear
Now it’s evening that day. Mary has given her testimony. Let us place ourselves in that group. What are we thinking? We have been part of a movement that the people with the hammers, nails and crosses have decided is an enemy of the state. Our leader has been captured, tortured, and executed. The only reason we were not also hanging there on crosses to the left and the right is that we all cut-and-ran like cowards. “Take up your cross and follow me” was supposed to be a metaphor, we thought.
There is no reason to believe that it’s over simply because Jesus was crucified. A couple of years after Jesus was born, (6 AD) a man named Judas the Galilean tried to lead a revolt against Rome. Rome’s response was not neatly limited to punishing him alone; the Roman army sacked the whole town he was from, and anyone left alive they enslaved! And, by the way, that town was a short walk from Nazareth (Sepphoris). Jesus’ family probably had had relatives there. No, there is no reason to believe it’s over.
It’s even more complicated than that; let’s say Mary is right – Jesus is alive. What does that mean? A Roman death sentence doesn’t get suspended if it didn’t work the first time. It’s not over for anybody, including Jesus – who was not able to keep from being crucified once; best keep low, and lock the door.
Other causes for fear
Maybe there is another layer here. John’s gospel tells us that the disciples had locked the door for fear of the Judean authorities who had led the plot to arrest Jesus – but perhaps there were other causes of fear now, after hearing Mary’s testimony. What if he is alive? What if we have to face him? He is the one we all abandoned in his darkest hour. He is the one we left hanging out on his own for the Romans to “meet and greet,” as only Romans could.
It would be like a platoon in Afghanistan that had abandoned their lieutenant and left him in the hands of the Taliban. Seeing him again would mean looking him in the eye. Talk about a scar on your conscience!
So here is the bind we are in that evening: we are not sure the testimony of a woman is reliable (it’s the first century) – so there is still lots of doubt. And if it is reliable and he is alive, there is cause for shame for what we have done. Our options are doubt and guilt, in the context of quite justifiable fear.
A lot of us know what it is to live in fear, between doubt and shame. We go through times when it seems like nobody is there listening when we pray, no one is there with us in the dark; perhaps the skeptics are right after all. Of course when we get together we don’t admit to our doubt. We sing our songs, recite the liturgy, meet with our Ministry Teams – and pretend all is well. I have gone through times of doubt – so has everyone. Did not even our Lord say, from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yes he did! Even he did.
But we have also experienced regret, guilt, and shame at the idea that He really is there, and he has seen what we have done, heard what we have said, and knows – even down to our motives – all the way past our excuses. And there we are, like Adam with the half-eaten apple in our hands; guilty. Life is not wonderland for anyone; no one makes it through without scars; big ones.
Back to the story: And then it happens: Jesus is there! Lock or no lock, he is there. Was there a brief pause as he looked around that room making eye-contact before he spoke? Were there any eyes not averted away from his as soon as they saw him? The room has to be filled with both amazement that he is there and searing, painful shame. What will he say to us?
Remarkably, he says, “Peace be with you.” And then he shows us his hands and his side; he shows us his scars. They are fresh, red, still swollen; they make us wince just looking at them. But there they are. What is it that convinces us that Jesus is real? His scars.
And then he does something utterly unexpected: to us, the ones who abandoned him: he commissions us! He doesn’t just forgive us, he actually takes up with us where he left off, believing, in spite of what we have done, that we are the ones who can accomplish something. It says:
Jesus said to them again,
“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
In scene two, we learn that Thomas has not been present for any of this. When he comes around, the others tell him, but Thomas is a realist’s realist. He was the one who, when Jesus decided to go to Jerusalem despite growing hostility, said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (11:16). When Jesus spoke about going to the Father, it was Thomas who wanted concrete specifics, saying, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (14:5).
Now, realist Thomas says,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
We do not get to see into Thomas’ heart. Was he scarred by the guilt of abandoning Jesus? Was he especially ashamed at having been the one who said he would stick with him all the way to the bitter end? Actually it doesn’t seem so does it. His “I will not believe unless…” condition seems cold; almost bitter.
Maybe Thomas is the one who feels abandoned. Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah – but it all came to grief on a Roman cross. Now who is the fool? Maybe the scars on Thomas’ heart are the scars of disappointment with God.
Well, if so, we have been there too. There have been times when we cried out for help and were left on our own. There were times we prayed for healing, for a job, for guidance and were turned down. There were times we tried to pray our kids or our spouses out of bad decisions – but they made the wrong ones. We all bear the scars of the pain of what went wrong.
Thomas will not be persuaded by merely seeing the scars; his own are too raw to be mollified so easily. He needs to touch them. Even if his touch causes pain; that’s how people in pain feel.
Jesus is back
A week goes by; it’s Sunday again, the first day of the week again. And again, despite shut doors, Jesus appears among them. Again, to heal their guilty aching memories (because he knows that healing takes time) he repeats, “Peace be with you.” Thomas is there this time; they make eye-contact. Jesus does not wait for the request: he makes the invitation:
27“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Did Thomas reach out and touch him, as Caravaggio’s painting depicts him doing? We don’t know; the gospel of John doesn’t say. I don’t think so. In that moment, Jesus has swallowed up all of the past – the betrayal, the false claims of bravado, the doubt and skepticism – all swallowed up in his offer. Look at the scars, Thomas: they show who Jesus is.
When do people see the risen Christ today? Not when they see our stained glass, not when they see our steeples, not even when they see our cathedrals. People see the risen Christ today when they see scars. People see Jesus today when they see people like us who are imperfect, people who struggle with doubt, people with a past, with regrets, with disappointments, people with scars, who do what Jesus did.
That is exactly what he wants. He told us,
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.“
Jesus is saying to us: I send you to go out and do as I have done. Say “peace be with you” to people who have hurt you. Don’t retain their sins; forgive them – that’s what I have done, and I am sending you to do likewise. Not because you are perfect – you aren’t. Not because you never doubt: you do. But because you know me, the one who was scarred for you, that you might go bear the scars of the world.
Be the “wounded healers,” the scarred ones who believe (as much as we can believe) in the One who was scarred for us, whom we, like “doubting Thomas” confess as,
“My Lord and my God!”