I think all of us can remember a medical moment where we needed someone else to help us. You went in for some surgery, and when the anesthesia finally wore off, you had to have a friend or relative drive you home. They wouldn’t let you operate your own car with all of that sleep still in your eyes. When you staggered to bed, that same friend might have spent several days or even weeks bringing you meals, tidying up for you, smoothing out the sheet, and perhaps helping you limp to the little room down the hall.
Here in America, and here in this 21st century, I want to make a Sabbath morning observation. I think it is easy to be a cultural Christian, and hard to be a real one. Now, you may wonder how I mean that. The majority of Americans call themselves Christians. They don’t all go to church, but they have a connection to a church. They were raised with a church and its teachings in their life. When political pollsters call them up and ask, “Are you religious?”, they say yes. But there is a sense—a Thursday-night-in-the-upper-room sense, a garden-of-Gethsemane sense—where I find it very difficult to admit my surgical helplessness and allow this Teacher from Nazareth named Jesus to do something for me.
We want to think for a few moments this morning about a well-meaning believer named Peter. I’ve always liked Peter. I admire him. He’s probably the most colorful and well-known of the 12 disciples. I once mentioned to someone that Peter was my favorite, and they asked me: “Is that because you smell like fish or because you talk too much?” I hope they were joking. But Peter really loves Jesus a lot; he’s very gung-ho about helping Jesus succeed in ministry, and those are both very good things.
I don’t want to spend more than just a moment recreating the scene of the footwashing experience, because we just went through it right here. But it’s safe to say that the emotional atmosphere was much different on that Thursday evening than it was for us here today. We pair up with someone and we wash their feet, and it’s a bit awkward, and we usually have a generic, sort-of-secular conversation. How are your kids? Are things busy at work? Are you getting back to normal after the Christmas holidays? How about those New England Patriots? We might at least thank the person, and maybe have a prayer together, but it is a bland, reasonably comfortable atmosphere.
Here in John 13, we find that there is tension in the room. Satan has already entered into the heart of Judas, and I think Lucifer sent eleven of his demonic ambassadors to go into their hearts of the others as well. Pride was thick in the air. Not one of them understood that Jesus was about to die, that sacrifice and service and putting others first were the hallmarks of the new kingdom. They didn’t get that at all. They were resentful of one another; they were guarding their turf.
I have sat in board meetings and in committee gatherings where there was a wicked spirit. I confess that I have sometimes participated in that spirit. Pride. Jealousy. Waiting for an agenda item where someone I resent gets his overdue comeuppance, his reward. Someone prays, and your mind is thick with resistance because you’re angry or because you’re thinking about your own sinful desires. The twelve disciples are held in just such a prison on this Thursday night.
And now, without a word being spoken, Jesus does the job of a servant. He wraps a towel around His waist and starts washing their feet. So the men are embarrassed, but their shame is mingled with a continuing pride. Even now, no one says: “Jesus, no! This is ridiculous! This is inappropriate! You’re the Messiah; You’re our King. You stand back and let me do this job.” Nobody says that. To cave in now will be to cancel out all the gains of the last three-and-a-half years.
Of all the Jesus-and-Peter stories in the Bible, this is maybe the most important of them all. John 13:6: [Jesus] came to Simon Peter, who said to Him, “Lord, are You going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” And isn’t that true? Two thousand years later, we’re still studying this exchange, trying to understand the eternal significance of it. Was Jesus doing more than being an example? Was He teaching them hallmark realities about how things are in heaven?
There’s a painful decision that is oh-so-hard to make, and even in this land of cultural Christianity, there are few who comprehend it. In my years of pastoring, I have sometimes had very earnest conversations with people who were considering the possibility of coming to Jesus. Sometimes they are culturally “on board” with us. They drive here to church sometimes and they bring their children and perhaps even put a $5 in the plate because that is the thing to do. But when push comes to shove, the reality is that they have never said to Jesus, “I need You and the blood You shed on Calvary’s cross. I am a lost person unless I accept Your gift of grace.” And again, I have friends who simply find themselves unable to say that. In many hours of pleasant conversation, and in many, many Sabbath encounters, they have just never once stepped across that line and said: “I am a fragile human being coming out of spiritual surgery, and I need a kind friend who will take care of me in this moment of need.”
