You’re Going to Fail – Preach Anyway

I awoke this morning to a splendid question from an old friend, the crux of which was the latter part of 1 Peter 2:8, “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” My friend was having difficulty with the word translated “destined.” Neither he nor I ascribe to the Augustinian/Calvinistic school of predestination, and he was justifiably perplexed. This is a text that, if one so desired, one could make a mountain out of a mole hill and reach for predestination. Anyway, I’m not sure if I answered his question in a helpful way, but it got me to thinking about the subject. Then, almost as if it had been preordained (pun intended), I read John 8:47 in my daily Bible reading schedule, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

Let me say at this point that I am absolutely convinced of the truth of biblical predestination – one would have to be a ninny to read Romans 5-9 among other passages and not accept the idea of predestination – and my mama did not raise no ninny. But there is a catch – and it is a big one. The Bible nowhere speaks of individual predestination in the manner in which Calvin (in particular) built his theology. The context in Romans 5-9 is always plural – it is a group of people who are predestined – the church! The Bible only speaks of an individual being “predestined” in the rarest of cases – I can think of Pharaoh on the one hand and Cyrus on the other. That God chose or appointed or anointed other prophets and the apostles has no bearing on the Calvinistic concept of predestination at all – that is comparing apples to oranges.

So – how can Peter so blithely speak about persons being destined to disobey? Because Peter stood in a long line of preachers who were told their work was going to be largely (or sometimes completely) in vain – yet they were told to preach anyway.

Isaiah was told that his message would be largely ignored or rejected. He was told to preach anyway. Jeremiah was told that most of his words would either be ignored or ridiculed. He was told to preach anyway. Ezekiel was told that he was preaching to a church of people whose foreheads were like bronze – he was told to preach anyway. Jesus himself picked up on Isaiah’s words and used them against the Pharisees who were devout in rejecting his preaching (Isaiah 6:9-10, see Matt. 13:14-15; also Acts 28:26-27). Why all the rejection? Why did God keep telling his prophets, and even his own Son, to keep preaching when their words were to be of no avail?

Because God does not want anyone to spend eternity outside of his presence, and even if it means some will reject his word, he still wants every man, woman, and child, to hear his gospel! (Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9)

Let’s go back to John 8:47. Why did Jesus tell the Pharisees that they could not hear the words of God? Because they did not have God or God’s will in their hearts. It was not that God predestined them to reject his will or his words. They did that on their own. They had rejected God as the King of their lives and in so doing made it impossible for them to hear his word. Who was it that could hear? The poor, the blind, the lame, the prostitutes, the tax collectors – in other words, those who realized that they were spiritually destitute. They could hear. They would listen.

A professor explained it to me simply one time – it is perhaps too simple, but it gets the idea across. He drew three pictures on the black-board (yes, it was that long ago!). One was a slab of butter. One was a lump of clay. One was an ice cube. Then he put a great big sun up in the sky. What would happen to each of the three materials? The butter would melt and become gooey. The clay would harden. The ice would melt and eventually evaporate. The sun was the same source of heat for all three – but it was the inner makeup of the individual materials that dictated the result – not the heat.

Jesus’s parable of the soil is instructive here. The same seed is thrown on multiple types of soil. The eventual result for the farmer does not depend on the seed, his method of broadcasting the seed, whether he prayed for the seed, whether he used the proper technology to apply the seed, or how the crop would later be harvested. The success or failure of the crop depended upon what type of soil the seed landed. Now – don’t push a parable beyond it’s immediate application. Yes, it matters whether we pray and how carefully we speak to our neighbors. But, ultimately, the choice of discipleship depends upon the heart of the hearer, not the voice of the preacher.

So, why preach if the overwhelming majority of your preaching is going to be rejected, ridiculed, or just plain ignored?

Because God said success or failure was not up to us. Yes, we are going to fail. Preach anyway.

The Glory of the (Not So) Ordinary

Today my mind was struck by a goodly theme – pardon me for not being academic or profound or philosophical or theological. Today I’m just being me.

