St Michael’s and St Barnabas 29th March 2018
Reading – John 13:1-17
One of the things I have discovered over the years is just how much has been written on the subject of church growth. Indeed I have a whole section on my bookshelves devoted exclusively to this topic, and most of them, I have to say, are a fascinating read. Some of them focus on bare facts and figures, showing what lessons can be learnt from the data on the ground. Some of them are about new expressions of church, and bold experiments in reimagining what church can be all about. Some of them are simply accounts of one person stepping out in faith and seeing what the Lord is doing. And I guess one reason why I have all these books is that church growth is something that we all long to see. We want a church where week by week more and more people come, where men and women of every age are growing in faith, where there are regular stories of conversion and lives changed for good.
But I also suspect that so often we make the whole subject of church growth more complicated than we should. Perhaps sometimes we are so desperate to see the Lord at work we focus more on strategies and techniques, than simply offering our lives to Him in humble, trusting obedience. If you look through the gospels, you will see that Jesus doesn’t deal in formulas to achieve this or that end result, and He doesn’t make promises of guaranteed success. What He does say however quite clearly is: Love one another. In fact during the course of the Last Supper He says it at least twice. Because as far as Jesus is concerned, if we want to make an impact on the world around us, if we want people to respond to the good news, then the place to start is by looking at our relationships one with another.
So in John 13:34-35 Jesus says: A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all (men) will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
Or again in John 15:12-13 Jesus says: My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
However I suspect that too often we have watered down Jesus’ command to love to mean nothing more than a bland niceness, or a comfortable sense of friendship. Let me clear: love does not mean simply smiling at people on Sunday morning, or sharing the peace, and then having no further contact until you next bump into them at church. Nor does love mean having a close circle of friends you spend lots of time with, to the exclusion of others. The love Jesus is talking about here is a reflection of the generous love He has first showed us on the cross. To quote those words from John 13:34 again: As I have loved you, so you must love one another. And unless there is this same radical Christlike love operating in and amongst us, I would go so far as to say there can be no real genuine growth of His church in the way that brings honour and glory to Him. Yes, we can use the ways of the world to achieve growth in numbers, or an increase in donations, but unless the love of Jesus is seen and among us, we are not the people God wants us to be.
This is why tonight I want briefly to focus on this well-known passage about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, because it helps us to understand, first of all, how Jesus has loved us, and secondly, how we should respond to that love. So far in this service we have already reflected on those extraordinary words of verses 1-4, how Jesus chooses to reveal His glory by taking on the most menial work of a servant. And we’ve seen in verses 5-9 how Jesus breaks down Peter’s resistance to having his feet washed. If we haven’t already worked it out by now, Jesus tells us plainly in verse 14: Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.
To love like Jesus means to be willing to serve. It means getting involved with the muck and grime of life, to lay aside where necessary our dignity and our status to do the work that others might think beneath us. Because the whole point of Jesus coming into this world – as He tells us in Mark 10:45 – was that He did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. The way to Christian greatness is not by being first, by promoting ourselves, by making sure we get noticed, but by being willing to be thought the least and the last so that Jesus is honoured and glorified in us.
And there’s also something very important here about the willingness to receive such love and service. I think one of the greatest barriers to the church truly being a community of love is that we find it embarrassing when others seek to serve us in such a truly sacrificial way. We are afraid, perhaps, that we taking advantage of them or exploiting them, which indeed may be a genuine fear. Yet more often than not it is our pride and our stubborn streak of independence that stops us from being served. We think we can manage fine on our own, and so we resist the love others seek to show us.
So although in one sense this command of Jesus is very simple, in another it challenges at the deepest level how we relate to another as believers. It reminds us that our faith is not something merely personal that from time to time we share with like-minded people. It is about belonging to each, sharing each other’s lives, being willing to do whatever the Lord calls us to do for the good of others.
And notice that Jesus here is talking to all of the disciples. It is often said that in any church 20% of the people do 80% of the work. Whether that’s true of St Barnacles, well, I’ll leave you decide. But the whole point of Jesus’ command is that not just a few keen believers are serving sacrificially, it’s that everyone is committed to one another, seeking one another’s good, aiming to reflect the love of Jesus. How would the church of Jesus Christ in this country look like if this were truly the case? Where every single church member to the best of their abilities aimed to follow His command?
This raises the important question, of course, of how then we become the church Jesus wants us to be, because the more you reflect on Jesus’ command, the more you realise how far short we all fall in putting it into practice.
So first of all, let’s think a little more about Jesus’ command to wash one another’s feet. Our natural response when we hear these words is to think about acts of service, and of course that is absolutely right. Where the church of Jesus Christ is alive and active, there should be a generosity and kindness shown to all. This kindness might be shown in the way that church members care for each other. Or it might be shown through any number of established projects, like running a soup kitchen, or working with disabled people, or in carrying out whatever ministry the Lord is calling that particular church to set up. Part of being the body of Christ is that we physically represent Jesus to one another, not just in words, but in our actions and our loving service.
However, as we saw earlier, the point of Jesus washing of Peter’s feet wasn’t primarily to teach him about service. It was about the need to be made clean from the sin and wrongdoing that sticks to us even after Jesus has made right with God. And so although Jesus is talking here about service, we have to recognise He is also talking about the need to forgive one another in His name. After all, when there is no genuine forgiveness, there will be no genuine acts of loving service. If there are barriers which prevent me from loving you, then it follows that I will not serve you as Jesus commands me to.
That is why during this Holy Week it is so right we spend time focusing on what Jesus has done for us through His death on the cross. In one sense, of course, we will never understand the depths of love that Jesus showed by choosing to die in our place for all the wrong in our lives. That Jesus should love even me is a mystery that this side of heaven I will never fully be able to comprehend. But I can at least show that I have understood something of His amazing love by being willing to offer and to accept forgiveness to and from my brothers and sisters in Christ. Again, one reason why churches do not grow is that all too often there is a gap between what is proclaimed about Jesus, and the way church members behave towards one another. And it needs only a few people who cannot or will not forgive to affect the whole body of Christ.
Now truly loving and serving each other is hard. Forgiving each other is even harder. So the final point we need to take away from this passage is that Jesus isn’t giving us an example to try and carry out in our own strength. When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, He did so in awareness that He had received power from His Heavenly Father. Later on, when He says As I have loved you, so you must love another He is not therefore asking us to redouble our efforts and work harder at pleasing God. He is asking us to be filled with His Holy Spirit so that we are given a power and a strength to love, to serve and to forgive which on our own we will not naturally have.
Not that even then obedience to Jesus’ commands will necessarily be easy. As this night we accompany Jesus out of the Upper Room we go with Him to Gethsemane and learn the cost of doing our Heavenly Father’s will. We experience His betrayal at the hands of Judas who would not accept the idea of a Saviour also being a servant. We find ourselves in the court of the high priest and hearing a guilty verdict being pronounced on one who had done no wrong. Serving like Jesus means being willing to carry our cross and follow Him, and at times we may wonder whether it is worth it. Yet as we glimpse Easter Sunday on the horizon, we also realise that ultimately giving up our lives in the service of our King is the path to life. We keep on keeping on following the commands of Jesus because it is only in this way we show a broken world the sort of love it so desperately needs, because it is only in this way the church of Christ truly grows to the glory of His name.
So this night let me urge you to hear again those words of Jesus: As I have loved you, so you must love another. Let me encourage you to commit to radical acts of service one to another, and to radical acts of forgiveness in the power of the Holy Spirit. So even though we may end up bearing a cross, others might indeed might discover the love of Jesus and gain life in His name. For His glory’s sake. Amen.