John 13: God’s Response

This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, March 7, 2021 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of an ongoing series running through Easter exploring the Gospel of John.

Today’s sermon is based on John 13.

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Thanks to the generosity of some great people here, and the insistence of a few of our children, we have a dog: a black lab named Albie. He’s a bit over two now, and things are going pretty well with Albie. We have learned the hard way that socks can never be left lying around. But once in a while, I forget about him and his ways, like recently when I made myself breakfast. I made a beautiful egg sandwich on an English muffin with a slice of cheese and avocado. Nobody else was home, and Albie had watched my preparations while lying on the kitchen floor. I set it on the table in the dining room and went to the refill my coffee. That was a near-tragic mistake. When I got back to the dining room, Albie was right there, gazing longingly at my sandwich, nose on the table. I’m no dog whisperer, but I could read his mind: That sandwich could be mine. “Albie!” I called, just in the nick of time.

My experience with Albie reminds me of something important about our lives: we can all do dumb things sometimes. I mean, I know better than to leave food at Albie’s height and turn my back. Or, maybe we could make Albie a little more human – anthropomorphize him a bit: we can relate to being tempted to do something self-destructive or hurtful, and others can see our temptation. Isn’t that what it’s like sometimes?  Sometimes we’re the ones who, in reflection, know that we did a bad thing, a dumb thing, a thing out of keeping with our character. We know about doing things that, when we think about them, we say later, “Why did I do that?”

In the Christian tradition, we have a word for the bad things we do, which we’ve talked about before: sin. It’s missing mark or straying from the paths of righteousness we know God the good shepherd leads us on. That’s the personal part of sin, but the other part of sin is sort of woven into the fabric of the world. It’s the way we can point to something – like a disease, a catastrophe, or racism – and say, “The world just shouldn’t be like that.” And we’re right. Sometimes, the brokenness of the world is too much to bear.

But once in a while, if we think about Albie less like a dog and more like a human, sin isn’t about our choices or the world’s brokenness; sometimes it’s about others’ choices. As with Albie thinking about my sandwich, once in a while, we can see the bad thing coming from another. Parents can see this when we can see a tantrum or an angry outburst coming. Most likely, kids can see it in us too. Unfortunately, this too is part of our lives: we, and others, do things that are out of step with our character and the ways of God, bringing pain and frustration to ourselves and others.

But, before we get too deep into feeling bad about ourselves, or looking judgmentally at others, today’s chapter from John helps to explore a more constructive question: What is God’s response to us when we do dumb things, or when God can see, clearly, that we’re about to do a dumb thing? As I’ve been reading this chapter, this isn’t the first thing that popped out to me, but it seems significant today – and we’ll explore parts of this chapter again on Maundy Thursday before Easter.

As people of faith, I suspect sometimes we are all too ready to proclaim our unworthiness, our mistakes, our shortcomings, and our failures. We tell each other, “Oh, I’m that good,” and “If you knew me like my family does, you wouldn’t think so highly of me.” And maybe these things are true, but is this what God thinks when God looks upon us? Does God say, “Oh, that Matt, he’s a real mess-up; he won’t ever get it right”? And, for that matter, have we reduced what it means to be Christian to “being or trying to be ‘good people,’” or is the Christian life something more than this? Today, John 13 challenges me on both of these fronts.

Here’s the quick summary of the chapter. It’s Thursday before the Passover and Jesus is sharing an ordinary evening meal with his disciples. He gets up from the table, takes off his robes, wraps a linen towel around him, and washes his disciples’ feet. This was something a servant would do – and before the meal, not during it. But Jesus shocks them by washing them. Then, he returns to his place at the table and essentially tells them, “I have given you a dream for the world, a vision of how to act in the world. If you’re going to be my disciples, if you’re going to learn and follow me, then learn this lesson: we love others, fully, by serving them. Do what I have done for you.” Then, Jesus feeds them, dipping bread into a bowl, and giving it to each of them, noting that one of them will betray him. None of them know who it is, but Jesus dismisses Judas to do whatever it is he’s determined to do. The rest are none the wiser.