I wanted to write a post on the glory of little things. I have been touched so many times lately by things that at other times I would have just missed – either through my hubris or just plain inattention. That got me to thinking about how I have been formed by little things. And the more I thought, the more the “little things” came to mind, proving to me that they really were not little at all. In fact, in retrospect, they were really quite huge.

Let me begin with the description of a little gift. My wife and daughter gave me a framed picture of me on a horse. Just a little gift you say? Bite your tongue, knave, I respond. That picture is utterly priceless to me. It reminds me of me as a little boy – so innocent and full of promise. It reminds me of my childhood home, and the treasures that are associated with it. It reminds me of my precious friend – Wimpy – the horse of any little boy’s dream. Wimpy was the horse that Trigger and Champion and whatever Matt Dillon’s horse was named all dreamed about being. He was the best! I loved that horse, and I treasure that picture with all that I have!

I think about my “little” job of flying freight. I had a co-worker named Barney. Barney was the greatest. He scared me to death. One day I had the privilege (terror?) of flying with him. He knew his route so well that he put the plane down to about 100 feet off the ground, put it on autopilot, and started working a crossword puzzle!! Like I said, Barney was the best. One day we were all sitting around commiserating about our mutual sad affairs. One pilot said that he looked forward to getting a real job, one that was important. Barney gave us one of those Clarence speeches – you know, Clarence the angel in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Barney pointed out that we were flying critical freight – boxes and letters and other time sensitive materials that could make or break someone’s life – or at the very least enhance it. “Seems to me,” Barney said, “that this job was mighty important after all.” We all sat in silence, in awe of the greatness of the Barney-meister. Barney was the greatest, and no one who was blessed by his skill in getting packages from point A to point B would ever have known his name.

I think about the little preachers in my life – the ones only a truly few people are blessed to have heard preach. I remember one time in Farmington N.M. when a bunch of us preachers got together to have a little seminar of sorts. It was during a VBS – one preacher would take a night during the VBS to speak to the parents and other members of the church. I worked and worked and worked and “waxed an elephant” and probably sprained an elbow congratulating myself on what a wonderful preacher that I was. And then a fellow minister by the name of Philip James stood up and delivered one of the most truly awesome lessons I have ever heard. Never heard of Philip James? – I don’t doubt it. He preaches for a little congregation in a little community in northern New Mexico that you probably would not remember if you drove through it. At the time Philip was almost blind – I don’t know if he has received the healing he so richly deserves – and he was quiet almost to a fault. He was also one of the funniest preachers I have heard, once you got him to tell a joke. But people will go on and on about all the “mega preachers” in all the “mega churches” and they will never have the blessing of hearing Philip James, one of the greatest preachers I have ever heard.

I think about the little people in my life – the guys like George Olmstead. Don’t know George Olmstead? He was just the custodian at Montgomery Blvd. Church of Christ – and gave me one of my first jobs. He asked me to help him clean the building on Saturdays so he could do some of the more heavy cleaning and waxing and what-not. Every once in a while he would bring a bottle of “pop” over to where I was cleaning and just sit and talk with me. What a giant of a man! Few people knew, or ever cared to know, about George, but to me there was not a bigger or more important man in that congregation, and there were some heroes of my faith in that congregation!

I think about little words of praise. Due to my severe acne problem I never got to play high school football beyond my 9th grade year. My coach was named Bob White. Coach White was a zen master to me. One day we were doing a particularly painful drill in which we had to line up in two lines facing each other and, on Coach White’s whistle, try to knock each other into semi-unconsciousness. There was somewhat of an unwritten rule that the big guys tried to arrange it so they would hit a big guy, and leave us little squirts to whale on each other. Well, something got goofed up because I ended up facing our number one running back, Buddy Baker. Buddy was a great guy, but he was a beast. I looked at him, he looked at me, and then looked at Coach as if to say, “can we switch, Coach, I don’t want to hurt the little fella.” Coach looked at Buddy, looked at me, and said, “what’s the problem, Smith can do it!” We got into position, and the last thing I clearly remember was hearing Coach’s whistle, and then a pain like I have never felt before. As I stumbled back to get into line again all the guys were looking at me in a state of disbelief. I lost the battle, for sure. It had to have looked hilarious. But I will remember those words to my dying day – “Smith can do it.” Well, sometimes Smith can’t, but I’ll always line up and wait for the whistle.

