The God Who Kneels – Day 38


Deep Awakening 

“I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am.”  John 13:19

 

The cross of Christ overshadows everything said and done in the upper room. We have explored the relationship between the doctrine of the atonement and the praxis of discipleship. We have examined the fault lines running through this text. We have embraced the tension between Jesus’ passion narrative and our own as we join him on the path of discipleship. Like our Lord we are moving to the cross. From foot-washing to martyrdom, there is a place for us on this continuum of humility and glory. Foot-washing is neither a liturgical rite nor a moralistic act of kindness. God himself on bended knee has given us a way to live that runs counter to the world’s understanding of success and significance. Our fallen human quest for recognition and admiration is seen for what it is in the light of Jesus’ humility. The honorific culture that pervades the church is critiqued by the humble glory of the God who kneels.

The clash between our fallen human condition and God’s redemptive provision strikes at the heart of John 13. The church continues to wrestle with sin-twisted personalities and ambitions along a spectrum that ranges from Peter’s ego-needs to Judas’ self-destructive contempt. Table fellowship in the upper room was the context for exposing and confronting these challenges. Most preaching takes place today in a large room with a large audience. Preachers give a sermon and the congregation listens. Little dialogue or interaction exists either before or after the sermon. Instead of wrestling as a group with the implications of what it means to follow Jesus, each individual is left to interpret and apply the sermon for themselves.

English Puritan John Bunyan (1628-1688) author of the classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, describes in his lesser known work, Grace Abounding, an encounter with a group of women “sitting at a door in the sun, and talking about the things of God.”  Bunyan describes their conversation as filled with joy and spiritual depth. They discussed specific Bible passages and applied them personally. Bunyan found their knowledge and sincerity impressive and by observing their true spirituality his own spiritual condition came under review.

Scottish Pastor Alexander Whyte draws an impressive lesson from Bunyan’s description. God uses godly, intimate conversation “for the deeper awakening and the deeper undeceiving” of those who follow Christ.[1] Left to ourselves we do not know ourselves. We need a gathering small enough and intimate enough so that true friends can help one another grow in Christ. Preachers alone, no matter how good, cannot produce this soul-searching spiritual formation. But a small group of people who are earnest about their souls, will make a difference. “Not a club for questions of theological science, or for questions of Old and New Testament criticism, or even for pulpit and pastoral efficiency,” insists Whyte. “But for questions that are arising within us all every day concerning our own corrupt hearts.”[2]

The upper room was the right setting for the deep awakening and deep undeceiving that needed to take place, not only for the original Twelve, but for all Christ’s disciples. Prayerful meditation on John 13 undermines the mis-perception that allows for nominal Christianity. There is no room in the upper room for name-only admirers of Jesus. If we cannot find ourselves in this picture of purity of heart, soul-cleansing intimacy with the God, then we need to re-examine our relationship with the Lord Jesus. As we have seen, Jesus gently exposed Judas’ sham performance and patiently worked with Peter’s stubborn character. But the description does not end with two individuals, instead it extends to all of us. The God who kneels insists on washing all of the disciples feet. Figuratively speaking, all who follow Christ belong around this table to be cleansed, redeemed, and discipled.

The whole Church fits into the upper room. We all need the scrutiny and intensity of this intimate encounter with Jesus. To receive the God who kneels is to be open to Jesus’ soul-defining, life-transforming ministry. The whole Church needs his soul-cleansing power and his mission-defining love.

Jesus embodied his teaching ministry in the upper room dramatically. What had been said before was now demonstrated in an act of humility. Jesus contrasted top-down hierarchical leadership with sacrificial service. He disqualified the superior/inferior axis of power and in its place instituted humble service. To be first was to be a slave of all. Jesus linked the praxis of discipleship and the doctrine of the atonement by modeling sacrificial service after his atoning sacrifice.

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

We have seen how Jesus’ humility, patience, wisdom and love grew out of his self-understanding. He knew the hour had come. He knew he was going to leave this world and go to the Father. He knew who were his own and he loved them to the end. He knew the Father had put all things under his power and he knew he had come from God and was returning to God. But in the midst of all of this empowering self-knowledge, there was also the negative knowledge of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. Nevertheless, Jesus remained true to his calling and his mission. Life in Christ is like that. Knowing and being known by God does not eliminate conflicts, in fact it only deepens them. If we are going to follow Jesus and obey the will of the Father as he obeyed, and lead the way he led, and love the way he loved, then we are in for a life marked by the cross.

