Many times today when we think about the past we romanticize it. I mean, how many times have you seen a movie about some historical period in the distant past and at the end of the move thought something along the lines of: “It sure would have been fun to live back then”? Well, as tough as life can be today in spite of the multitude of gadgets and gizmos which are designed to make our lives easier, life in the past was even more difficult. And I.m not talking about 50 years ago. I.m talking about 150, 500, or even 2,000 years ago; before the advent of things like modern medicine or savings accounts or electricity or anything else that makes our lives easier today but which we forget about all too quickly when things are going well. One of the aspects of the past which is most often romanticized in churches today is life in the early church. We sometimes hear talk about how much better it would have been to have lived in the days of the early church fathers who were so wise, or the disciples who walked with Jesus, or even Jesus Himself. Many churches today claim to have the corner on the market for practicing the Christian religion as the “early church did it.” But let.s be honest: they don.t know what they.re talking about any more than if we started bolding proclaiming that we are practicing Christianity just like they did back then. To top that off, most of us wouldn.t have even survived a day back then. Life in the early church was rough like we really can.t imagine. In a book about the rapid rise of Christianity in the early centuries AD, Rodney Stark writes about what life in the city of Antioch would have been like. This was one of the major cities in the life of the early church if you remember much from the book of Acts. He calculates a population density of roughly 195 people per acre. To give you an idea of what that would be like, that.s just shy of double the number of people in this room all living in the same acre. That.s nearly double the population density of Manhattan Island in New York City. To give you and even better idea of what this means, in Dinwiddie County the population density is about 1 person per 13 acres. So the city was incredibly crowded. But that.s not even the half of it. There was no soap back then for average people to use. Combine that with a sewer system that for most people consisted of tossing the contents of chamber pots out their windows onto the streets below (hoping not to hit any passersby) and a dump site that wasn.t nearly far enough out of town to keep the smells down and you have the makings of unbelievably filthy, smelly, and generally unsanitary living conditions. It made the appalling squalor in which some people live in Third World countries today seem lavish by comparison. Add to this the constant threat of fires, earthquakes, riots, and disease outbreaks and you have a pretty unimaginably awful place to live relative to our standards. This was the culture into which the church was born and saw its incredible rise.
But what.s the point of this, you might be asking. I thought we were talking about our mission and vision. Well, if you.ll remember, in our journey to unpack the three-fold emphasis of our mission (belonging, learning, and serving), we are down to the last one: serving. If belonging here is about being who God made you to be in the body of Christ and learning the faith means staying in God.s hands in order to become that person, the last part here is what to do when we.ve gotten that far. You see, when we have started taking real steps towards becoming the people and the church God has designed us to be, serving will be a natural result of that. We won.t be able to help engaging our world for Christ. In fact, as we are going to come to see over the course of this morning, here at Central, we serve because we know who we are before God. In other words, our service is connected with our understanding of our identity (which, by the way means we know who we are). When we come to see ourselves as God does, service is the logical byproduct. Indeed: we serve because we know who we are before God.
But this doesn.t answer the question of where I was going at the beginning. Well, how do you think the early church managed to grow so quickly? On the power of the Spirit, one might astutely (and smart-aleckly) say. Yes, of course that, but what exactly did the power of the Spirit lead them to do that made them appealing enough for people to take the cultural, political, personal, and cultic risk to leave the familiarity of the Greco-Roman pantheon of religions and jump headlong into the kingdom of God? In order to understand the answer to that question we need to know two things: how awful things really were back then and what the average person thought of the idea of service. We already established that things were worse than we can imagine. On the idea of service, though, we.ve touched on this before. The Roman Empire was built on slavery—and this was a socially-based slavery, not a racially-based one. There were more slaves than free people in most parts of the Empire. Thus, any service was to be done by servants. In a culture in which honor and shame were everything, service naturally brought with it a degree of shame. After all, if you were serving, then you weren.t as high up the societal ladder as someone who was being served. And the lower the act of service in the eyes of the culture, the lower the servant to whom it was assigned. Okay, take this general attitude towards serving and introduce a major natural disaster or a pandemic. Now add to that a group of people who serve their neighbors without condition; who serve so faithfully and selflessly in fact that many lose their lives in the process of serving others. And now explain to me why the church experienced incredible growth in this culture. And it doesn.t work to try and claim that people joined the church in order to be served because once they became believers themselves and joined up they started serving too. People joined the church because they were a serving body. But why was that. Why was the church a serving body? Though it might be easy to answer this question by noting that their relative proximity to Christ.s ascension meant they hadn.t had enough time to
forget who they were, that answer turns out to be too simple (and false given Paul.s finding it necessary to remind churches he had planted to remember who they were). Instead, they served because they were following the example set out for them in Scripture. And though the Bible is replete with calls to service for God.s people, perhaps the paradigmatic example is one that we.ve looked at before but warrants a second look for our purposes this morning. Turn with me to John 13. This is the story of Jesus washing the disciples. feet and in doing so setting the ultimate example of service for His followers. The body of this story is flanked by two comments that I believe characterize our service here at Central. Jesus served and calls us to serve as a function of our identity in Him. We serve because we know who we are before God.
