We’re going to use our imaginations a bit this morning. Imagine that you were in the room on the night of the Last Supper. Imagine that you only knew about Jesus what the disciples did; that you had all of their cultural assumptions about who the Messiah would be and what He would be like. Imagine that you had always been taught that the Messiah would one day lead the armies of Israel in a great victory over all the enemies of God’s people (now specifically identified as Rome). Furthermore, imagine that you had become convinced that the man you had been following for three years was this Messiah. He had kept things in the dark for some time, but His triumphant entrance into Jerusalem suggested that the time for hiding was about to come to an end. This was in all likelihood a pre-victory dinner ahead of the battle that would soon be won. Appropriately it was happening on the Passover, the celebration of the time when God had acted in the past to rescue His people from the grip of oppression and to establish them as a nation. Sure Jesus had repeated over and over this strange claim that He was going to die and come back to life, but that was probably some kind of a metaphor for the battle seeming to go against Him before He took control and finished destroying the armies of Rome.
But tonight He seemed more focused on that than usual. All throughout the meal He had kept saying these weird things about the bread being His body and the juice being His blood. That didn’t make any sense at all and was frankly a little offensive—kind of like if someone today said, “Whenever you think about the cross and the empty tomb I want you to think about me,” we’d be offended. But still, it wasn’t enough to shake up their basic operating framework. Think how you would respond if someone started dropping hints that what we breathe is actually water and not air. It wouldn’t matter how direct their hints got or how much you trusted them, the idea just wouldn’t square in your brain because it totally goes against everything you have been taught your entire life. They could look at you and say, “You are breathing water, not air,” and you’d look at them with a trusting smile while in your head saying, “He just means I’m breathing humid air.”
Think how you would react then when this man you were convinced was the Messiah who was going to rule over God’s people suddenly got up from the table, took off His jacket, picked up a basin of water from the corner, and started washing your feet. I mean today when most folks seem to have at least a touch of petaphelaphobia (that’s a fear of people touching your feet) we’d be grossed out. But for the disciples it was more than that. They were living in a culture in which washing feet was at one and the same time a basic hospitality gesture, but also a job to be performed by the lowest slave in the household. Jewish households in particular considered the act to be such a lowly one that they wouldn’t assign it to Jewish servants. Only Gentile servants were called on to wash the feet of a guest. The nearest comparison I can think of to today would be if the President dropped by to hand wash your socks and underwear. This act on Jesus’ part so violently violated the social customs of the day that all the disciples could do was stare in horror. Peter was the only man in the room who spoke and this only because he had a bad habit of letting his mouth run out ahead of his brain. And his first instinct was to tell Jesus there was no way He was washing his feet.
After Jesus convinced him to sit down and shut up He explained what had just taken place: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 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. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” Listen, the goal of a disciple in that region in the first century was to be exactly like their teacher, their rabbi. Their one, single, overriding goal in life was to fully embody the spirit of their master, to become their master. What Jesus made pretty clear here was the fact that if they wanted to be who He was, they needed to do what He did.
This morning we are in the fourth week of our series, The Heart of Christianity. If you missed any of the first three parts or were here but thought of someone else you think should have heard them you can go to our website which is printed there in your bulletin and find both the transcripts and audio versions of them there. But just to bring everyone up to speed, the whole idea for this series is that while we are in this season when people are more inclined to consider the worth of the Christian faith than at other times of the year, I want to take some time and make sure you understand the most essential practices of the faith. The reason for this is that if you can put these into practice in your own life, then these folks who are perhaps considering the worthwhileness of the faith will be able to see through you that it is in fact worth their time. Also, though, if you understand what some of the basics of the Christian life are well, then you’ll be better equipped to talk about them with someone else.
In any event, in the first week of the series we established an important baseline: Christianity is not a rules-obsessed religion. It has fallen to that at various times in both the past and the present, but when Jesus followers have gotten things right the primary concern of the Christian faith has always been doing what’s right. We might debate what that is, but there’s no question on the fact that that’s the goal. In fact, an obsession with rules always comes into play when we forget about doing what’s right as defined by God’s character and focus instead on paving our own way to getting right with Him. It is when we leave behind what’s right that the rules are all that’s left.