In at least two people, this chapter shows us ourselves – and our proclivity to do dumb things, to sin or deny the best way for us. Obviously, we might be quick to point out Judas. John the Evangelist, with his little narrative insertions, makes it clear that Judas is about to betray Jesus. We know this part of the story, and surely we’d like to think we would relate more to any of the other disciples than to Judas. And so we might. But let’s also think about Peter. It’s Peter who, when he sees Jesus start washing feet, proclaims, “No, you will never wash my feet!” (v. 8). Then, when Peter accepts Jesus’s washing, he protests, “Don’t just wash my feet, but all of me” (v. 9). And later, it’s Peter who boldly proclaims, “I’ll follow you anywhere you’re going, Lord. I’ll give up my life for you” (v. 37). At this, Jesus calls Peter out, saying essentially, “No, Peter, you won’t. In fact, you’ll deny me three times before the rooster crows” (v. 38). Ah, these two disciples are doing some dumb things, but Jesus’ response to them reveals how God responds to us and our sin, and it’s not what we might expect.

Like I could see Albie’s desire to eat my sandwich, John the Evangelist clearly shows that Jesus can see what Judas and Peter are going to do. Admittedly, this example breaks down here. I stopped Albie in his tracks, as we should with dogs. But we are not as dogs to Jesus. We are not Jesus’ pets to be controlled by a pack leader. Jesus treats Judas and Peter with grace, even though he sees their potential for betrayal. Jesus washes them, each of them. He doesn’t withhold this grace. And in washing them, he includes them each in his instruction. He invites them into a new and better way, the way of servant-love. He doesn’t say, “Well, I know you’re going to do a dumb thing by morning, so this message doesn’t apply to you.” And then, he feeds them each. He pours himself out, physically and spiritually for each of them, modeling what we do whenever we share communion. Jesus keeps inviting his followers to follow him, even though he knows they’ll mess up. Jesus keeps washing, feeding, and nurturing his disciples, even when it’s likely they’ll fail. Moreover, maybe it’s precisely because Jesus knows our tendency to turn away or deny him, that he offers again and again, his grace, his washing, his sustaining grace.

So, there it is. As John said at the beginning of this chapter, Jesus “loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully” (v. 1). Jesus reveals the fullness of who God is, in as relatable a way as God can. As John began in chapter one, Jesus, the fullness of God’s wisdom, character, and ways, “dwelt among us,” “made his home among us,” and “we have seen [God’s] glory…full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). By dwelling among us, by washing his disciples’ feet, by feeding those same disciples who would certainly do dumb things – even the ones who would betray or deny him – Jesus reveals God’s love and care for us, so that we can love with God’s love. And in this, Jesus reveals that being his followers isn’t about striving to be just “good people,” or beating ourselves up when we’re not. Jesus knows we won’t be. Jesus knows our tendency toward sin, toward doing dumb things and avoiding the good things.

Jesus knows us, and still Jesus loves us fully. Jesus washes us, as in baptism, and through our prayer and worship. Jesus feeds us, through the encouragement and care of others, and at his table of grace. Jesus knows us, and loves us, revealing God’s full love for us, that empowers us to love others. And so it is, then, that we can confess before God and one another that we all stand in need of God’s grace, but also that we receive that grace through Jesus in the Spirit. Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another. (Here, we shared in a congregational confession).

Reflection Questions:

  1. This sermon obviously has a hole. Its focus is almost entirely on one aspect of God’s response to human sinfulness: grace. Therein lies the hole: it doesn’t speak to the need for transformation or repentance. How do you hold these two responses in tension?
  2. More to the point, as we see Jesus say to the woman “caught in adultery,” one of God’s other responses to human sinfulness is “Go…and don’t sin any more” (Jn 8:11). Were you at all frustrated by this sermon not including this important piece of Christian life?
  3. Yet, part of the reason I felt God calling me to preach this text this way – beyond that the repentance, new birth, regeneration, and transformation were not in this chapter – is that I feel called to chip away at the sort of modern Pelagianism we sometimes express. Part of this Fifth Century heresy is that we humans have everything we need to be “better,” to be “good,” and to be that which God created us to be, without grace, without Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection. How do you see the full story of the gospel, of Jesus, in relation to our modern view of this ancient heresy?
  4. On a completely different topic, what do you do with Judas in your theology? Do you believe he could have chosen differently? Do you think the story would have worked out any differently if he had? Do you think Judas, or someone, had to betray Jesus (John 13:18 seems to support this idea)?
  5. In still a different vein, which we’ll likely explore on Maundy Thursday with John 13 again, why do you think Peter at first rejected Jesus washing his feet? All the others, it seems, readily received Jesus’ washing. Why didn’t Peter? What would you have done?
  6. This chapter fully transitions John the Evangelist’s construction of the gospel from the “Book of Signs” to the “Book of Glory.” The concept of glory, of God’s glory, of Jesus’ glory, has been growing throughout John’s gospel, but how do you define “glory”?

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