Now, let’s go back and think about all that the disciples had learned in 42 months of study. They had heard, if my count is right, forty different parables—all rich with meaning. They had heard sermons. They had witnessed healing and other miracles. They had seen demons get driven out. They knew Jesus had power and political appeal. They had seen people come back from the dead.
But it is not clear, before Thursday night, that they needed Jesus in order to be saved. That they were 12 lost men, doomed to stay out of God’s eternal kingdom, destined for a grave and a forever of darkness without mansions and streets of gold . . . unless they accepted the free gift of grace. Because on this Thursday night, the cross was still in the future. Grace was still a future offer. We can forgive Peter and James and John and the other eight disciples—Judas was gone by now—for not understanding that there comes a time when each of us has to say to Jesus: “I am helpless. Please take care of me. Please wash my feet. Please die on the cross for me and then petition Your Father to let Your gift count on my behalf.”
Verse 8. “No,” said Peter. “No. Never. [Jesus,] You shall NEVER wash my feet.” I won’t have it.
Now, what is this talking in the heart of Peter? I don’t know and you don’t know. All we can conjecture comes from reading about the 3½ years, and also from thinking about what’s in our hearts. My NIV text notes suggest that Peter was a mixture of humility and pride. Humility: Jesus, there’s no way I’m going to let my Master and my Lord get down on His knees and wash my feet. And pride: what will the guys think? I’m part of the inner three: “Peter, James, and John.” In fact, I’m the top guy in the top three. I can’t back down now. I’m so close to being Prime Minister.
In his career as a disciple, Peter said many things that were good. We could do a lot worse than to be cultural Christians like Simon Peter. One day when Jesus asked the twelve, in Matthew 16, “Who do you say that I am?”, it’s Peter who blurts out the truth: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Very good. When Jesus is walking on the waves one stormy night, Matthew 14, it’s Peter who says—again, with mingled hope and some pride—“Let me come out there to You. Let me be with You.” That’s all right. In chapter 17 the priests ask Peter, “Does Jesus obey the temple laws and pay the temple tax?” Sure. He’s trying to be cooperative, to get along. In the same chapter, on top of the Mount of Transfiguration, it’s Peter who’s so giddy with joy that he says to Jesus, “It’s just great to be here. ‘I could sing of Your love forever.’ Let’s build three mini-temples for You and Elijah and Moses.” Peter wants to please; he’s devoted. He leaves his fishing nets to obey Jesus. He learns to heal the sick himself and to cast out demons. But he never comes to the point of realizing that there is one thing he cannot do for himself. There is one moment where he has to admit helplessness and ask Jesus to be a Savior to him.
Philip Yancey tells about a conference on comparative religion in England where scholars were debating what, if anything, was unique to Christianity. There seems to be a golden rule in all faiths. There are principles of right living, ideas about holiness, about miracles, about the character of God, about life after death. What did the Christian faith offer that was different? But as they went back and forth, C. S. Lewis, the author, came into the room. “What’s the discussion about?” When they told him, he took two seconds to answer. “That’s easy. It’s grace.” End of conference. Only the Christian faith admits that we come to this Thursday night where we’re helpless, where we cannot save ourselves, where someone has to take care of us in our hospital bed of being sinners. We define grace as unmerited favor, someone doing for us that which we cannot do for ourselves. Peter needed to have a friend wash his feet, and he didn’t want to allow that to happen.