 

Upper Room Reflection

How does your setting help you embrace the deep truth of John 13?

Why can’t nominal Christianity survive in the upper room?

What can we learn from the upper room that inspires effective disciple-making?

How have you learned that cross-bearing is not optional?

 

 



[1]Alexander Whyte, Bunyan Characters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), p. 55-57.

[2] Whyte, p. 58.

The God Who Kneels – Day 37

 The Crowing Rooster

“Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!”

                                                                                                                 John 13:38

 

Peter’s denial was emphatic. He reinforced it with expletives and oaths (Mark 14:71). A hasty denial might have been said without thinking, and a second chance could have led Peter to reconsider. But instead, his timidity grew, his resolve weakened, and he denied the Lord a second time with more conviction than the first. “I don’t know the man!” he announced. By now Peter’s rejection had worn a groove in his conscience. Having crossed the line twice, he didn’t hesitate to lie and deceive with as much boldness as he was capable of. He called down curses on himself and announced his denial for all to hear. Once, it might have been a moment of weakness quickly taken back. Twice, an unmistakable denial. Three times, an undeniable pattern of denial.

The abrasive sound of a crowing rooster cutting the predawn quiet reminded Peter of what Jesus said, “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” Jesus could have simply said that Peter would deny him before dawn. Instead, he tied Peter’s awareness to sound rather than to sight. Suddenly, the everyday, early morning sound of the crowing rooster became a soul-penetrating alarm. Peter’s memory flashed back to their earlier exchange. He instinctively turned toward Jesus and Luke tells us that “the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter” (Luke 22:61).

Up until this point we are not aware that Jesus and Peter were in visual range. How painful this moment must have been for Jesus. He was being spat upon, punched and slapped, but no blow had the force of Peter’s denials (Matthew 26:67). The early church found in Psalm 88 a sad description of this painful scene: “You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.” Regardless of the intensity of the abuse he was suffering, he heard the rooster and looked at Peter. Kierkegaard asks, “And how did Christ look at Peter? Was it a repelling look, a look of dismissal? No, it was as a mother sees her child endangered through its own indiscretion; since she cannot approach and snatch the child, she catches him up with a reproachful but also saving look.”[1] We are told that Peter “went outside and wept bitterly” (Matthew 26:75). The emerging dawn and the sound of the rooster forever associated in Peter’s mind with the blessing of a painful awareness. A necessary blessing on the way to repentance and reconciliation.

Many years ago a friend was arrested for drunk driving and spent a night in jail. To this day the sound of an iron gate clanging shut reminds him of that night when the jail door slammed behind him. Every time a dish falls and breaks, another friend remembers the time she broke a cherished dish belonging to her sister. She swept up the shattered pieces, buried them in the backyard and never told her sister. Thirty-five years passed before she admitted to her sister what she had done. Certain sounds trigger the conscience. Would Peter ever forget the deeper meaning of the crowing rooster? Long after forgiveness, the sound of a rooster recalled the pain: the sound of his curse, the look in Jesus’ eyes, and the agony of soul.

But Peter’s denial and the crowing rooster is only half the story. The unmistakable sound of the rooster reminded Peter of God’s love and mercy. For Peter, the crowing rooster signaled the demise of willful self-rule and ego strength. Pride came to an abrupt end in bitter tears of personal repentance. The night of denial gave way to the morning of deliverance. The sound of the rooster ended the night and heralded the light. It was fitting that some time later, after the resurrection, Jesus restored Peter one morning by the Sea of Galilee. You recall that Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And Peter answered three times, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you…Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you” (John 21:15-17).

