Sermon Text: John 13: 3-5
“And Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.”
In both the Gospels of Luke and Mark the writers record Jesus’ teaching on the subject of loving service following a dispute among the disciples about “who is the greatest”. That kind of argument, Jesus said, is how pagans think.
“Among pagans it is kings who lord it over their subjects. This must never happen to you”. “The greatest among you must be your servant” – “For who is the greater, the one at table or the one who serves?” The world would say immediately, “The one at table”. “Yet” says Jesus, “I am among you as one who serves.”
Jesus is saying in effect, I am telling you that the world’s way will not work. John in our text ignores all of this dialogue. He just lets Jesus do it. Here was the master and Lord, not lording it over others, but showing himself to be the servant and slave of all.
Canon the Hon. Weeville Gordon, never wished to be the centre of attention, as he now is. And yet, we must honour him, because in so many ways, his long and devoted life of service was iconic. As a young nine year old, the youthful Rector of Holy Trinity Grange Hill impacted my life in no small way. He prepared me for Confirmation, and if he discerned in me a call to the ordained ministry, he never mentioned it. But I saw in Fr. Weeville the priest I wanted to be.
The gospel was not spoken and cannot be spoken in a timeless or abstract way. It is always spoken to specific people, who hear it with human ears and human minds. The Gospel can only be good news if it addresses and affirms our humanness, the very humanness with which God first endowed us in creation. Weeville Gordon knew this and it is precisely why his ministry was so engaging. You encountered his humanity, before anything else…. Weevile has blessed our lives in so many ways and so we are delighted for the opportunity to join ELLONIA and the family in affirming this.
But why do this? Because wherever there is an example of service we must celebrate it. Service for us Christians is not an optional extra, not something we choose to engage in because we feel like it. We live and care for others because in doing so we demonstrate something of who we are.
Servanthood was the hallmark of Weeville’s self- understanding as a Christian.
One of the most beautiful and profound expressions of servant leadership is expressed by Paul in his Hymn of Christ in his letter to the Philippians:
“His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as we are; and being as we are, he was humbler yet, even to accept death, death on a cross”. (Ph 2:6-8)
It is clear from the gospels that Jesus identified himself not as a king, or ruler of any kind, but as a servant. In the final analysis if we are not acting as midwives for the transformation of the life of others, if we are not functioning in a manner that can elicit acts of faith from those we serve, then we must ask ourselves, in whose name and in whose interest are we serving?
According to Jesus our authority comes from servanthood. Isn’t it amazing then, that the disciples should be arguing about who is the greatest just after Jesus related to them the story of his own suffering and death as the means by which he would gain the salvation of the world? In the very shadow of the cross, they were arguing about positions of power in God’s coming kingdom. Incredible! Jesus asks them what they were talking about. And they were embarrassed. They didn’t really want Jesus to know how their own self-centeredness had blinded them to their real mission.
The Second thing that Jesus demonstrates in our text is that the authority to lead has little to do with where you sit. Organizational consultant Margaret Wheatley wrote: “What gives power its charge, positive or negative, is the quality of relationships. Those who related through coercion, or from disregard for the other person, create negative energy. Those who are open to others and who see others in their fullness create positive energy. Love in organizations, then, is the most potent source of power we have available”.
Business leaders are fast discovering that if their business is to succeed they have to shed the image of the chief-executive locked away from the rest of the staff. The kind of leadership that is most effective today, whether in the home, in politics, in the church or in big business, is servant leadership.
“So if I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet”. This is the paradox of servant leadership. We grow up with the idea that “The greatest people are those who have the most servants.” But Jesus is saying precisely the opposite. As he said in Mark chapter, 9:5 “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.”
The Greek word is “diakonos” from which we get the word “deacon” one who serves. “I am among you as One who serves,” said Jesus. Greater is the one who serves a hundred than the one who has a hundred servants. This is a hard lesson for any of us to learn, but it is an important one.
Albert Schweitzer spoke to a graduating class in an English boys’ school back in 1935. He said: “I do not know what your destiny will be. Some of you will perhaps occupy remarkable positions. Perhaps some of you will become famous by your pens, or as artists. But I know one thing: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” And Schweitzer lived out his own words. In his forest hospital at Lambarene, he found himself hauling lumber about, and doing the work of a day-labourer, as well as a physician. One day, he noticed a well-dressed man visiting one of his patients. “Hullo, friend,” he called out, “Won’t you lend us a hand?” “No,” came the reply, “I am an intellectual and don’t drag wood about.” “You’re lucky, replied Schweitzer, who had three doctorates, “I too wanted to become an intellectual, but I didn’t succeed.”
Jesus lived out His own words, too, at the Last Supper, after all the disciples had got comfortable around the table, nobody took on the odious task of washing the guests’ feet. That was the role of a servant, to wash the dust from sandaled feet for people who were to recline side by side at table. It was an aesthetic necessity. But nobody did the dirty work. And so, Jesus got up from his seat and took a towel and wash basin, and did the dirty work reserved for servants. “I have given you an example,” he said, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” The foot-washing ritual that forms part of the observance of Holy Thursday is quite a humbling experience for those of us in the leadership of the church. It does get one close to one’s neighbour. We Christians, above all, are supposed to be people who not only notice the dirt and stains of others, but do something about it, even if it means getting down on our knees.
When we leave worship, and re-enter the daily routine, we have problems remembering what it is that we said and did in church. “Eternal God and Heavenly Father, Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you, and all persons in you, with gladness and singleness of heart, through Jesus Christ our Lord”. Did we really promise to be God’s faithful people – loving and serving God and all persons, as these words in our post communion collect states? According to Jesus, we love and serve God by loving and serving God’s children.
This leads me to make one final point, and it is this, that effective service can only come from a humble heart. was shaped by humility.
The witness of the Church in times past and even today, is often compromised as it competes with the systems of the world for influence and political power. The church that is serious about God’s mission in the world has to radically readjust that image, to become a humble church. It can never further its mission by resorting to coercion or violence, as in the days of the Crusades, whose baneful effects we are still suffering today. Nor can it further its mission through the manipulation and control of others. Since the church’s mission is none other than the mission of Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many, ours must be a mission based on humility.
You know said Jesus, “That the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20.25-27).
The mission of the Church – and of individual Christians must find expression not in domination or standing in judgment, but in acts of kindness, friendship, loving and humble service. This is the Christian way – the way of self-giving. Such a witness has changed many a life. We don’t quite know this happens. We don’t know how loving service turns an ugly situation into something of beauty. Love can work in many ways, and none of them is predictable. What we do know is that when our motive for loving service is shaped by nothing else, but by the grace of God, something unique emerges.
So I ask of us. What is preventing us from engaging in that kind of selfless service that is bound to add much value to the lives of individuals, to our community and nation? I leave you to ponder that. And as you do recall the saying about any task you undertake, that when you have done 95 percent of the work you are only halfway there. This is true with anything that has service as its only goal. The further we go, the more intense the demand becomes.
Paul speaks of our lives as “a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1), and we recoil immediately, for we know that sacrifice entails the total giving of ourselves. But if we long for the day when the dream of God for the world becomes a reality, when wrongs are righted and love begins to take root in our society, then we have to start living as servant leaders. Weeville Gordon did, and that’s the legacy he has left us to ponder today. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.