Never Say Never!
Text: John 13:1-9
From the 16th century Reformation until today, churches have battled over the number of sacraments. In the Catholic tradition, there are seven sacraments while in most of the Protestant tradition, including Presbyterians, there are but two sacraments – baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Is it seven or two? Two or seven? Well, frankly, it is not an argument I have lost a lot sleep over, but if I did, my answer would be: Neither. After reading John’s Gospel for today, I would add foot washing as a sacrament.
Now, even as I say those words, I smile because I do not like people messing with my feet. I do not even like to mess with my feet! What if you had walked into Cove this morning and had been greeted warmly by Libby handing you a bulletin and then asking you: “Excuse me, but would you kindly remove your shoes so I can wash your feet?” It is not that I don’t appreciate the self-sacrificial sentiment of someone washing my feet; I do, but a handshake, a hug, even a nice kiss on the cheek is more than enough.
When Jennell and I moved to Atlanta, it did not take long before I met some dedicated souls committed to foot washing. A group of doctors, nurses, and volunteers would arrive at the Central Night Shelter every Wednesday night to tend to the feet of our Shelter guests. I quickly learned that people who live on the street suffer from a whole host of foot issues. Many Shelter guests spend hours on the street wearing shoes that do not fit and wearing socks with holes well beyond darning. One reason that I wear Bombas socks today is that for every pair of socks they sell, they donate a pair to a Homeless Shelter. What a great idea! But, I digress.
If I had been Peter, when Jesus took off his outer cloak and wrapped a towel around his waist and washed the stinking feet of all his buddies and then came toward me, I would have done EXACTLY what he did. I would have said: “Jesus, time to BACK OFF! I want lots of things from you. Jesus, I want you to guide me, to hear my prayers, to welcome me into your eternal love, but I DO NOT need you messing with my feet.”
Peter speaks for every hesitant bone in us, everything about us that appreciates Jesus’ kind offer, but would prefer to tend to our own needs – thank you very much. Peter speaks for that strong streak of self-confidence in each one of us that wants to redirect Jesus to spend time helping those who are truly needy; after all, we are the ones who give, not receive. Peter speaks with no hesitation. He is not vague or obscure in his response to Jesus. He says: “NEVER! Jesus, you’ll never wash my feet.” And, Jesus is neither vague nor obscure in his reply. Jesus tells Peter that he also is numbered among the needy; he too needs to receive the cleansing, welcoming touch of Jesus.
About twenty years ago, I joined a group of American pastors hosting a delegation of pastors from the Church of Scotland. Our conversation focused on the future of the declining church in the Western world. At that time and still today, the church of Scotland spent more time closing churches than opening new ones. Since then, many churches, Roman Catholic and Protestant, in the U.S. have joined churches in Scotland in declining numbers. At that conference, I made presentations and listened to some powerful sermons and throughout the week there were many questions raised about how we can revitalize a declining church.
I returned to my room late one night, read our text today from John’s Gospel, and realized that the answer to the question of “how can we revitalize the church?” is actually pretty simple: We can’t. You can’t. I can’t. The risen Christ is the one who first called the church into being and it is the risen Christ who will bring about new life in the church wherever decay and death has settled in. The church, then, is not ours to revitalize. Thank God! It is ours, in the words of our ordination vows, to serve and to pray for with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.
Now it would not surprise me for people who know me well and have followed me throughout my ministry if they stood up any second now and shouted out: “Gary, you’ve got to be kidding. You have always been the poster boy for church revitalization. You just said that we cannot revitalize the church, so why have you always pushed churches you have served to do 10,000 different things for that very purpose?” And, if anyone stood up and asked that question, it would be a fair one to ask. Far too often, I have preached of God’s grace and providence, and then have acted as if God’s hands are tied until you and I did something to revitalize the church – held one more worship service or started one more Bible study or began a tutoring program or took one more mission trip to Mexico or Haiti or Guatemala.
Jesus calls Peter to follow him not because Peter has come looking for a job, not because Peter is uniquely qualified for the job, and not because Jesus could not get the job done without Peter. Jesus calls Peter because Peter needs Jesus, needs him desperately, and Jesus knows it. Peter will never understand himself, much less understand Jesus, until he knows, and knows without a doubt, that it is Jesus who has called him, loves him, and has given him a life’s work to do.
After more than four decades of ministry, I am still on a steep learning curve with Peter, still learning that I have been called into this Christian adventure not because Jesus needs me, but because I need Jesus. My first instinct is like Peter’s, to tell Jesus to mess with someone else’s feet, because I sure don’t need him to tend to mine. After all these years, I am still tempted to see Christian ministry as a matter of how much I can do for Jesus, rather than daily thanking Jesus for his forgiving, cleansing, welcoming, saving touch, and for calling me to be a part of the mysterious and sometimes maddening ministry of the church.
If Peter was as much like me as I think he was, I imagine that long before Jesus was down on all fours with towel and wash basin in hand, Peter thought to himself: “What would Jesus do without me?” “What would Jesus’ church do without me?” And, the grace-filled answer from the Gospel story today is: “He would do just fine, thank you.”
For it is not Jesus who needs you, who needs us, who needs me. Jesus is not pacing the floor of heaven worried sick about survival of the church, tapping his feet anxiously on heaven’s floorboard until you and I do our next good deed, wash our next set of filthy feet, begin our next mission project to beat all mission projects.
Jesus could manage the church quite well without us, but thankfully, he chooses to do otherwise. He chooses to call you and to call me to share in this ministry with him. So, when you and I get wrapped up in a knot, worrying about the future of the church and how we can save it, this story invites us to set that worry to rest. Why? Because not only have we been baptized into Christ’s church and are regularly fed at his feast of grace, we have also had Christ wash our feet, even massage them when they were weary, and has set our feet moving to the pulsing drumbeat of his compassion-charged, life-changing, boundary-busting, table-setting love.
Maybe there is still time for the church to add one more sacrament to the list. Maybe there is always time to give thanks to the One who loves us enough even to wash our feet.
So, move over Peter. It is our time.