So many little things, so many little people, so many little words. But none of them are little to me, all of the people are spiritual giants, all of the gifts are priceless treasures. All of them make up who I am.

The glory of the ordinary, even if it is not ordinary at all.

Confronting Toxic People and Maintaining a Submissive Attitude

Talk about serendipity. I have been struggling for a while with a particular situation in my life, and just today saw something that just leapt out at me. Because the overall scenario relates to the focus of this blog, I thought I would share some stray thoughts and maybe help some other folks along the way.

The truth of the matter is that every single one of us has to deal at some point in our lives with toxic people. By toxic I mean poisonous – they are simply not happy until they ruin other people’s happiness or fortune or both. They will scam and cheat to get to the top, and if they are not on the top, they will do everything in their power to destroy or dethrone those on the top. If they feel threatened they will not just respond in kind, they will respond with exponentially more aggression than they feel has been directed against them. Our current president of the United States is a poster child of a toxic personality. The president he replaced was just a step below him – powerful positions attract toxic personalities just as light bulbs attract moths.

The two most common ways of dealing with toxic personalities is to either (a) punch them in the nose and attempt to get them to back down, or (b) allow them to run all over you in the hopes they will tire of their aggression and move on to a more belligerent opponent. I will address each of these responses in turn.

First, there is truth in the maxim that the only way to deal with a bully is to back him (or her) down. One thing toxic people depend on is that no one is going to call their bluff, to make a stand. Toxic personalities are frequently the result of low self-esteem, and that generally means a deep seated fear. Expose that fear, and the bully will run. In point of fact, Jesus stood up to the bullies in his life, and that demonstrates that sometimes you must stand up and challenge the toxic personality and deny them their self-ordained superiority.

Sometimes.

The danger is that by attempting to make a justifiable stand, all we do is verify in the mind of the toxic personality that the world is against them and it is they who are justified in their belligerence. It is a mighty fine line that we attempt to walk when we decide we must back a bully down. I believe the key to help us understand when and how to do so and maintain our Christian attitude is found in Matthew 5:39. This passage, which has been all too frequently mis-translated (and thereby mis-applied) does not mean that we are never to resist an evil person, but that we are not to resist evil using evil means, or using the policy of “eye for eye” (see Romans 12:17-21 for Paul’s confirmation of this assertion!) If a disciple is to never resist an evil person, then Jesus is the chief sinner – for he resisted evil (and evil people) at every turn. But – and this is the truth that Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount – we cannot confront toxic people using our own concoction of toxic poison!

So, there is a truth in the idea that toxic people in our lives must be confronted, but that confrontation must be according to God’s will, and not our own desire for revenge or, even worse, or own sinful desire to be “top dog.” Chances are if a person is acting in a belligerent, toxic manner to you, they are also being abusive in other situations, and there is a very high likelihood that others are at risk. We cannot allow others to be hurt just because we are afraid of confrontation. There is a time and a place to protect ourselves and others that we know are in danger. We must, however, be extraordinarily careful lest we fall into the trap of revenge or one-upmanship.

Which then leads to the second of our options, and that is to just do nothing and let the toxic person have his or her way, and hope that soon he or she will tire of the game and move on to a more worthy opponent. I must admit a certain weakness here, as this is my default response. That is, until I have a belly full of being pushed around, and then I erupt in the most unChristian  of behaviors which really does not serve me – or anyone around me – very well.

