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(081) John 25: To Serve or Be Served

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The Gospel of John XXV:

To Serve or Be Served?

John 13: 1-35

July 26, 2009

Main Point(s) of sermon:

· Jesus washed Judas’ feet, as an act of love for his enemy.

· Foot washing was the lowest task, yet Jesus did it, showing us that greatness means serving and God is the greatest servant.

· This is the opposite of how we think of greatness.

· Yet it is also vital that we can be served (which is what Peter was avoiding).

· That the greatest is the servant does not mean that authority and hierarchy are removed, rather that the leaders are servants and the followers submit.

Objectives of sermon:

Impress on us the fact that our God is a servant and that he calls us to serve and love each other.


·         079, 039, Leftovers

·         Newbigin, Lewis “Better to reign...”

Scripture reading: John 13:2-10


This is as iconic as John 3:16, and likewise its familiarity can rob us of its impact. My biggest goal this morning is to install a sense of amazement (and hence worship) at the servant-God.

·         And then we respond by mimicking him, empowered by the Spirit.

This story has three parts (we’ll focus on the first): 1) The washing of feet, 2) Judas going out to betray Jesus, and 3) The giving of a new command:

John 13:34-35   34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

That is the whole point of the first part, revealing how Jesus loves us and how we are to love each other.


Spirit, glorify the Father and Son, as we see the true nature of divinity; what you are like and how different it is from us.

·         Confront our ideas of greatness.

·         Show us how to love as you loved.

Setting the scene

This marks the end of the public ministry. At this point in the Gospel we move out of the busy streets into a quiet room. They would be lying around a low table, leaning on an elbow.

In antiquity, feet got very dirty, so were washed frequently. Think of wearing sandals while camping (and walking in dog poop). So hosts at a minimum would provide water for washing.

Ideally a servant would wash the feet, but it was the lowest job, and even Jewish slaves were not allowed to do it, just the gentiles, or the wife and children. So imagine the shock when:

John 13:4-5 ...[Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

Upside-down serving

In the last sermon, we talked about God’s “upside-down” idea of glory (being born in a barn and dying a criminal’s death); this week it’s his upside-down serving.

·         Commentator: no example of a leader washing feet before Jesus.

How does the world do it? The higher up you get, the more you get to have people serve you. Ask if he would prefer to “serve or be served,” if he is honest, he’ll say “be served.”

·         That “if he is honest” clause demonstrated how much Christ has affected the Western world.

Throughout the ancient world, glory, honor, and greatness were unabashedly marked by being served. Any idea of serving as honorable was entirely foreign.

·         This worldview matched that of their gods.

To my knowledge, the idea of a God who serves is also completely without precedence. The gods had to be appeased, bribed, or tricked. Sacrifices were offered to feed and appease them.

“The natural man makes God in his own image, and the supreme God will be the one who stands at the summit of the chain of command. How can the natural man recognize the supreme God in the stooping figure of a slave, clad only in a loincloth?”

·         You don’t make this stuff up, especially if you are the ruling class (discuss in a moment).

Listen to how Paul put it:

Philippians 2:5-8   5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,  7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!

Take a moment for that to sink in: Our God, Creator of the universe, all-powerful, all-knowing, became a humble servant, washing feet, dying on a cross.

·         He didn’t become less God, but showed us what God is like.

God humbled himself precisely because he is God:

John 13:3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so [he washed their feet].

·         When Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, he wasn’t stooping to our level; he was raising us to his level.

Jesus loved his enemy

Before we go further, another surprising revelation about God:

Q   Did Jesus wash the disciples’ feet before or after Judas left?

Jesus specifically waited to “dismiss” Judas (he was in control the whole time) until after washing his feet.

Why? Not because it would “work,” not because he wanted to teach Judas about serving, but because he loved him. In this I see God’s love for the lost, even his enemies.

·         To many cultures, this side of God’s character is scandalous.

why did peter refuse?

Back to the scandal of a servant-God:

John 13:6-8 He 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.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Why did Peter refuse? I see two main possibilities, both of them that match the world’s response to “Serve or be served?”

1) Be served! Peter’s refusal may have actually be rooted in a desire to be served.

How? Jesus was overturning the proper order, master serving the servant, which is great if you are a servant, but not so great if you want to be a master.

·         This why you don’t make this up if you want to be in power.

I don’t think this is most likely for Peter, but it fit some of the disciples – James and John asked to sit on his left and right. They seemed to follow Jesus partially for the status. They probably had a nice little “chain of command” worked out.

·         It would be like striving to get promoted to earn more, only to find out it would mean a big pay cut.  

