Smyth & Helwys Publishers recently released This is What a Preacher Looks Like, a collection of sermons by 36 Baptist women edited by Pamela R. Durso, my former faculty colleague at Campbell University Divinity School who is now serving as executive director of the organization Baptist Women in Ministry. I like the concept of this collection for a couple of reasons. One is more directly related to the theme of most of my posts on Ecclesial Theology: the ordination of women as pastors/priests/presbyters is an important matter for ecumenical dialogue, figuring prominently in recent rounds of the Anglican/Roman Catholic dialogue but also surfacing in other bilateral and multilateral conversations. It is important that such conversations give attention to the concrete embodiment of the pastoral ministry of women, and this collection of sermons by Baptist women can help serve that purpose. (I've made known my own ecumenical perspective on this matter in my book Towards Baptist Catholicity, in which I address in the final chapter one question raised by the book's title: "The most significant reservation which I have about becoming Catholic or Orthodox is my support for the ordination of women to offices of pastoral ministry, which of course runs counter to the current ecclesial discipline of the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy" [p. 200].)
I also like the idea behind this book because the woman to whom I'm married is in many ways the more expressively creative preacher in our household. Kheresa earned her undergraduate degree in religion summa cum laude, holds a Master of Divinity (with biblical languages), and served for many years as director of admissions for a graduate/professional divinity school, yet she has seldom had an opportunity to preach--partly because she's Baptist in the South, partly because she has a healthy aversion to self-promotion, and partly because she's married to someone who tends to get these sorts of invitations (which is a shame--because, again, in many ways she's the more expressively creative preacher in our household). Kheresa did have an opportunity to preach in a divinity school chapel service a few years ago. I've posted below the text of the sermon on John 13:1-15 she preached on that occasion.
It’s been said that only two things are certain in life: death and taxes. Perhaps a third item should be added to this pair—unpredictability. Life is unpredictable!
A few years ago I was reminded that life is unpredictable when the calmness of a warm later summer evening was shattered. It was September 1996, and Hurricane Fran attacked central North Carolina like a ravenous beast. Stately pine trees snapped like toothpicks. Oak and elm trees sliced through homes. Roads were blocked. In the absence of electricity and running water, central North Carolina was eerily silent.
My family was one of the lucky victims of Hurricane Fran. Our home sustained only minor damage, but we were without running water and electricity for a week. Although my parents never experienced the Great Depression for themselves, my grandparents did. And they taught my parents the importance of preparation and saving. As a result of this instruction, several months before Fran hit my parents had purchased a very large quantity of beef from a neighbor. The beef, along with countless pints and quarts of vegetables and fruit, was frozen in two freezers on my parents’ property. In the wake of a hurricane, that proved to be an unfortunate circumstance. Not only were we without electricity and running water; we were on the verge of losing a substantial amount of food and money.
A member of our church family who regained electricity within 48 hours after the storm learned of our situation. She vowed to provide us with fresh water daily. And she did. She invited us to shower at her home as much as we wished. She salvaged as much of the food that was destined to spoil as she possibly could, and she cooked for us. She did all of these things for us while she cared for the families of her two daughters, who were also without electricity and running water.
We did not ask Judy Mills do these things for us. We didn’t expect her do these things for us. Judy Mills did these things for my family simply in response to her love for God and God’s people. She took care of us because she loved us. Love often does those unnoticed, menial tasks because it is selfless and ever-giving.
Love that serves is often quiet and unassuming. On the eve of the Passover, Jesus by example taught the disciples an unpredictable yet powerful lesson on love-centered service.
It was not a typical spring evening in Jerusalem. The city was bustling with thousands of Jews who had traveled miles to offer Passover sacrifices in the Temple. Jesus and his disciples were there as well. Their entry into the Holy City had been a most unusual spectacle. Jesus had been welcomed and heralded as king by curious festival-goers. Now Israel’s newly proclaimed king found himself in a small room, surrounded by an unpromising group of hungry, dusty disciples who could not understand the nature of his ministry and who struggled to understand his perplexing teachings.