Once again, there is Scriptural precedent for following this course of action. Returning to Matthew 5, it is clear that Jesus is suggesting that personal resistance is not the preferred choice of action. Paul repeats that teaching in Romans 12. But, and make no mistake about this, both Jesus and Paul did offer resistance when resistance was not just available, but was also the appropriate response. Jesus did stop the mob from stoning the woman caught in adultery. Jesus did challenge the Pharisees and others as being a bunch of hypocrites and snakes. Jesus did clear the temple of the money-grubbing merchants. Paul did forcibly confront Peter in the matter of withdrawing from the Gentiles. Paul did forcibly confront the Galatian heresy, and he did hand Hymenaeus and Alexander “over to Satan.” Paul had to deal with Alexander the Silversmith, John had to deal with his Diotrephes.

And yet Jesus allowed himself to be arrested, as did Paul, and both surrendered to events that would lead to their deaths because they had first surrendered to the will of God in their lives.

As I see it, and as I am struggling mightily to apply in my life, if the issue is larger than my wants and my feelings and my personal situation, then I must act to confront the toxic person and either remove them or terminate their authority, if possible. If, however, the conflict in my life is nothing more than a conflict of personalities or if the situation appears to only revolve around my perception of my own self-importance, then I am not justified in acting in a toxic manner myself.

Submitting to  one another, loving one another, being genuinely concerned for one another, does not mean, and even cannot mean, that we allow toxic people to control our lives or even worse, to control the church for which Christ died. But let us be so very careful that we do not allow that truth to so color our perception that we fall into Satan’s trap and become the very poison that we so rightly abhor.

Let us serve, and let us lead, by ascending lower.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Leadership From Below

Yesterday’s post generated a thoughtful comment, and that comment spurred another thought in my mind. “Iron sharpens iron . . . ” so the wise preacher said. So, indeed, it does.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into what could arguably be called one of the most aristocratic families in Germany. His father was a leading psychiatrist,  both of his parents came from aristocratic, if not regal, blood lines. Growing up Bonhoeffer was keenly aware of the primacy of position this placed him, and there are clear statements where he admits this was troublesome to him.

In the church struggle that Bonhoeffer was so deeply involved, he quickly realized that it was not the ecclesiastical aristocracy that was going to stand up against Hitler and defend Christ and the church. It was going to be the masses, the people in the pews, the “commoners.” Time and again he begged the leaders of the German churches to take a stand against the Nazis, but they were concerned about their position, they were concerned about the legal structures that existed in Germany,  they were concerned about finances, they were concerned about everything but what they should have been concerned about – the purity of the church. The support Bonhoeffer (and his compatriots) received came from below – the members of the church that, according to church laws then current, really had no official voice. When the pastors lost their income (the pastors of the Lutheran and United churches were supported by the government, who paid their salaries out of taxes levied against all citizens), the church members stepped up. When the Gestapo closed seminaries and threatened churches, the members opened other doors of education and worship. Bonhoeffer learned what it was to lead “from below.” It confirmed for him what he had  always been uneasy about – aristocracy comes from blood lines, but genuine Christian obedience comes from the heart.

In congregations all across the religious spectrum today, and certainly within the Churches of Christ, there is the “aristocracy” that is concerned about everything except what they should be concerned about. Politics, money, power, even social issues such as abortion and gun rights can co-opt a congregation and leave its members floundering. I do not want to be some “Pollyanna” or “Dorothy” and think that we can click our heels together three time and return back to Kansas. But, hopeless romantic that I am, I do believe that there are Bonhoeffers and Bethges and Niemoellers* out there who are willing to risk their reputations and even lives for the sake of the church (Martin Niemoeller was a U-Boat captain in WWI, he received an Iron Cross for his service. He spent WWII in Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp.)

Let us learn how to lead from below.

*I apologize to the historians and Niemoeller legacy, I know that his name is spelled with an unlaut over the “o,” but I cannot figure out how to put one there. Actually, Bonhoeffer’s family name was originally spelled with an umlaut over the second “o,” but the spelling had changed by the time he was born. Seeing as how my family name was in all probability spelled “Smyth” or even “Smythe” at one time, I can relate to the vagaries of generational name shifts.

Leadership and Submission

Today a question: If it is almost universally agreed that we should all be submissive to one another (Ephesians 5:21, one would have to be fairly obtuse to object to that directive from the apostle Paul), what happens when a person is placed in a position of authority? How can one submit to those he (or she) is actually given authority over? How can you lead from below?