I.m going to read this story in its entirety to you before we talk about it a bit. I know this is a familiar story, but take a minute and put your heart in a place where you are ready to hear not just what you.ve always heard, but what God in fact has to say to you this morning through these words: “Before the Passover Festival, Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart from this world to the Father. Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. Now by the time of supper, the Devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, Simon Iscariot.s son, to betray Him. Jesus knew that the Father had given everything into His hands, that He had come from God, and that He was going back to God. So He got up from supper, laid aside His robe, took a towel, and tied it around Himself. Next, He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples. feet and to dry them with the towel tied around Him. He came to Simon Peter, who asked Him, „Lord, are You going to wash my feet?. Jesus answered him, „What I.m doing you don.t understand now, but afterwards you will know.. „You will never wash my feet—ever!. Peter said. Jesus replied, „If I don.t wash you, you have no part with Me.. Simon Peter said to Him, „Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.. „One who has bathed,. Jesus told him,. doesn.t need to wash anything except his feet, but he is completely clean. You are clean, but not all of you.. For He knew who would betray Him. This is why He said, „You are not all clean.. When Jesus had washed their feet and put on His robe, He reclined again and said to them, „Do you know what I have done for you? You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am. So if I, 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 for you. I assure you: A slave is not greater than his master, and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them..”
Alright, so what.s going on here and what does this have to do with us? Well, if you turn a few pages back in your Bibles to Luke 22:24 you.ll find that just prior to Jesus washing the disciples. feet they had been having an argument amongst themselves. It was an argument they had actually had before and Jesus had called them on it then too. They were arguing about which of them should be considered the greatest. You see, they didn.t have any conception of a serving, suffering Messiah. They were still expecting a royal, military Messiah who was going to hand Israel the world on a silver platter and here they were in on the ground floor of the movement. Have you ever felt like that? I mean, when you read the words in Revelation it.s pretty clear that God wins and at some point He is going to establish His kingdom here permanently where He will rule with all the saints. And then all those poor suckers who used to make fun of you for being a Christian are going to finally get what.s coming to them. Or how about this: We want to look our best for God and so we find our way to the best committees and places of service in the church so that everyone can see how great a Christian we are. This is all an issue of heart and identity. Where is yours and who are you? Anyway, Jesus knows they.re arguing about this and says to them: “The kings of the Gentiles dominate them, and those who have authority over them are called „Benefactors.. But it must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and whoever leads, like the one serving. For who is greater, the one at the table or the one serving? [That.s an easy one to answer.] Isn.t it the one at the table? But I am among you as the One who serves.” So what Jesus is saying here is that among the Gentiles (or in our culture, among the nonbelievers), the picture of authority is one of domination and control. Sound familiar? How many of you have ever had a boss who used his authority as a club to make people do what he wanted them to do, or a supervisor who made it clear that it was her way or the highway? Or perhaps, how many times do we have the same argument the disciples were having with people around us today? Oh, it doesn.t usually have any words to it, but there.s no question as to our intention. This was the context for Jesus. actions in John 13. It was in the middle of this atmosphere that He got up and washed their feet.
But why? Why did He do this? And no, “because He was God,” isn.t a good enough answer. Look at the first bookend of the passage with me in v. 3: “Jesus knew that the Father had given everything into His hands, that He had come from God, and that He was going back to God.” Now, in the original Greek the first phrase of that verse does not include Jesus. name. Instead, the verb “knew” is in a part of speech called a participle that.s open to some interpretation. And the best interpretation is that it.s what.s called a concessive participle which usually gives the reason for some action. All of that is to say that this phrase could be translated: “Because Jesus knew.” Jesus served because He knew all these things about God and His relationship with Him. Indeed, Jesus served because He knew who He was before God. Sound familiar? We serve because we know who we are before God. Because Jesus knew who He was He got up from
supper—He put aside His physical needs for a moment. Because Jesus knew who He was He laid aside His robe—the same phrase was used to describe Jesus. sacrificial death on our behalf thus grounding this act in His even greater act of service coming on the next day. Because Jesus knew who He was He took the position of the lowest servant in the household. You see, in a wealthy Jewish household footwashing was a job saved for, not the Jewish servants, not even the older Gentile servants, but the youngest, lowest Gentile slave; the rock bottom position on the social ladder. Now, we.ll talk more about the nature of Jesus. service in a minute, but I want to jam a bit longer on the reason given for it. What are our mission and vision all about here? Hear it again because I really want you to have this. The identity and purpose God has placed before us are all about becoming who we were designed by God to be. We need to be connected in order to do this and we have a lot to learn in the process, but when we understand who this person is and start taking steps to see this realized, serving is going to happen. In fact, based on what we see here, if we are not serving then we really haven.t gotten our minds and hearts around who we are. Our identity is rooted in who God is. The reason for this is that He created us. We have no purpose other than what He gave to us. And the purpose He gave us is an extension of His own identity. Thus, if our God is a servant—which He is—then we too were created for service. Now, how does this fit in with our recent talk about spiritual gifts? Our spiritual gifts should guide us to the areas in which we should be the most active in service because we are going to be the most effective in these areas because we were designed for them. But, just like Jesus wasn.t specifically gifted for washing feet, there can be no service which is beneath us. This is what Jesus was getting at when He spoke the words found near the end of our passage.
