The example of Jesus
Jesus said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”’ (John 13:15)
Many years ago a Lord of the realm died. His name was Lord Besborough. And as was the custom The Times newspaper printed an obituary. Unfortunately a mistake was made – perhaps by the understandable error of someone mishearing the name – and The Times printed the obituary of a Lord Desborough. Now the noble Lord Desborough was very much alive! He phoned the editorial office of The Times. After introducing himself he said, ‘I have been reading my obituary in your newspaper this morning with great interest.’ There was a hurried, panic stricken whispering at the other end of the line, to be followed by a slightly more authoritative voice asking, ‘Excuse me sir, but where are you speaking from?’
Where you are speaking from obviously affects the content of what you say and the degree of authority that attaches to it. Which is why Jesus’ words, ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you’ have amazing power and present an authentic challenge.
On the night in which he was betrayed Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. He performed the task of the lowliest of household servants. And when he had completed doing it, he asked the disciples if they understood what he had done. He said, ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord”, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’
By doing this Jesus becomes the model par excellence of humility and service and true greatness.
When Jesus and his disciples had gathered to celebrate the Passover, none of the disciples had wanted the lowliest of chores. So Jesus gave them – and us – an object lesson in greatness. He removes his outer garment, takes a towel, fills the basin with water, and starts to move slowly around the group, washing their feet, and wiping them with the towel. That was unheard of in Jewish culture at the time. Only the lowliest of servants did such a task. In the heavy silence all that you could have heard was the embarrassed breathing and the trickle of water. Here is God incarnate, stripping himself to wash the feet of his proud friends. Here is God prepared to get dirty in serving people. Here is God touching a part of another’s body that was taboo for anyone thought to be important. Here is a God who loves people so much, that he is willing to humiliate himself to demonstrate the degree of that love. This is the true greatness of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus said, ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’
Earlier I commented that where you speak from affects the content of what you say and the degree of authority that attaches to it. Which is why Jesus’ words have so much power and authority. They are words highlighting the importance of humility. In doing that they shine a spotlight on true greatness.
I discovered a story about the great missionary, historian and theologian, Albert Schweitzer. It appears that, one day he was arriving by train in Chicago where he was met by a crowd of well-wishers and admirers organised to be there by members of the Faculty of the University of Chicago where he was scheduled to speak. As the train was pulling into the station the professor who had organised the official welcoming party was eagerly detailing for the crowd the many accomplishments of Dr Schweitzer, lavishly praising his musical skill as an organist, his amazing theological books, and his courageous missionary work in Africa.
In the middle of this wonderful introduction Schweitzer looked out of his carriage window – the train was coming to a stop. He saw a frail, elderly woman dragging several large pieces of luggage across the platform of the station. He got off the train to great applause, and as he was being called to the microphone to address the crowd he simply walked past the podium, pushed his way through the crowd and made his way to where the elderly lady was struggling. He bowed to her graciously and asked if she would allow him to help her carry her luggage. The crowd stared in stunned silence.
After helping the woman, Dr Schweitzer returned to the platform, stepped up to the microphone and simply said, ‘I do apologise for the interruption. But we are put on this earth to help each other, especially those who are weak and frail. All the honours in the world mean nothing if we fail to care for the least of these in our midst.’
Where Schweitzer spoke from affected the content of what he said and the authority with which he said it. Like his Lord and Master Jesus Christ before him Schweitzer was emphasizing that true greatness lies not in worldly acclamation but in humble service.
Jesus showed that – important as he was – true greatness lay in the humility of service and Albert Schweitzer took him at his word and followed his example.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr once said, ‘Everybody can be great; because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.’
Surely Dr King was right. You and I are called, as disciples of Jesus in the twenty first century to be great through the humble service of others.
But as well being involved in giving humble service we should also be prepared to receive it. Peter, you may remember, was embarrassed when Jesus wanted to wash his feet and had to be rebuked for trying to stop Jesus from doing it. I wonder how often we shun the humble service of others because we are embarrassed. We experience problems and difficulties but are embarrassed to even admit that we are: let alone lean on the help and support of others through them. Sometimes we want to think that people do not have problems and difficulties, so we should not have them. Our pride stops us from seeking the help and support of others because we want to believe that we can stand on our two feet; and not to do so, we believe, is an admission of weakness.
Where we speak from affects the content of what we say. If that is so, then the content of what we speak, and under such circumstances, just illustrates silly perverse pride.
A minister preached a sermon on pride, and after the service a woman went up to him and thanked him for it. Then she told him that she was really distressed and needed to confess a great sin.
The minister was intrigued. It wasn’t often people accosted him at the church door saying that they wanted to confess sin. So he asked her what the sin was. She said, “Your sermon has pricked my conscience. I need to confess the sin of pride. You see I often sit in front of my mirror in my bedroom, sometimes for an hour at a time, just admiring my beauty.”
“Oh,” replied the minister, “Madam, that is not the sin of pride – that is sin of imagination!”
So often we imagine that we can stand on our own two feet and do not need to help of Christian friends. Well that is the sin of imagination – but it also sin of pride. It is true that Jesus challenges us to give ourselves in humble service to others. For him humility is a two way process, being prepared to serve and also being prepared to receive service. That is why, when Peter said he didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part of me.’
Jesus said, ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’ We are challenged to give ourselves in humble service, but also reminded that we should be prepared to receive the humble service of others.