In part two of the series we finally got down to talking about the essential practices of the faith. The first practice we looked at was the practice of confession. A confession is just an acknowledgement of the truth. But, when we confess something, when we acknowledge the truth, the expectation is that we are going to live in it. Otherwise, what was the point of confessing in the first place? Well, when we confess the truth that Jesus is Lord in our hearts and with our voices we enter into the life God desires to give us. We are saved. But, if this confession is a one-and-done affair and we don’t go on to live out of it, it doesn’t do anything for us. It was a fraud. What we need to do is take up the practice of living a confession lifestyle whereby everything about us proclaims the Lordship of Christ to anyone who cares to listen. In this way we are enabled to live the life that is truly life. Life comes through confession.
Last week, then, we talked about the practice necessary to sustain the practice of confession. If we are going to live a confession lifestyle we are going to have to become something other than what we were before we made our confession. In our sin-dominated, pre-confession state, we cannot possibly live a confession lifestyle. Our allegiance is to sin, not Christ. But, when we find ourselves in Christ, the apostle Paul said that we become something new and the old part of us is laid to rest. We are, in other words, transformed. We are no longer the same. But, if this transformation is going to take hold and last, our minds have to be fully on board. Our bodies go where our minds send them. This mental transformation is hard, but if we will make the effort to fill our heads with the good, true, and beautiful, it’ll be a lot easier than it otherwise would. Absent this transformation of our minds, though, our lives will reflect the world and not the kingdom of God. If our minds are not transformed, our lives won’t be.
This morning we are going to take the next step forward and answer the question: What does it look like to live a transformation lifestyle? How do we recognize a confessional lifestyle when we see it? The answer to these questions is found in something that if you have spent much time marinating in a church environment you know you are supposed to be doing, but which, when the rubber hits the road, you don’t do as much as you feel like you should. And yet, if we are going to follow in the disciples’ quest to be like Jesus we have to do what Jesus did. And that means serving.
Rather than take you back to the Last Supper, though, I want to go back a couple of weeks before then. Jesus was traveling with His disciples toward Jerusalem. He knew this was going to be the final journey of His life and He wanted the disciples to be prepared for what was coming. And so, along the way He told them again and again that when they got to Jerusalem He was going to die. But, He assured them this would not be the end. On the third day He would rise once again to life. He wanted desperately for them to understand Him so that when it happened they would be able to stand firm in their fledgling faith. One of the last times He did this is recorded for us in Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ life and mission. If you have a copy of the Scriptures nearby turn to Matthew 20:17 and we’ll take a look at this together.
Matthew writes: “And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem [Jerusalem was on the top of a mountain and so whichever direction you’re coming from you always to up to the city], he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priest and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.’”
This prediction on Jesus’ part just once again played into His attempts to deconstruct the narratives the disciples had of what the Messiah would be like and what he would do. Again, they all believed Him to be the Messiah, but to a man they all thought this meant He would be some kind of powerful political ruler who was going to lead them in defeating the legions of Rome. There was no place in their narrative for a Messiah who died. As far as they understood it, anyone who claimed to be the Messiah and then died, wasn’t really the Messiah. But Jesus was a different kind of Messiah. He would demonstrate this for them at the Last Supper, but what happened next gave Him a perfect opportunity to try yet again to lay it out for them.
Just after Jesus made clear once again that He was not the Messiah they were expecting by predicting His death and resurrection for the third time, two of the disciples, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, the hot heads of the group, conspired with their mom, Jesus’ aunt, to make a power play on the other guys. Mark reports that they came to Jesus, but Matthew clarifies that it was actually their mom who went on their behalf.
Check out how this went down starting at v. 20: “Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’” In other words, “Hey Jesus, I know You just said that thing about dying and coming back. We don’t really know what You men or why You keep talking about that weird stuff, but we do all know You are going to have a kingdom. Would you make my sons second-in-command when you take over? They are Your cousins after all and Your brothers don’t believe in You like they do which means you’ll want your cousins—my sons—and not your brothers. See, if they are second-in-command then I’m going to be the mother of the second-in-command guys which is actually a pretty nice position.” Jesus didn’t immediately say no, but rather gave them enough rope to hang themselves by asking instead if they thought they could handle the road He was taking to get to His kingdom. And they were thinking: “Can we handle it? We’re going to be the big men on campus. We’re the closest followers of the guy who’s going to be in charge of everything. We’re talking big salary, lots of recognition, all the food we can eat and wine we can drink, nobody but Jesus looking over our shoulders (and He’s going to be so busy running the place that He won’t have time to look much). This is going to be great. Of course we can handle it.” What they actually said was, “We are able.”