Jesus makes it very clear that if He—the Lord of all creation—can take up the lowest service upon Himself, a service which the disciples would not have even considered doing for each other, then there is nothing below His followers. This single act served to abolish all hierarchies from among believers. Absolutely they still exist in the world and at times we are forced to abide by these to some degree in order to be able to productively engage with the world, but as far as we are concerned, there is no one below us. This is why Paul was able to write on so many occasions that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. All lines of society and culture that would otherwise separate us are gone forever when find ourselves in Christ. For how often have we found ourselves in the place of Peter here holding tightly to the social order in the face of God calling us away from it? How often do we find ourselves attempting to dictate the terms of our relationship with God to Him instead of letting Him lead us forward into all truth? Yet once we are in Christ our identity is, and in fact must be, all wrapped up in His. Now, I will quickly grant that this idea might be frightening to many folks who are afraid of losing who they are. And the only thing I can say to this is that they are absolutely right to expect this but absolutely wrong to do so with trepidation. Make no mistake, when we enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ the person we were before such a relationship is gone and must never be sought again. What we have before us, though, is the opportunity to become who we were intended to be from the beginning. And who this is, is a servant at the pleasure of God. We serve because we know who we are before God. And when we serve like this we are quite literally taking the person of Jesus to the world. We are engaging the world for Christ.
And you.ll notice at the very end of the passage that Jesus doesn.t leave us without hope in this effort. This is certainly all about serving others, but we are not absent benefit. The last thing Jesus says is that if we know these things we are blessed if we do them. Serving is obedience to God and certainly provides a benefit to those being served, but perhaps the greatest benefit is experienced by the servants in this case. Jesus promises blessing which is an incredibly rich word that carries the basic meaning of supreme happiness and joy. Serving is about tapping into the greatest source of spiritual power and joy. The other part of this call to service is that it is an incredible source of freedom to us. It frees us from feeling like we have to stand on false dignity demanding respect from those around us in order to have some ill-perceived level of personal greatness recognized and instead allows us to see the truth that none of us is worthy of any respect save that which is afforded us by God as His loyal servants. It frees us from the insecurities that threaten to tear us apart and lead us to demand far more than our share so that we will be recognized as good enough by the people around us who are all clamoring for the same thing. When we serve we jump out of this rat race and walk into the incredible fellowship and spaciousness of the Word of God—which we have because we have become who God made us to be in the body and remained in His hands. Indeed, we serve because we know who we are before God.
So let.s tie some things together. You.ve now heard just about all you need to know about the basics our mission and vision. Certainly there are more details that are being clarified day by day, but as we said three weeks ago, without a big overarching vision that points us in the right direction, all these details act like quicksand, slowing us down and getting us stuck along the way. And this overarching vision is to create a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ. The reason for this direction is tied up with our identity, our purpose, our mission from God. This mission is that we exist to help spiritual seekers find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally. The way we are going to achieve creating a place for spiritual seekers to find a place to belong and know they matter is by becoming the people God made us to be in the body of Christ. This means discovering and setting about using the gifts He.s given us in the ways He intended for us to use them. But this is not going to be done without learning all the things we need to know. We will learn the faith and be empowered with the Spirit of God when we actively seek to remain in God.s hands. And finally all this will lead to our engaging our world for Christ and serving unconditionally because we know who we are before God. We serve because we know who we are before God. This my friends is where God is leading us. After much prayer and conversation I believe with all my heart that this is the place to which God is calling us. He has brought together an incredible group of people here from a variety of walks of life. He has enriched our ranks with a host of gifts—all those necessary in fact to accomplish everything He has before us. We will find no greater joy in our lives both as individual believers and as a church than when we see this accomplished. This is the direction and I invite you to join me on the journey. It will be difficult, I won.t lie to you. There will be times when we will want to quit and just go back to the way things were (that comfortable sounding yet tragically ambiguous time in the past where many organizations go to quietly die). But the way to the kingdom is forward. The way to the life Jesus calls us and enables us to live is ahead of us. Ultimately, this will be a source of more blessing and joy to our body than anything else we could possibly conceive. Join me in this journey. Let us together become the people God created us to be.