As the final rays of evening light cast long, weak shadows across the room, the disciples and Jesus gathered with dusty feet to share what would be a final meal together. Palestinian roads were unpaved, hard, and thick with dust. Travelers found their thinly sandaled feet covered in layers of caramel-colored dust. In an effort to cleanse the soiled feet of visitors, most homes were flanked by large waterpots. Slaves of affluent homeowners greeted visitors and gently washed away the layers of dust from weary feet. Slaves completed the cleansing process by drying weary feet with soft, clean towels.
The group that found itself with Jesus in a small room on the eve of the Passover was too poor for even one servant. So they gathered, with their dusty, tired, unwashed feet and growling stomachs, around a makeshift table that carried a bountiful spread of bread and wine. Succumbing to the hunger pains that riddled their stomachs and the strong desire to debrief the day’s events, the group began to dine on a well-deserved meal. In the midst of the pauses between excited chatter and the silence that accompanies the savoring of a fine meal, Jesus moved quietly from the table. Acting in the role of a servant, the newly proclaimed king removed his outer garment, tied a towel around his waist, poured cold water into a used basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel that cascaded down his side.
One can only imagine the thoughts that must have entered the disciples’ minds. One can imagine the voices becoming more and more quiet as Jesus the King cradled one of Andrew’s callused feet in his hands, and with his strong, gentle hands, the hands that would soon be broken and torn by nails, cleansed it with cool, soothing water. The room was filled with a deafening silence as drops of caramel-colored water splattered against Jesus’ own legs and feet.
One can only imagine the thoughts that must have entered the disciples’ minds as they sat, dumbfounded by the menial task being performed by Jesus. It was a task that they should have performed for Jesus. It was a task not befitting a king.
One can only imagine the thoughts that must have entered Jesus’ mind as he knelt in front of Judas Iscariot and washed his betrayer’s tired, dusty feet. Jesus knew that the final hour of his life was drawing nigh. Jesus knew that, cradled in his hands, was the foot of the one who would betray him with a kiss. In that quiet moment of humble service, Jesus was filled with sadness, frustration, love, and hope.
The deafening silence was shattered by the excited voice of Peter who exclaimed, “Lord, are YOU going to wash my feet?!” Peter’s misunderstanding provided Jesus with an opportunity to expound upon the very powerful lesson of humility in the service that he was performing. In response to Peter’s exclamation and his appeal for the Christ to wash his hands and head, Jesus explained to his disciples the nature of service: “Do you know what I have done for you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what 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 set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
With his face fixed on the cross and his royalty about to be stripped, Jesus the King performed a task that testified to the life he would pour out for all persons. The portrait of Jesus with a basin of water, the portrait of Jesus performing an act customarily reserved for slaves, captured the essence of the cross. In humility Jesus the King neglected the heel of bread that reclined on his plate. He removed himself from the bellowing laughter of his companions. As the cold water poured down bare feet and pooled in the basin below, Jesus Christ testified to his person and work. With his life and with his actions that evening, Jesus reminded his disciples that they must become servants to all persons, the persons who are easy to love and the persons who are a challenge to love.
On the eve of the Passover, as his death loomed heavily before him, Jesus washed disciples’ feet. The menial act was a lesson on true servanthood for the disciples of the first century and for us today. In one unpredictable moment, Jesus taught by example that service is not to be done for service’s sake. Service finds its strength in the humility of Christ-like, agape love. Service finds its servanthood in the love that gives itself away. Service finds its servanthood in the love that loves when love is easy to give and when love is hard to give. Service finds its servanthood in the person of Jesus Christ.
There are many lessons to learn from John’s account of the foot washing. We could easily discuss the perils of a life lived in pride. We could attempt to explore the nature of humility. We could delve deeper into the text and grapple with the presence of elements of baptism that pervade this biblical account. There are many more lessons to learn from the story of the footwashing. However, there are at least three lessons that are important to us as Christians and as ministers who strive to be Christ-centered, Bible-based, and ministry-focused.