Well, the other guys heard about this and were pretty peeved about it. After all, what made James and John so special? Just because they were Jesus’ cousins they think they somehow deserve the top spots in the kingdom? The rest of them were just as committed to Jesus as they were and just as deserving of the number two spot in the kingdom. They were just going to have to work out some kind of a power-sharing program where they got to play musical chairs with those two seats.
The guys were having this conversation as quietly as they could behind Jesus while they were walking down the road toward Jerusalem. I mean, nobody wanted Jesus to know they were arguing about this. The way He talked about the whole being selfless thing all the time He probably wouldn’t react to it very well. But they knew how authority worked. The people who had it were better than the people who didn’t because those who had it used it to keep things that way. Jesus was going to be the big boss man before long and they were going to have authority. The competition for the number two spot was going to be intense.
Try as they might, though, Jesus heard them—or else simply knew what they were talking about because He was Jesus and He did that sort of thing. In any event, He stopped walking, had them all sit down, and took the teachable moment He had set in place a little while before. Look at this starting at v. 25: “But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and that their great ones exercise authority over them.’” He said, “You know…” because they knew. They had seen it happen over and over. Everywhere they looked there were local Roman leaders who used their power and authority to advance their own interests. They found ways both creative and direct to let the people who didn’t share their authority know that they were lower than them on the social and political totem pole. That’s just what people did. It still is. Corporate culture today is often described as cutthroat precisely because it is. How many times have you worked someplace where you had a boss or a supervisor who lorded their authority over you? I won’t ask if you’ve ever done that. Isn’t this how the world works. It’s the survival of the fittest. Dog eat dog. If you’re in charge, be in charge. If you have resources and opportunities, leverage those for your own benefit. Advance your stature and standing…and then worry about everyone else. Sure we should do some good deeds every now and then to balance out the toes we smash on our journeys to the top—pretty much every religion teaches some version of that—but this comes second to making sure the world works for us.
After describing the way things were and have always been since, Jesus introduces something totally new to the world. Look at v. 26: “It shall not be so among you…whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Let me tell you: This idea has probably done more to change the world than just about anything else Jesus said. What Jesus would later put into practice during the Last Supper he spelled out in detail here. “If you want to be like Me [and again, they all wanted to be like Him], your approach to life has got to be different.” Our basic operational question has to change. Instead of asking: “How can I be served by the people around me; how can I use them to my advantage?” the question has to become: “How can I serve the people around me; how can I leverage what I have for their benefit?” If we want to be who Jesus was, we’ve got to do what Jesus did: serve. The practice of serving those around us—in particular those who cannot do anything for us in return—is absolutely essential to the Christian life because it was absolutely essential to Jesus’ life. Jesus came to serve. The glorious and eternal second person of the Godhead left all the advantages of glory behind in order to come to earth and leverage them for our benefit. Had we been in His position we would have come and demanded worship. We would have demanded obedience. We would have demanded to be served by the humanity that lay so far beneath us as to barely be worth noticing. But Jesus didn’t. He came to serve. And if we want to be who Jesus was, we’ve got to do what Jesus did.
What more, Jesus wasn’t just blowing smoke here. Look at the very next paragraph. He put all this into practice. As the group reached the outskirts of Jericho a crowd gathered around them. There were a couple of blind beggars nearby (one of them was named Bartimaeus) who heard the commotion and started hollering Jesus’ name, pleading with Him to come and give them their sight back. Now, our bleeding hearts might expect the crowd to jump in and help these men get to Jesus. After all, that would be the kind thing to do. But in this culture, folks like these were not treated with compassion. They were treated with contempt. They were being punished by God for something and so their condition was their own fault. What more, their condition might be contagious and so it was best to throw some money at them from a distance and otherwise stay away. Accordingly, look at v. 31: “The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent.” But these guys had nothing to lose—what was the crowd going to do, treat them like a couple of blind beggars?—so they just shouted louder. And what did Jesus do? He—the king of glory who would one day inherit the world as His kingdom—submitted Himself to them. He stopped what He was doing, went over to them and asked what they wanted. The replied that they wanted to see, to have their eyes opened. And so He did what they asked. He behaved like He was their servant, like He was at their beck and call. He healed them. But He didn’t just heal them, He touched them when He did it. He put showing them compassion, meeting their needs, leveraging His gifts for their benefit ahead of His reputation, His perceived holiness, His schedule, His convenience, His everything. He set aside everything He had planned and served them. If we want to be who Jesus was, we’ve got to do what Jesus did.