I hate it when I ask myself these questions. I ask better than I answer. But here goes anyway –

First of all, leadership is not inimical to submission. If it was, Jesus was the worst leader of all time. In fact, you could say that Jesus is the answer to the question how to lead from below and that would be the end of it, but then what would become of the rest of this post?

Leading from below involves certain behaviors that come from certain traits of character. First, leadership from below involves listening – not just hearing but actual active listening that forces one to accept and to process what the other is saying. Active listening itself comes from a trait of compassion and caring. The first thing you learn about someone who cannot listen is that they really do not care very much, either.

Second, leadership from below involves participation in the lives of those being led. In more bucolic terms, the shepherd needs to smell like the sheep. The best managers of an assembly plant are those who understand from the bottom up what it feels like to work on the line. If you are going to lead an elementary school, you had better know what it feels like to get down on your hands and knees with the kindergarteners. The best boss I ever worked for in my secular work life actually climbed in our planes and flew them occasionally. That let me know he trusted our mechanics, and it was kind of nice to see him on the flight line, too.

If you listen carefully and participate fully, then that means that occasionally leadership from below means suffering. No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, and that means leaders as well. Perhaps less bucolic, but certainly no less colorful, is the illustration that was impressed upon me a long time ago: the higher you climb up the flag pole, the more people are going to see your rear end. When the water boy makes a mistake, no one in the stadium will know. When the head coach calls a time-out that he does not have, or when the quarterback throws an interception to end the game, everyone knows. Leadership from below means that we accept our frailty, and also accept that our mistakes are going to be more visible, and potentially more critical, than the mistakes of our followers. Leaders have to stand up and absorb the shots – and have the ability to grow from them.

I guess by way of conclusion I should say that leadership from below also involves a great amount of joy. I simply cannot express the joy I felt when I saw a student return from his/her check-ride and realize that there was a new pilot, a new instrument rated pilot, or a new commercial pilot, or a new flight instructor in the world. Of course I was responsible for teaching them (and a failure meant the FAA would be looking at my teaching skills), but the student had to study, to practice, to actually pass the exam. It is nothing but pure joy to see the “light bulb” come on and see a new babe in Christ emerge from the waters of baptism. So, not all is doom and gloom in terms of leading from below.

I guess it goes without saying that the opposite of these traits pretty much describes bullies and autocrats. They don’t listen, they do not help or participate in the lives of those being led, they certainly do not suffer, and I would suggest they are the most joyless individuals in the world. And the church is full of autocratic bullies. Heaven help the congregation that is led by a man (or men, or women) who refuse to listen, who never get their hands dirty doing ministry or teaching the kindergartners, who are too hoity-toity to even expose themselves to suffering, and whose faces would break if they smiled. God has a message to those who lead from the ivory tower, who dictate but never participate, who “bind heavy burdens on those who seek to obey, but do not lift a finger to help:”

He wants His church back.

Listening, participating, suffering, joy – what else would you add to the list in terms of “leadership from below?” I know my list is not exhaustive, probably not even comprehensive. But, I do hope that I have laid a foundation for the concept that leadership and submission are not mutually exclusive; indeed – they have to be inter-related on a very fundamental level.

Let us learn to lead from below!

Reconciliation

Yesterday I shared some thoughts about the sad state of our American justice system. To recap: I believe the problem is the system itself. It is built on an adversarial foundation in which both sides try to “win” the case, and the truth of the situation at hand gets lost in the war. The goal of our current system is either vengeance or revenge (in the form of a conviction and incarceration/execution) or acquittal. In this system neither the victim nor the accused is served any kind of justice. Even if there is an acquittal, the accused is forever branded with the “Scarlet Letter” of having been arrested and tried for whatever crime he or she was supposed to have committed. As one famous defendant said following his acquittal, “What court do I go to to have my name cleared?”