First, a servant’s heart is filled with love. On the eve of the Passover, Jesus stood with one foot in two worlds. He stood in the world of his earthly ministry. He was with his closest friends, and he was with his closest betrayer. Jesus also stood before the cross. He was only hours from a cruel death. As he stood with one foot in two worlds, Jesus loved those persons who surrounded him. Jesus’ love for these persons was evident in the act of the foot washing. The footwashing was evidence of Jesus’ love for his disciples. Jesus loved Thomas, Bartholomew, Peter—and even Judas Iscariot. It was Jesus’ love for this motley group that compelled him to serve them.
When Hurricane Fran victimized my family, Judy Mills’ unconditional love for us was evident in her service to us. Judy served us with a love-filled heart.
Love is constantly giving and constantly caring. That is what love is all about. It is the kind of love that is experienced when a mother presses her cool palm against the fevered brow of her child. It is the kind of love that is experienced when a man has lost everything – home, family, career – and a friend reaches out and embraces him with an embrace that speaks volumes in its silence. It is the kind of love that respects and serves even the local drunk who is an embarrassment to the community. A servant’s heart is filled with love.
A second lesson we can learn from John’s account of the footwashing is that a servant’s heart is filled with humility. The service Jesus performed in the footwashing was a humble one. The King Jesus set aside his divine royalty and washed dirty, tired feet. There is a passage in The Beloved Captain by Donald Hankey that describes how a captain of ship cared for his men: “We all knew that he was our superior. I suppose that was why he could be so humble without loss of dignity. When we started route marches, for instance, and our feet were blistered and sore, as they often were at first, you would have thought that they were his own feet from the trouble he took. If a blister had to be lanced, he would very likely lance it himself.” Humility demands that we worry less about our titles and our stature in the community, and focus more on serving those around us. Humility demands that we embrace the beauty of serving what we may perceive to be unbeautiful.
A third lesson we can learn from John’s account of the footwashing is that a servant’s heart serves even when it hurts. While the biblical text does not specifically state that Jesus washed Judas Iscariot’s feet, but it is implied. If Jesus did wash Judas’ feet, the experience must have been painful. Perhaps the real pain did not reside in the fact that Judas would ultimately betray him. Perhaps the real pain resided in Jesus’ deep love for his betrayer. Despite the fact that Judas would soon betray Jesus with a kiss, Jesus served him as a servant.
A servant always serves in spite of the hurt. In his book Embodying Forgiveness, L. Gregory Jones recounts this story about an Armenian woman in the early part of this century:
“A Turkish officer raided and looted an Armenian home. He killed the aged parents and gave the daughters to the soldiers, keeping the eldest daughter for himself. Some time later she escaped and trained as a nurse. As time passed, she found herself nursing in a ward of Turkish officers. One night, by the light of a lantern, she saw the face of this officer. He was so gravely ill that without exceptional nursing he would die. The days passed, and he recovered. One day, the doctor stood by the bed with her and said to him, ‘But for her devotion to you, you would be dead.’ He looked at her and said, ‘We have met before, haven’t we?’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘we have met before.’ ‘Why didn’t you kill me?’ he asked. She replied, ‘I am follower of him who said ‘Love your enemies.”
A servant will serve even when it hurts. True servanthood occurs when personal feelings of pain and injury are set aside. True servanthood occurs when we allow God to heal our hurts and transform our pain into love for even those persons who have hurt us. That is what the love of Jesus Christ is all about.
Life is unpredictable, but love and servanthood are constant. The cross of Jesus Christ, as illustrated in the footwashing, is an exemplary enactment of supreme servanthood. It demands a response. Jesus Christ has set the example for us, and the Spirit empowers us to grow continually in Christ-likeness. We must do more than simply preach and teach servanthood. We must grab a basin. We must gird our loins with a towel. In love and humility we must wash each other’s feet.