Later when the apostle Peter emphasized the importance of the Word of God, he encouraged believers “to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). Peter’s reference to the morning star was a reference to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (see Revelation 2:28; 22:16), and now when Peter woke in the morning to the sound of a rooster, he was not filled with grief, but with joy. As the psalmist said, “…Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14). No one knew better than Peter the truth of Lamentations 3:23: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

The rooster is a strange biblical image, but it was Jesus who drew it to Peter’s attention and subsequently to us. We were meant to hear the crowing rooster as a reminder to be watchful and vigilant. As Peter said, “Prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:13). We were never meant to trust in ourselves nor compare ourselves to others. The early morning crowing rooster was an effective daily reminder for Peter and the early church that each new day was to be lived in the presence and power of Jesus Christ. Peter’s willful activism was slowly, but surely, transformed into willed passivity, and among the disciples he became an example of the discipline of surrender. If you don’t live within the sound of a crowing rooster you could transfer the soul triggering significance of the rooster’s wake-up call to your alarm clock.

 

Upper Room Reflection

The crowing rooster provoked pain. How was it a blessing?

Do you agree with Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the way Jesus looked at Peter?

If you were Peter would you have been haunted by the sound of a crowing rooster?

Have you experienced repentance as a gift?

 



[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love trans. Howard and Edna Hong (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 166.

The God Who Kneels – Day 36


An Ego Challenge

“Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”

                                           Matthew 26:33

 

The difference between Judas and Peter is the difference between deception and weakness. Treachery is not the same as timidity. Contempt for Jesus is not the same as false confidence in one’s ability to stand for Jesus. Both lead to sin, but being hateful is different from being hurtful. Judas wanted to expose Jesus as a fraud, but Peter wanted to be faithful to Jesus. Judas was filled with regret, but Peter was filled with repentance. We are meant to see ourselves in Peter, but no one was ever meant to identify with Judas.

A crowing rooster should remind us not only of Peter’s denials, but of how much we are like Peter. As one writer said, “All disciples can profit by a careful study of how the ‘Rock’ turned to ‘sand’ in his most critical test.”[1] Peter makes me nervous. Comparing myself to him is like standing too close to the edge of Niagara Falls. Peter’s ego drove him to the edge and he fell. If the representative disciple, a member of Jesus’ inner circle, could fall like that, so can I. The nature of Peter’s experience is too close to our own to be ignored. His vulnerability to sin reminds us of our own. We find it easy, all too easy, to identity with him. We share his pride, practice his brand of foolishness, and experience his lack of courage and faithfulness.

Peter’s pride was embarrassingly transparent. Not to himself of course, but to all of us who hear him brag. He illustrates the Proverb: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). When Jesus said, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me,” Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (Matthew 26:33). It is this bold and brash claim made by the impetuous, outspoken Peter that gets our attention. There is nothing humble about the rhetoric of self-confidence. Peter’s chest-thumping one-upmanship is like the pre-game hype before the big game. We instinctively ask, “How could Peter say such a thing?” With the rest of the disciples standing right there, Peter’s single comment turned loyalty to Jesus into a competition with himself as the self-proclaimed winner (see Galatians 6:4). Pride is insidious because it often separates us from reality and from others, without knowing it.

What do you think would have happened if John had pulled Peter aside and said, “Will you get a grip? Listen to yourself! Where do you get off claiming to be better than the rest of us?” We don’t read that John or any of the other disciples said anything to Peter. The reason we are seldom confronted about our pride is because pride, although so obvious to others, is such a tough sin to expose to the proud. Pride is a form of self-deception and when we deceive ourselves it is almost impossible for us to see the truth. Like Peter, we believe our own self-talk. What Peter felt was courage and loyalty for the Master, was really only self-centered pride! What sounded so bold and spiritual quickly turned into denials and curses. When prides runs its course, it leaves us as it left Peter disillusioned and frustrated.

Peter’s courage depended upon an ego challenge rather than a spiritual challenge. I believe under certain conditions Peter would have made good on his claim to lay down his life for Jesus (John 13:37). The evidence for this can be seen in the garden of Gethsemane. When Peter was confronted, he reacted by fighting back. As you might expect, if only two disciples were armed one of them would have had to be Peter (Luke 22:38). Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Immediately, Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11).  Why was Peter willing to risk his life in hand-to-hand combat in the garden, but afraid to admit to a servant girl that he knew Jesus?  This doesn’t appear to make sense until one realizes the nature of the conflicting challenges.