Biblical justice, however, had an entirely different goal – reconciliation. In God’s plan there were no jails, no prisons. An accused was brought before the town elders, multiple witnesses were required to proclaim guilt, and there were steep prices to pay for perjury. Once “convicted” the guilty had to make restitution to the victim or the aggrieved party – thieves had to replace the stolen goods, plus and additional amount of “interest” or “punitive damages.” In the case of actions that were so egregious as to dehumanize the victim (pre-meditated murder, rape, kidnapping), the guilty was simply executed.

Notice that in every case except the last, the goal was the reconciliation between accused and victim. The goal was the repair – as far as was humanly possible – of the relationship between individuals and between the accused and the community he or she violated. In the case of premeditated murder, rape, or kidnapping that restoration was impossible. In God’s justice system there is a line that, once crossed, cannot be restored. When you devalue human life to the point that you intentionally take a life, destroy a person through sexual assault, or kidnap them, then you sacrifice your own life. It is elegant in its simplicity. We have corrupted it by trying to make it more “humane.”

When our founding fathers created a system built on an adversarial foundation, and where the goal is simply to establish a legal standing, they eliminated the possibility of the judicial system working toward reconciliation. In order for reconciliation to function, a different foundation needs to be laid.

  • Critical for the process of reconciliation to work there has to be the genuine offer of the possibility of forgiveness. The offer has to be genuine (not simply a legal fiction), but it cannot be considered to be automatic.
  • The other critical component for reconciliation to work is the prospect of an honest, complete, and unpretentious confession of all guilt. Once the door of forgiveness has been opened, it is absolutely necessary for all accountability to be expressed in genuine repentance. There can be no room here for self-serving confession (“I’m sorry you were offended” is the worst confession ever uttered).
  • The final critical component would be for each party to then agree upon what steps are necessary and proper for the restitution of relationship between the guilty and the victim, and between the guilty and the larger community. Forgiveness does not mean that in most situations there needs to be some form of restitution or punishment. Maybe it would be the full restitution of items stolen. Maybe it would be a public apology. Maybe it would be public service for the victim or for the community. What ever the decision, it would have to be agreed upon by all sides and it would have to be measured. Just as an example, our current system of incarcerating individuals for the mere possession of illegal drugs is both inhumane and unjust. It serves no good purpose at all – except to make some individuals very wealthy (lawyers, judges, prison builders).

A justice system built on reconciliation would look radically different from our current system. I think it can be done, though. I think it has been done before.

I think it was started by a man hanging on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem, some 2000 years ago.

Maybe those who claim to follow that man should think about reconciliation before we demand revenge. Just a thought.

Jesus and the Disciples’ Feet

Because I am huge on context, let me set the stage for this post. I am teaching a series of lessons on “How We Study the Bible” on Sunday mornings. Last week the lesson was on the necessity for us to determine, as far as we humanly can, the meaning of the text in its original setting. If we do not look to see what the text meant to the original audience, then the chances of us ever learning what the text should mean for us are slim and none. This coming Sunday the lesson then proceeds for us to learn, once again as much as we humanly can, the differences between that original audience and our situation today.

My “test” passage is John 13:1-15, the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet. Many questions arise from this text, and chief among them, at least for me, is “Why is this event, so critical in many respects, totally ignored by the other gospel writers?” To phrase it the other way, why is it that only John records this event? Which then opens a very interesting study . . .

One would have to be blind and deaf not to notice the radical differences between John  and Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But let’s just take one slice of the larger picture and see if it does not help us with the issue of chapter 13. The slice I am referring to is that of the miracles recorded in the gospel of John. By my count there are seven – not counting, of course, the resurrection of Jesus himself. These are: the changing of the water into wine (or Welches grape juice, depending on your theological leanings), the healing of the official’s son, the healing of the paralytic, the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus walking on water, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Of these seven, only two are recorded by the other gospel writers (unless you count the healing of the official’s son, which is a possibility).

