Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Servant God

In this section of John's Gospel we are entering the last days of Jesus. His ministry of preaching to the crowds is over. Before He goes to the Cross He has some things that He wants His little band of twelve to know. That's what the next several chapters in John are about. These are, in a sense, the last words of Jesus to His friends. And, for that reason, this is a special time for Jesus and these men. Jesus begins not so much with words but with actions. He communicates some important teaching by what He does here. And that’s what we are going to look at this morning. Our text is John 13. 1-20. Please listen as I read it.

This is not one of those passages of Scripture that you read and then say, 'What was that all about?' It's pretty clear what happened. While everyone is around the table ready to eat, Jesus does what a servant would have done. He washes everyone's feet. Peter, of course, creates a bump in the road. But, eventually, even his feet are washed by the Master. What happened is pretty clear. And the point of Jesus' acted out teaching is likewise pretty clear. He tells them, in no uncertain words, what they are to get from this.

If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.

So, what Jesus wants them to do is clear. They are to imitate His example. And the example isn't limited to foot washing. That specific stands in the place of the larger point. Jesus was a servant to them all. So, they - and we - are to be servants to one another. And that includes much more than washing feet before a meal.

But now comes the question that will get us a little further into what is going on. Why should we serve one another? 'Why?' is such a flexible question. It can be answered on so many levels and in so many different ways. You might answer that question by saying that we should serve one another because Jesus said so. It was a command. And that, of course, is true. It is a command, and we are to obey Jesus' commands without hesitation. However, there is a difference between calling a child to obey a command and calling an adult to obey the same command. Young children may not understand the deeper issues of obedience. But when they are young they don't need to understand all of that. When a parent starts to train his children the first thing that these children need to understand is that they are to obey without hesitation. Quick obedience is always the first lesson. Understanding the ins and outs of some command is important, but that comes later. As children mature, as they have learned to obey quickly, then they will need to know those ins and outs. Knowing what's behind a command will help them to obey more wisely. They will be able to see what that command and its obedience have to say to other areas of life. The goal is not mere brute obedience but wise obedience. That was one of the differences between those Pharisees and Jesus: brute obedience versus wise obedience. Likewise, as you mature in your walk, having learned to obey quickly, you also will need to see the ins and outs of a command so that you might obey wisely. And that's what's behind my question, 'Why should we serve one another?'

I'm going to get at an answer by connecting this morning's text with some others that express one of John's themes. You'll recognize it quickly enough as I read a few places where it shows up.

No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 1.18; 5.19; 14.8-9)

Time and again in John's Gospel we see that Jesus has come to reveal the Father, to make Him known. And one way that Jesus does this is by His actions. He does what He sees the Father doing. So, when Jesus washed the feet of those men He was revealing the Father. He was doing what He saw the Father doing. And as those men watched Jesus, they were seeing something of the heart of the Father. With that bowl of water and towel Jesus was revealing something about the nature of God. And what was that? The God who runs this universe serves others. He serves you. He is the Servant God.

How does He do that? How does God serve you? The plan of salvation, whose idea was that? Who decided to put that into action? That was the Father's idea. It was the Father who loved the world enough - who loved you enough - to send His Son. And how did the Son serve you? You all know the answer to that. The Son emptied Himself of His glory and became flesh. He did that so that you might be rescued from the darkness, from the wages of sin, from the evil that strangles and kills. Jesus became flesh to die on that Cross. And then, there is the Spirit. How does He serve? He serves by guiding and comforting and correcting the saints in whom He lives. The Spirit serves you. And this short list does not by any means exhaust the ways in which our God - Father, Son and Sprit - is a serving God. There are lots of ways that He serves you. When Jesus washed those dirty feet He was showing those men - and you - something about who God is.

Now, you're ready for the next step. Consider how you have been created. You are created in the image of God. Isn't that what Genesis says? And what's that about? At the very least, it's about each of you being a reflection of who God is. On a creaturely level, you are like God. So, if the God in whose image you were made is a serving God, what does that say about you? Being a servant to others is part of who you are. It is how you were created. It is part of your nature just as it is part of God’s nature. People were created to serve.

However, sin has ruined that. So, instead of thinking in terms of serving others, the default assumption is to think about how others should be serving us. And what a mess that has made of things. So, Jesus has come to fix that. Or to say it in language that I've used before, Jesus has come to restore you to your original beauty. Jesus has come so that you might reflect the nature of God. Jesus has come to re-make you into the servant you were created to be. And that is the route to happiness and satisfaction. That is how we can honor God as we were meant to.