Turning it all upside down

God’s system “perverts” everything we are used to: The person at the top of the world’s org chart is the one who is served but does not serve anyone.

In God’s system, he is at the top as the one who serves but is not served (for who can serve God in any real sense), and the person at the bottom is the person who is so immature as to expect everyone to serve them without serving others.

·         This doesn’t mean the greatest saints only serve, (more soon).

This difference in “org charts” clearly demonstrates the difference between ethics of heaven and hell. “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”

lEADERSHIP: Servants of all

Serving must be our pursuit, not being served. The church must mirror heaven’s flow chart, not hell’s, we must always remember “the greatest among you will be the servant.”

·         The problem is hell’s org chart keep slipping back in, both in the church as a whole and individuals (my main interest).

Working at His Place, I developed a really bad attitude about having to answer the phones and make coffee (especially when I was the most educated person there).

·         I think God thought it both funny and sad, the staff gave me a lot of grace (perhaps too much).

As God dealt with my attitude (I was embarrassingly slow at learning), I came to see that no task is below any of us. There is nothing that we get to be promoted past.

·         There may be more and less effective ways for me to serve (the apostles devoted themselves to prayer and teaching).

·         We need to give others the chance to serve in their gifts.

But nothing is ever below us. Once I was no longer answering the phones, I got there early in order to willingly and happily make the coffee, to remind myself I am a servant, and of God’s grace.

Leadership at The Gathering

I know I haven’t arrived, but it is my hope that the entire leadership of The Gathering, beginning with the Elders, model God’s org chart, and it infect the entire culture of the church.

Elders and deacons are to be the “chief servants,” and we have a couple outstanding men and women who are about to begin deaconship training, deacon meaning “waiter,” those who volunteer for the honor of serving you. 

·         I try to make a point of picking up trash to remind myself because I know my sinfulness still craves position and power.

LORD & Teacher – submission within SERVing

Yet this does not mean that the church is without authority or that there is no submission:

John 13:12-13 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.

Within the Trinity there is hierarchy and rank, not based on superiority but role. Likewise, God has ordained specific roles in government, the church, and families.

·         This is never done for personal benefit, but for the benefit of the one being led.

·         Sometime serving means disciplining.

But the bottom line is that Biblical leadership is driven by love and a desire to serve, not be served. It is a calling to be a servant of all.

A caveat: It is possible to take “servant of all” an unbiblical extreme and become a doormat. Remember that Jesus went away to pray and be refreshed frequently.

·         There is another safeguard, which leads to our next point.

Not wanting to be served

There is another response to “serve or be served?” and I think this one is the reason Peter balked at Jesus washing feet:

2) Serve without being served

Peter is portrayed loud, brash, and proud, it makes perfect sense to me that he was too proud to be served.

God is the only one who can serve without ever being served because he needs nothing, kinda goes with being infinite. The rest of us aren’t infinite or perfect, so we need God.

John 13:8   8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

We have to allow Jesus to serve us, beginning with salvation. And then he call us to serve one another:

John 13:14-15   14 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.

We are one of the main ways God serves us is through each other, we are “authorized representative.” Said another way, we need each other (it’s kind of a community thing).

·         I would go so far to say that it is as ungodly to refuse to be served as to refuse to serve.

Galatians 6:2   2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

By bearing each other’s burdens (Paul says) we obey the “law of Christ” which means his “new command” to love each other. Of course, this is open to abuse, so Paul also warns against (what we now call) codependence:

Galatians 6:4-5   4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.  5 For each will have to bear his own load.

·         We each do what we can do, and help and receive help with what we cannot.

A new command – how to live this out

Q   How do I serve like Christ?

Q   How can I be served like the disciples?

Should we institute foot washing? While that may serve as a good illustration, it missed the point. Besides, you don’t want to wash my feet.

·         The point is to regard serving as true glory, and being served as part of healthy, interdependent community.

Here are some ideas:

1) Pray: To be amazed by Jesus and so have a heart to serve, the humility to be served, and eyes to see the need.

We are just not aware: I was writing this sermon yet didn’t let someone use the microwave first – I wasn’t not trying to be selfish, but didn’t think of it.

·         Perhaps beneath that is the belief my agenda’s more important.

2) Start at home – it’s less glorious, so more real!

3) Be part of community – the perfect place to serve and be served, and called to account when you are out of whack.

4) Look for little ways to serve and “consider others better than yourself” (Phil. 2:3)

One idea: Park further away on Sundays, leaving the better spots for mothers and visitors. There can be a proper pride in getting to serve in that way.

·         Pray for other ways to serve, and symbolic reminders.

Q & A

In worship, first meditate on Jesus for a servant, then ask him to show you what to do next.

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