Now again, if you’ve spent much time marinating in a church environment I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know. But there’s a challenge here. You see, that sinful part of us still demanding to be heard in spite of our willful devotion to Christ looks for any opening it can find to exert itself and have its own way. It has one here. We live in a culture that has been profoundly shaped by the Christian worldview and its understanding of the importance of serving others. Because of this a serving mindset is part of our culture. Seeing people leverage their advantages for the benefit of others is not surprising to us as it is in other cultures. That’s simply what people should be doing. This does not mean, however, that the self-advancing spirit Jesus described here doesn’t still exist. It simply uses service as a means to its end. Although it is repulsive to us when brought to light (and that only because of our Christianized cultural assumptions), people use service all the time as means to gaining power, position, and authority over others. Our culture encourages this, in fact. Consider how many colleges today place significant weight on the community service activities of prospective students. Now, is that a bad thing in and of itself? No, but consider how many students get involved in community service not because it’s the right thing to do but because it will look good on their college applications allowing them to gain power, position, and authority. That kind of thing pops up all over the place.
Here’s the thing: leveraging our advantages for the benefit of others in such a way that it benefits us is not the kind of service Jesus had in mind. His healing the two blind man was not a net positive for Him culturally speaking. It was not even a net neutral. It was more of a net loss. Service that ultimately advances our interests is not the kind of service Jesus practiced. Is it necessarily wrong, perhaps not, but neither should it be first on our radar. Pouring into your cup so that I look good and can get even more poured back into my cup isn’t the right heart here. That wasn’t what Jesus did. He poured Himself out, He humiliated Himself, He allowed Himself to be broken, He leveraged all of His advantages for our benefit and gained nothing for Himself that He didn’t already have. What more, He did it all for a people who could never return the gift. He was called by the Father to serve and didn’t respond with a litany of “what about thises” and “what about thats.” He simply said, “Okay.” As a result, the world has never been the same. He fully accomplished the mission the Father sent Him to do. If we want to be like Jesus, if we want to get the Christian life right, that kind of service is what it will take. If we want to be who Jesus was, we have to do what Jesus did.
And that’s the goal, isn’t it? As Jesus followers we are striving to be more like Him, to reflect His life more fully in ours. And when we do it, when we see it being done, we should celebrate it. Folks committing themselves to this kind of service are worth celebrating and yet if they are doing it right, nobody notices to be able to call for a celebration. Following on the logic of the disciples before Jesus explained where they were going wrong, we celebrate visible models of service. Preachers get celebrated for their service to the church and to the advance of the Gospel. But I’m telling you, the holiest service someone could do is not done up on this stage. As Oswald Chambers put it in his classic devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, “The real test of the saint is not preaching the gospel, but washing disciples’ feet, that is, doing the things that do not count in the actual estimate of men but count everything in the estimate of God.” He goes on to call the bluff and fear we often bring to God’s calls for us to serve Him: “We come in with our economical notions—‘Suppose God wants me to go there—what about the salary? What about the climate? How shall I be looked after? A man must consider these things.’ All that is an indication that we are serving God with a reserve…Jesus Christ’s idea of a New Testament saint [is] not one who proclaims the Gospel merely, but one who becomes broken bread and poured-out wine in the hands of Jesus Christ for other lives.”
Look, serving here is important and necessary and praiseworthy and for those of you who are involved in doing it know well that you are doing good work and that you have my gratitude. But, this place is only a beginning point. How can you get involved in the community to serve those the community often overlooks? How can you pour yourself out for the benefit of those who will never be able to repay it? How can you leverage the blessings God has poured out in your life for the benefit of those who could use some blessing regardless of the cost or return or attention it brings? This kind of service is an essential characteristic of the Christian life; it is powerful evidence of the presence of a transformed life; it is as clear a proclamation of the Lordship of Christ as a person can make; and it is a right act that no rule can touch. If you want to be who Jesus was, you’ve got to do what Jesus did. And what Jesus did was serve.