Below is my meditation on John 13:5-16 from worship this past week. The text was requested by a congregant.
John 13:5-16 is a passage, I feel, which is healthy for pastors to be a bit uncomfortable preaching. Because here our Savior demonstrates who he is. This is the way John highlights Jesus’ teaching as revealed in the Gospel of Matthew, “…the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve…1”
In this passage Jesus takes off his outer garment, puts a towel around his waist, and does something that was considered so demeaning that no adult [male] Jewish person was expected to do. It was a task reserved for enslaved Gentiles, children, and women 2. This is the example Jesus wanted to give to his disciples–they were to be people who were willing to take on the tasks reserved for the lowest social strata and do them with joy because they were serving others.
So why do I say that it’s healthy for Pastors to feel uncomfortable when preaching this passage? Well, think about it. How much do I cost this congregation? Where do I live? To what church do Jen and I give our offering? It’s healthy for pastors to feel uncomfortable when preaching this passage because, if we don’t feel uncomfortable it is way too easy for us to flip Jesus’ teaching around and begin to see that the congregation exists to serve us. And nothing good comes from that mentality.
There’s the obvious things we can point out here– pastors living in mansions, owning private jets, or using their power to abuse folks 3. We can all say those things are not good. But I think there might be something more insidious about the “pastor is there to be served” mentality than the most obvious abuses. And it emerges when the pastor is mostly benevolent in their demand to be served. Their expectation to be served is subtle, and these pastors know how to make people feel rewarded for serving them faithfully. As such they are able to form a cult of personality which folks on the outside see as “successful.”
I see two problems springing from this. First, these systems are burn out factories. The pastor doesn’t care about the well-being of the people, they care about keeping the system robust so they can be served by it. So if someone stumbles, they get dropped in favor of someone who will prop up the system. The result is people who don’t just burn out from a task, they burn out from faith. Because what they’ve devoted themselves to is toxic.
Second, and I think this is even more problematic, it teaches people that being served is what the Christian faith is all about. This is why so many Christians panic when they feel cultural power shifting away from them, get violent when they’re asked to do something they don’t want to do, or got to easily hoodwinked by the idea that demanding people say “Merry Christmas” is the key way to defend the faith. Because when we flip the faith into us being served a culture which doesn’t agree with that assertion ceases to be the field in which we work. It becomes, rather, a threat that must be dealt with. That’s why the world saw “Christian flags” being waved, and heard the Lord’s Prayer being shouted in the Senate Chamber, during the January 6 insurrection. Because, through personal example and explicit teaching, a lot of Christians have been taught that washing feet is weakness. Because if we don’t put “those people” in their place then the culture will not serve our interests any more.
So much of what passes for Christianity in this country is, in reality, Peter saying, “Oh no, Lord. I don’t know what you’re trying to pull but you will never wash my feet 4.”
The problem with refusing to be servants is, if we don’t let Jesus’ example of service seep into the deepest recesses of our being, we’ll never really get what provoked him to go to the cross on our behalf. We’ll miss the very point of the faith.
So let me be clear. I am honored to be your pastor, and I will continue to graciously accept what this church offers me and my family with deep appreciation and affection. But Central Baptist Church does not exist for me. I accept what you offer us so I’ll be able to keep washing your feet. And sometimes I’ll do great, and other times I’ll fall short of my own expectations, but as long as I’m the pastor here I am your servant. That’s what I promised when I accepted the call here, and I take that seriously. The phrase I’ve heard which best describes my commitment is, “servant-leadership.”
But also consider this. Central Baptist doesn’t exist to serve your interests. It’s not here to give you something familiar, feed a desire for nostalgia, or fill all of our needs. Central Baptist Church exists so we can all praise our savior, the conqueror of sin and death, and say, “Jesus, thank you, make us like you.” And we do this so we can serve each other.
As Jesus said, “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another’s feet.”
And when we do that a bond of love is forged, which drives away the temptation to be served and the fear that people will use us up. And that bond, is what will make us witnesses in this world 5. Amen.
Matthew 20:28 ↩
Society has shifted for the better in a lot of ways. Adult women being thought of as actual people by a lot more people is one such way. ↩
Too often women, a number of pastors haven’t gotten the memo that women are actually people. ↩
And the implication is, “Because I don’t want to do it.” ↩
I didn’t say it in the sermon, but the idea of being a witness is, as we serve each other, we will “wash feet” in this world with gladness and grace. ↩