Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
I did a Google experiment preparing for this sermon.
If you go to Google, the world’s most popular internet search engine, and you start typing in what you want to know about, Google will attempt to predict what you are looking for based on what other people generally search for and “auto-complete” your search term.
So I went to Google and typed, “Why are Christians…” The only auto-complete suggestion Google gave, the most popular search that includes that phrase, is “Why are Christians so mean?” The actual search results for “Why are Christians…” include: How do we know that Christians are delusional? Why are Christians so ignorant about their faith? Why are Christians so hypocritical and judgmental?
When I typed in “Churches are…” the suggested auto-completions of that search were: Churches are tax exempt, churches are evil, churches are cults, churches are corrupt.
In their book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Things about Christianity? … And Why It Matters, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons go even deeper. Over a period of three years they interviewed a few hundred young adults ages 16-29 to get an idea about what they thought about the church. It turns out that they describe the church as judgmental, hypocritical, anti-homosexual, too political, insensitive, and sheltered.
Sobering thought, isn’t it? That this is what people think about churches and Christians? One of my favorite songs as a kid said “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” But it would seem that in our day and age, Christians are known more for the things some of us hate than any good we do for the world.
It’s not too difficult to see how this is the case. There’s a saying that goes, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” or the loudest voice gets the most attention. People who scream about how much they hate something and appeal to people’s own fears get lots of listeners.
There are a lot of Christians out there who are bent on hate. As part of a conversation with a friend, I looked up statistics on Christian terrorism across the world. I found information on groups like the Anti-balaka in the Central African Republic, which are groups of Christian militias who have destroyed nearly all mosques in the country and committed multiple massacres, driving nearly every Muslim out of the country.
Or there’s the National Liberation Front of Tripura, a Tripuri nationalist Christian terrorist organization in northern India that has launched hundreds of terrorist attacks in the country, including killing and kidnapping.
There’s the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, led by Joseph Kony, a Christian. They massacre, abduct, mutilate, torture, rape, and use children for soldiers and the sex trade, all in the name of God.
In our own country, Christians bomb and attack abortion clinics. Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Prominent Christian leaders like Franklin Graham call for the use of weapons of mass destruction against other people, particularly Muslims. Christians all over the country enact policies that open the LGBTQ community to violence and terror. There are even churches that still condemn interracial marriage as against God’s will (the church in that story later reversed its decision after the massive public outcry).
And into the midst of all this hate, this terrible collection of evil done in the name of God, we have… Jesus. Jesus getting down on his hands and knees, stripping off his clothing, and washing people’s feet.
It feels like a bit of a non-sequitur to go from all this talk about Christians hating and hurting, raping and murdering other people, to this image of Jesus in nothing but a towel, on the floor, dealing with feet. But I can’t think of a better or more needed image right now than this.
The act of foot-washing, as a friend of points out in her sermon for tonight, is a weird, very uncomfortable ritual. Have you ever washed someone else’s feet? Probably not. You know why? Because people don’t like having their feet touched. And people don’t like touching each others’ feet. It’s just not done in our culture. People’s feet are vulnerable—we’re often embarrassed about them, the way they look, the way they feel, and definitely the way they smell.
Washing someone’s feet is a job for someone else, preferably someone we don’t have to talk or see while they do it. Someone we can just pay to do it and get out, back to our lives. In Jesus’s day, the job of washing feet went to the servants of the house, the ones always stuck doing the uncomfortable, gross, disgusting, weird things that needed to be done.
And here Jesus is, taking on the role of the servant, doing the uncomfortable, disgusting, humiliating job of washing his friends’ feet.
I wish I could say that this was the exception in Jesus’s ministry, that this was a one-time thing and that Jesus pulled back from the uncomfortable and the unpleasant. But it’s not the case.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus repeatedly entered territory that everyone around him thought was inappropriate. He washed people’s dirty, disgusting feet. He touched lepers, people who carried horrible and communicable diseases. He touched dead bodies, which is disgusting even today. He entered the territory of the enemy and preached among them, not to condemn them but to give them the Good News of God’s salvation come into the world. He associated with women, who like today were viewed with contempt and disdain. He dined out with prostitutes and tax collectors, people shunned by society. He called his disciples from the unlearned, who had no business being the disciples of such a great teacher.
Over and over again, Jesus reaches out to those most vulnerable, those whom everyone else is so uncomfortable around. He never does anything particularly complicated, even though it is miraculous. He washes, he touches, he heals, he welcomes, he forgives. Or put another way, Jesus loves.
I am struck by the simplicity of all of these acts. When Jesus healed, he didn’t build a state-of-the art hospital named after himself. He didn’t host $100 a plate dinners for guests. He didn’t start a multimedia campaign to get his message out. And he didn’t open a luxury spa to wash people’s feet.
He acted simply, out of love, breaking down barriers instead of setting them up. Love infused every act, every word, love for those on the margins, love for those society wouldn’t touch, literally and figuratively. Jesus reached out, and simply loved. It was his norm, not his exception. Which, as I said, bothers me.
It bothers me because Jesus, having finished washing his disciples’ feet as yet another example in a long line of examples of what he came to do, looks his disciples dead in the eye and tells them that they should do as he has done to them—and he’s not just talking about dirty, smelly feet. And if he told his disciples at the time that this is what they were to do, then he’s also telling his disciples now the same thing.
As Christ has done for us, we also are to do for others: to touch the sick, to care for those on the margins of society, to feed the hungry, house the homeless, rescue the oppressed, speak up for the marginalized. As one of my favorite hymns in our hymnal says, “We are called to act with justice. We are called to love tenderly. We are called to serve one another, to walk humbly with God.” We are called, as Jesus was called, to love simply, to act with charity and kindness.
But what’s the point, if all anyone seems to see in the church in the public eye is horrible and evil? How can such simple acts of love contend with hypocrisy, judgmentalism, hate, insensitivity, kidnapping, arson, murder, genocide? A charge to which I answer: simple acts of love are the only things that can.
It is not a mistake that Jesus combated the powers of sin and death not with overwhelming force but with simple love. It’s not an error that Jesus’s act of salvation was an act of self-sacrificial love in a death he willingly met. It’s not a coincidence that some of Jesus’s last instructions to his disciples are instructions to love another and share that example with those around them. It was God’s love, Jesus’s simple love, that loosened the grip sin had over humanity and banished its absolute influence.
Love isn’t complicated, not matter how much we try to make it so. And the best part is, love is contagious and infectious. Once it gets a hold, it doesn’t let go, and it continues to build up and strengthen. It consecrates the lowliest, humblest of actions and turns it into something sacred and mighty and powerful, far more powerful than hate.
Love has been the hallmark of God from the very beginning. It was the definition of Jesus’s ministry. And it’s the heart of what it means to be Christian.
“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”