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.