Now it comes down to today for you and me on this Sabbath morning. We have an advantage Peter didn’t have. We have seen the cross and we’ve seen Jesus hanging between two thieves. In Peter’s day, a new writer named Paul and a letter named Ephesians and this passage in chapter two, verses 8 and 9 hadn’t been written yet as Peter and the other disciples sat around that table thinking to themselves: me, me, me. Don’t give in now; don’t put on a towel now. Don’t accept this gratuity from Jesus now. But Paul writes in crystal-clear terms: For it is by grace you have been saved. Unmerited favor. A home in heaven that you have never earned. A mansion paid for by someone else’s blood. Saved by grace, through faith. My friends who endlessly weigh this decision know about Calvary; they simply don’t trust in it. They’re not willing to stake their life on it. Peter wanted to stake his life and his eternal reputation on all the things he had done up till now, and the miracles he had performed, and in his resumé of proximity to this really charismatic guy named Jesus. But he didn’t want to give up on self, on relying on self for salvation. Paul finishes the verse: This is NOT from yourselves, it is the gift of God—NOT by works, so that no one can boast.
And we find here in this exchange between Jesus and Peter the very core, the salvation center of decision time. Do we admit defeat and helplessness? “Nothing to the cross I bring. Simply to the cross I cling.”
There’s a debate which has sometimes unfortunately threatened to engulf our Adventist church family. It has to do with the nature of Jesus and His unique mix of human and divine DNA. Did Jesus have a sinful nature or a sinless nature? Other churches don’t tend to get so embroiled in this matter, and the Bible doesn’t give a clear accounting of it, so I think we need to be very humble and tentative. But this same writer I mentioned, C. S. Lewis, talks about a man who is drowning in a whirlpool. And a strong, kind man who has one foot on the bank reaches out to help him, to rescue and save. Should the drowning man complain, between gasps, “No! This is unfair! You still have one foot on the bank”? That advantage of being our Savior, of being holy, is why Jesus can die on the cross for our sins. And these eleven proud, bitter, self-serving men in that upper room, each one looking around, seeking for any small toehold of advantage, of political position, for any breakthrough in the polls and the caucuses and primaries, had this terrifying and wonderful moment where they let it go and said to Jesus: “Yes. I will have You not just as my political guru and my occupational mentor, but at long last as my Savior, the Friend who pulls me from the abyss of sin and death.”
Do you remember when your children came to the point of wanting to do things for themselves? You used to help dress them; now they want to accomplish that task themselves. They can pour their own juice; they want to ride their tricycle without your parental meddling. And they say to us, rather impatiently—along with Peter and the others in the upper room: “I can do it my own self.” I can tie my own shoes. I can dress myself. I can handle things, Daddy. Just let me be. Don’t wash my feet; I’ll wash my own. And I realize, even after several decades of living in the Adventist world, how I am never more than a hair’s breadth away from saying to Jesus, along with Peter, “You shall never wash my feet. All my good deeds, all of my giving, all of my years of commandment-keeping, are going to be part of my entrance ticket to heaven. I can do it my own self.”
Let me close with this encouraging word. It is so hard—painfully hard—to accept favors and charity from someone else . . . unless it is from someone you truly know loves you. We can say to that spouse or that daughter who helps drive us home from the hospital, “Please help me,” because I know how much they care for us. And I lift up before you today a Savior who goes with gladness to the cross. Hebrews 12:2: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross. Every time we take the bread and the wine in our hands, we are not accepting simply a political demographic, or a culture, or a church institution. We are accepting the offer of a friend’s death on the cross. And Jesus says to each of us, in all sober reality: Unless I wash you, unless you let Me do you this kindness, you can have no part with Me.
At the close of our service we’re going to sing I Surrender All. I think we often sing that song and we think of cigarettes and swear words as we sing. Jesus, I’ll really try to stop smoking. I’ll try to keep the Sabbath better. I want to surrender these eight sins right now. And that is not wrong. But Simon Peter came up to this Thursday night with a certain life in mind. Work hard. Know the right people. Act a certain way. Get ahead that way. Retire in glory. And Jesus says to him and to each of us today, No. It’s a completely different kingdom than that. Instead of macho and bravado, it’s to admit helplessness. It’s to come to the cross with nothing but your need and a willing heart. Shall we pray?
Jesus, here we are. We’ve said for a long time, “I can do it my own self.” I can be good; I can behave. I can reach the high mark. Help us to sense, from this poignant upper room, how You say to each of us: “No. Let Me be your goodness. Let Me rescue you from pride and self.” Thank You, Jesus. Amen.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.