In the spring of 1995, major and minor league baseball players were on strike over the salary cap and collective bargaining.
But team owners were determined…they were going to have a baseball season, strike or no strike! So, they threw open the gates, and invited pretty much anybody who knew how to scoop up a grounder or run out a bunt to try out for teams made up of replacement players.
Someone who was coaching their kids little league team one week, might be wearing a Twins uniform the next week.
The games…well…they weren’t…well, lets just say they weren’t good. Line drives rarely reached the outfield. One manager said that his pitchers threw the ball so slowly that the team’s radar gun couldn’t even clock them. And when some of the players were running the bases, one snarky scoreboard operator put the image of a cartoon train up on the jumbotron, with the caption, “I think I can…I think I can…”
But for the players, it was magical! The baseball diamonds were filled with guys who played for the love of the game…and their enthusiasm was infections. When the coach said run…they ran! When he needed a volunteer to shag fly balls, a dozen hands went up. The players arrived early and stayed late…sometimes on the field until the grounds crew had to kick them out. They thanked the attendants for washing their uniforms and the caterers for serving the food. And the line of players willing to sign autographs was longer than the line of fans wanting them.
The strike only lasted until April, but sportswriters wrote about how special the whole experience was…watching guys live out their childhood dreams and play for the pure joy of the game.
One of these replacement players, in an interview, said “This is so great! We don’t deserve to be here! But…here we are!”
For those couple of months, for those players, it was a time of pure, undeserved grace.
Pure. Undeserved grace. That is our Gospel for today.
Our Gospel story is simple but is really important. It is a story that takes a significant and unexpected turn. And it is one that has shaped our understanding of grace, of love, and of the role Jesus plays within our hearts and minds.
It is a story that can be broken down into three equally important parts: I’ll call them: Jesus’ actions, Jesus’ command, and Jesus’ promise.
First, some context might be helpful: In the ancient world, people commonly washed their own feet. When guests arrived at someone’s home, their feet covered with dust from the road, a good host would offer them a basin of water. The host would never wash the guests feet themselves. If the host was wealthy, they would have a slave wash the feet of the guests. But no free person would ever stoop to wash the feet of another free person.
And so in that night, at this simple Passover meal, Jesus did the unthinkable. He unexpectedly stood up, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet…himself.
Using the most ordinary means, some water and a towel, Jesus conveys the most extraordinary kind of love. Jesus, the Messiah, bows down, literally, and figuratively and lowers himself in order to serve.
Don’t underestimate the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ action. Jesus assumes the posture of a slave to show the depth of his love for his disciples. In verse 1 John writes that: “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…” He loved them to the end.
So, when Peter objects to the foot washing, it is completely understandable. No self-respecting disciple would allow their Rabbi to wash the feet of his students. In verse 6, in a voice that we can imagine is full of disbelief, Peter asks “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
In other words, Peter is insisting to Jesus that “no, I don’t deserve this! I am not worthy of your washing my feet!”
But Jesus insists that Peter must accept Jesus…as servant…if he is going to understand what it means for Jesus to be the savior. “Well ok then”, says Peter. “My feet…my hands…my whole self…”
Through this simple act of washing feet, Jesus is demonstrating undeserved grace, total love, to his disciples. And total love, will take him all the way to the cross. That is what Jesus did. Those were his actions.
Then, there is Jesus’ command: He is clear with his disciples that what he has done is not only a gift, but an example. Jesus asks the disciples “Do you understand what I have done for you?” He is asking the question: “Do you get it? Do you get what I am all about?” And he goes on to command them “you also should wash one another’s feet.”
Note the order of events: first Jesus acts, he washes feet…then he commands the disciples to wash feet. Jesus is intentional in first giving the gift, before commanding his disciples to give the gift.
This is significant. It reinforces this idea that is central to our faith: God always acts first with love and grace, and then we have the opportunity to respond to that. God acts, and then we respond.
God always leads with love and grace. Sometimes I’ll hear someone from a different Christian denomination ask the question “have you accepted Jesus into your heart?” My answer is always the same: “Well yes, but that’s not nearly as important as the fact that first, Jesus accepted me into his.” Jesus’ love has nothing to do with any decision that you do or don’t make. You get to choose how to respond to Jesus’ action, but you can’t choose whether or not to be given this gift. You don’t get to decide whether or not God loves you.
The directive to wash one another’s feet is a command to share the kind of love that Jesus gives first. The example of foot washing is a command to do what is needed; to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and care for the sick. Jesus commands us to translate love into service.
First, Jesus’ actions. Then, Jesus’ command.
And finally, then, Jesus’ promise: The story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples is one that foreshadows the journey that he will make to the cross. Jesus removed his robe and literally lowered himself to the feet of his disciples, taking on the role of a servant.
After his arrest, Jesus will again have his robe removed…he will be humiliated, lowered to the role of common criminal, and will be crucified. He does so because of his great devotion to his disciples, and to each of you. His death and resurrection bring you the gifts of eternal life and forgiveness of sins. He does this because of love. In this Last Supper, Jesus makes a promise that you experience every time you taste the bread and the wine.
Jesus acts, Jesus commandd and Jesus promises. What then is our role within this story?
First, we see Jesus’ actions: We recognize the undeserved grace of God embodied in the form of the man hanging on a cross. We understand, deep within us, the sacrifice Jesus was making. Just like those baseball players knew they didn’t deserve to be on the diamond playing…we don’t deserve to be at the table…with Jesus…receiving the gifts of love and grace.
And yet, here we are. We are here because Jesus loves us.
We hear Jesus’ command, and like those disciples 2,000 years ago, we follow Jesus. We lower ourselves and we serve as Jesus did.
And finally, we live into promise of this Gospel; that we are, in fact, those whom Jesus has called and that those who follow his story to the end are promised new life in this world and the next.
Tonight, Jesus acts, and Jesus changes our story. Jesus loves in ways we can’t begin to anticipate. We really don’t deserve to be here tonight…to sit at Jesus’ table. And yet, here we are. Tonight, we will receive the bread and wine that we don’t deserve…and yet Jesus gives it to us.
And Jesus calls you to love those around you in the same way that he loves you; to echo his actions, his command and his promises. Jesus commands us; you, and me, to join him in living a story that changes the world, and changes our lives.
Remember those words from verse 1: “having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end…” He loved them to the end. Jesus loves you to the very end. It is undeserved grace.
And because of that, we love, to the end. We love to the very end.