“Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”
As a compass points to the magnetic north, preaching gets its bearings by pointing to Christ. Jesus concluded this part of his table conversation with a familiar analogy: “Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” Human nature, such as it is, makes Jesus’ statement necessary. We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against inflated egos and an obsession with self-recognition. The devil does more damage through our egos than through any other means. We want to be noticeably superior to even our closest friends and colleagues. Below the surface, the self is in constant agitation for approval and praise and the me-monster is always prepared to take action against perceived competitors.
Luke reports that the disciples were arguing “as to which of them was considered to be the greatest” (Luke 22:24). In his account, Jesus compared the disciples to worldly leaders who exerted their egos at the expense of the people, but in John 13, he compares the disciples to himself. In Luke, the bottom line is emphatic: “You are not to be like that.” But in John, we get our bearings by comparing ourselves to the Lord Jesus. If we put the two accounts together, we understand both sides of Jesus’ message. He offered a negative example (worldly leaders) and a positive example (himself). Both the negative and positive sides of this argument expose a style of leadership that is ingratiating and self-serving. There is a hidden vanity in much of our leadership that deserves to be nullified.
The upper-room is an ego-busting experience. Jesus calls in question our striving for self-recognition and honor and negates our vain attempts to create an honorific culture. This text causes us to weigh the difference between encouraging our brothers and sisters and lifting up their egos to make them feel good about themselves. We may need to rethink the institutional strategy that seeks to honor people in order to enhance institutional prestige. Awards and honorary degrees seem out of sync with John 13 and Luke 22. Oppressive forms of leadership are not redeemed by an awards ceremony presided over by a leader who prides himself or herself on being a benefactor (Luke 22:25).
For disciples the comparison is always between ourselves and Christ. If this comparison penetrates our thinking, we will be better off. No disciple ever says, “I am greater than Jesus Christ.” But sometimes our actions speak louder than our words. When we object to tasks that we consider beneath us, we ignore the foot-washing humility of Jesus. Keeping the comparison between our Lord and Teacher in the forefront of our inner dialogue and self-talk, will help in nurturing true regard for our brothers and sisters in Christ. This will also check our sinful disposition to be more concerned about what people think of us than what they think of Christ. No one ever admits that they are more into self-praise than praising Christ, but the danger is real.
The American way rejects the notion that we have a Master of any kind, even the Lord Jesus. The autonomous-individual-entrepreneurial-democratic-therapeutic self is unaware of anyone being King. At its core the Christian life is counter-cultural, but beware of thinking this tension with culture looks and feels cool. On this side of eternity we do not rise above the soul-searching humility of the Beatitudes.
Jesus’ foot-washing example and his Sermon on the Mount Beatitudes are in perfect harmony. The path to blessing is counter-intuitive, running against the current of both conventional and “relevant” thinking. The God who kneels shows us the path to salt and light impact. He reveals the power of visible social righteousness and the secret to the hidden righteousness of true spirituality. Jesus’ teaching and actions interface perfectly.
Good preaching and good conversation ends with God’s benediction: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” Knowing and doing are held together tightly. In theory, the Christian life is nothing, but in action it is altogether redemptive and revolutionary. We are saved by faith alone, but saving faith is never alone. Merit-based works’ righteousness inevitably leads to legalism and moralism, but the riches of God’s mercy invariably inspires the work of righteousness. As the apostle said, we work out our salvation with “fear and trembling,” because “it is God who works in [us] to will and act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13).
Upper Room Reflection
How do you cope with the tug-of-war between feelings of inferiority and feelings of superiority?
What have you found helpful in taming the me-monster?
What was the negative and positive spiritual direction the disciples received in the upper room?
How is the theory of the Christian life tested in your life?