It is interesting to note that the two that John “duplicates” are also the two that receive the least amount of his attention. It is almost as if John is saying, “Everyone already knows about these stories, they have been discussed in other gospels accounts, so I am going to mention them but not spend a lot of time on them.” In contrast, the healing of the paralytic in chapter 5 and the healing of the blind man in chapter 9 receive careful and in-depth treatment.

John is communicating messages, even simply in the amount of space he allots to the stories he wants to highlight.

So, back to my point. If we could summarize, what is the common denominator in all of these seven miracle stories? What is their point? Only one appears to stress the supernatural power of Jesus as such – the story of him walking on the water. This is one of the stories John “duplicates” from the other accounts, and receives very little attention, comparatively speaking. I would suggest, however, that when viewed alongside the other miracle accounts, John is including this event not to stress Jesus’s super-human power, but to underline one of his major themes.

Note that every miracle account in the gospel of John emphasizes Jesus’s awareness of, and removal of, a person (or persons) physical or emotional need. Stated another way, Jesus serves the ones he miraculously heals, feeds, or brings back from the dead. His miracles are examples of his service to those who are hurting. Jesus relieves the pain of the groom and his family by providing the appropriate wedding beverage. He serves the official by restoring his son. He serves the paralytic and the blind man by healing them. He serves the people by feeding them. He relieves the emotional crisis of the disciples in the boat by walking out to them, and immediately getting them to their destination. He serves Mary, Martha, and of course Lazarus, by bringing Lazarus from the grave.

Catching on to a common theme here? Good.

The account in chapter 13 is not a one-off, stray account of a weird event in the final hours of Jesus’s life. The washing of the disciples’ feet is really the culmination of Jesus’s teaching to the disciples – and the exclamation point of John’s account of Jesus’s ministry (prior to the crucifixion, of course). Jesus came to serve, to wash the feet of not only his disciples, but of everyone he came into contact with.

I have heard it said that we have to physically wash one another’s feet in order to obey Jesus’s words in John 13:14. Never mind that a person’s foot in Jesus’s day was covered in all kinds of dirt and grime from walking up and down dusty streets strewn with all kinds of unsavory material. Never mind that our feet today are probably the second most hygienically protected parts of our anatomy. Never mind that most of us shower, if not daily, then at least several times a week, and that we protect our feet with comfortable socks and sturdy shoes (ladies sandals excepted). Never mind that we totally ignore other passages where Jesus is just as emphatic with commands we blithely overlook – has anyone chopped off their right hand or gouged out their right eye recently (Matthew 5:27-30)?

So, what is it about John  13:14 that makes people want to follow the command verbatim whilst eschewing other equally clear commands? Just an opinion here, but I think it is because washing someone’s already clean and hygienic foot is just soooooooo emotional and sooooooooo spiritual. And, again just a personal opinion, we are utterly and totally misapplying the passage when we do so.

John’s point is not that the follower’s of Christ need to wash an already clean and well protected foot. John’s point – I guess I should say Jesus’s point – is that we should serve other people, even up to and including performing the most embarrassing and personally disgusting acts of kindness for other people.

How many people who would gladly wash someone’s already clean foot would also clean an invalid’s filthy bathroom? How many people who would make a big show of washing clean feet would also clean the house of the crazy cat lady whose charges have urinated and defecated over every square inch of that house? How many people who want their foot washing to be recorded for posterity would want their picture taken while they wretch over the sight and smell of a homeless person passed out in their alcohol induced vomit?

We see pictures of someone, maybe even an important someone, washing the feet of another person and we think, “how noble.” Maybe it is. Maybe the person is diabetic and has not washed their feet in weeks and maybe it is an act of true service and kindness. But my guess is that in the overwhelming majority of cases the foot is already so clean as to be sterilized and the event is staged to demonstrate how much we are like Jesus.

And because we do not stop to think about how different our world is from the world of Jesus and his original apostles we utterly, totally, and completely miss the point of the story.

The point of this post is not that we should never wash the feet of someone who desperately needs that service and who cannot do it for themselves.

But, please, unless you are going to chop of your right hand and gouge out your right eye, don’t use John 13:14 as some proof text to justify your act of “service.”

We only serve when we climb lower.