So, back to that 'why?' question. Why should disciples of Jesus serve one another? You should do that because that's who you really are. You were created to be servants. So, you see, being a servant isn't some odd thing that you're supposed to do because Christians are called to do lots of odd things. No, you are to be servants of one another because that's who you really are. And understanding that affects how you obey that command. It helps you to obey wisely.

Now, Jesus' command to serve in this way could have been a cruel joke. Telling someone whose sin makes him think in terms others serving him - telling such a person to serve others, is like telling a fish to grow feet and walk around. Impossible. But the Gospel isn't about telling people to do what is impossible for them to do. The Gospel is about freeing people from the sin that has enslaved them so that they can be restored, so that they can be who they were intended to be, so that they can live well. So, commanding an unbeliever to become a servant is cruel. He can't do that. But commanding one of the saints to do that makes perfect sense. He has been freed by Jesus. The Spirit within him will give all the ability he needs to be what he actually is. And all of this is because of the plan of the Father. So, it makes sense for me to call you to the wise obedience of this command. Be the servants you were created to be and that you have been redeemed to be. Be who you really are. Serve one another. It is in the freedom of the Gospel that life makes sense and can be lived well.

Now, that doesn't mean that everyone here should start to work on a foot-washing ministry. We are all called to serve one another, but we will serve in different ways. For one thing, we have been given different abilities by the Spirit. Remember Paul's imagery of the Body and how one is an eye and another a hand. We are good at different things because of the different ways that the Spirit has blessed each of us. So, our serving each other will be affected by the abilities we have been given. Also, our situations are different. Some of you are older, and some of you younger. Some are married and others not. With young children and grown children. Retired, still working a job. Different situations which affect how we serve each other. And along with all of that, God has placed on us different callings. So, when you take all of that into account, the way that one will serve will look different from how  others will serve. But this much is the same for all. Everybody serves. Jesus' command applies to us all.
For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.

So, it is the nature of the Church to be a group of people who are serving each other. We are all to serve according to our Spirit-given abilities, according to our situations, according to our callings. Differences in serving will abound, and those differences will make our church work all the better.

Now remember, as you pursue that goal you will encounter sin. And sin is rather creative in how it disrupts the life of a church. Don't be surprised when sin shows its ugly face. But there is a way of dealing with sin. And at the heart of it is repentance and faith. When sin trips you up and you find yourself thinking in terms of how others are supposed to serve you instead of understanding that we all serve one another, then be honest with God, repent of your sin and come again to Jesus for forgiveness and change. Then return to the task of serving the people of Faith Reformed.

Let me offer some suggestions on what to do with all of this. I think it would be good to start with this. Your God has been a servant to you in more ways than I have mentioned this morning. I think that, at the least, that is worthy of a 'Thank You'. Imagine if He had been as selfish as we are so prone to be. Where would we be then? A 'Thank You' seems very right. Then, I think that it would be good to evaluate how you're doing at being a servant to the others in this room. And let me remind some of you that it is all too easy to start doing that by listing all the ways that you think you are failing at that. Don't do that. Start with ways that you are doing some good. There is a place for noticing your sin, but don't start there. Build on what you’re doing that's right. And finally, I think that it would be good to pray. And to be specific, I think that it would be good to pray that we increasingly become a church of servants, that we would be who we really are. Along with being an act of obedience and an encouragement to the other saints here, it would also be a very powerful witness to the world. There will be obstacles in the way, and that's why it's good to pray about this.

I'm going to close by using the pledge that we recite when we receive new members. This is just a collection of different Scripture. It will, I hope, give you some ideas on how to serve one another. Let’s recite this together.

I acknowledge and receive these brothers and sisters as fellow members of Christ’s Church, and I will pledge to them my duty and love as their (brother/sister) in Christ. I will be devoted to them in love, honor them above myself, being kind and tender, forgiving and forbearing. I will seek to encourage and admonish them, to pray for them as I have opportunity, to teach and exhort them to live a holy life. I will be faithful to practice hospitality ungrudgingly, bear their burdens, and serve them, even to supply material need if I am able. I will imitate Christ before them and put away falsehood, grudges, anger, dishonesty, evil talk, bitterness, slander and impurity since we are members now of the same body. I will seek to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace and I will accept them as Christ has accepted me in order to bring praise to God.