In the garden it was a challenge to Peter’s bravery, his willingness to fight and his readiness to put his life on the line for the cause. Peter was up to the ego challenge. But alone in the high priest’s courtyard, with no surrounding audience, Peter was unwilling to admit that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. He was all set to man-up for the ego challenge, but he shriveled up when it came to the witness challenge. When his own ego was not in question and his macho image was not threatened, Peter found it easy to deny that he ever knew Jesus. The servant girl got from Peter what an armed Centurion would have been unable to extract – a denial! She made it easy for him, “You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?” (John 18:17).  It is not too difficult to imagine Peter writing this servant girl off as inconsequential. She didn’t matter. She didn’t deserve the truth. Some people might chalk this up to a low rung denial, made necessary by the climb up the corporate ladder of success. Does a two word deflection, “Not me,” constitute a denial? Note that Peter was not asked if he believed in Jesus. He was asked if he was “one of his disciples.” Dale Bruner writes, “We may not think that we are denying or disowning Christ when we deny or disassociate ourselves from his always problematic Church, but Peter’s experience teaches us to think again.”

In a sanctuary, surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ, we are brave souls, but put us in a university classroom or in an office or at a social gathering, and it’s easy to see how denial happens. “Surely you don’t believe in this Jesus stuff, do you?” The world expects our agreement and it’s easier to go along than to take a stand. We may dodge and deflect, but in the end the right word for it is denial.

What if Peter had not made his proud boast after Jesus had warned the disciples that they were all going to fall away? What if he had said, “Lord, we don’t want to fall away! How can we remain strong?” We have a good indication of how Jesus would have answered that question from his response to the exhausted disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. He encouraged them, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Matthew 26:41). If the disciples had returned to the upper room and spent the night in prayer, they would have been more united than isolated. Instead of falling away they might have waited on God. Sadly, it wasn’t until after the cross that they returned to the upper room.

 

Upper Room Reflection

Can you see yourself in Peter’s reaction?

What is deceptive about the ego challenge?

Where are you most vulnerable to deflection and denial?

How would it have made a difference if the disciples had returned to the upper room and prayed?

 

 

 

 

 


[1] David W. Gill, Peter the Rock: Extraordinary Insights from an Ordinary Man (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1986), p. 111.
[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 1053.

The God Who Kneels – Day 35


Heroic Spirituality

“Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

                                                                                                                  John 13:37

 

Peter is right of course, he will end up laying his life down for Christ, but he will do so on God’s terms, not his terms. By the Sea of Galilee, the risen Lord Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). Oswald Chamber drew this application:

“I must never choose the scene of my own martyrdom, nor must I choose the things God will use in order to make me broken bread and poured out wine. . . Determination and devotion, protestations and vows are born of self-consciousness, and must die out of a disciple.”[1]

We follow Jesus on his terms and in his way, not our own. We never graduate from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount beatitudes. And why would we want to? All eight beatitudes, from “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” to “Blessed are those who are persecuted,” apply to us. John the Baptist’s famous line, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” is our line, too. Like the apostle Paul we “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us] to will and act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). The God who kneels washed our feet and commands us to wash one another’s feet.

Jesus worked against the grain of the fallen human condition. He called Peter on his heroic boast. “Will you really lay down your life for me?” Jesus asked. And then, without waiting for a reply, Jesus added, “Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!”  The early church turning the crowing rooster, a symbol of Peter’s denial and repentance, into an icon for watchfulness and vigilance. Early paintings of the apostle Peter show him holding the keys of Heaven with a rooster pictured nearby to remind us of his denial. But the rooster does more than recall Peter’s denial, it causes us to think of our own susceptibility to pride, our fear of standing up for Christ, and our vulnerability to denying Christ.

This last extended conversation between Jesus and his disciples lacked nothing. It had the character of full disclosure and intimate friendship. Jesus left nothing unsaid that should have been said. He washed their feet, filled their minds, shaped their hearts, and transformed the Passover into the Last Supper. He spoke words of comfort, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1); “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27). He challenged disciples everywhere when he said, “A time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God” (John 16:2). Jesus promised them the Holy Spirit and he prayed for them: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:15-16).

Everything Jesus said that night in the upper room prepared the disciples for what was coming. The future involved betrayal, denial, persecution and death, but Jesus in the upper room revealed so much more. He offered his abiding fellowship: “I am the vine; you are the branches…” (John 15:5). He promised the comfort and counsel of the Holy Spirit. He spoke of a deepening experience of the glory of God. Jesus prayed, “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24).

The emotional range in the upper room swung from “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me” (John 13:21)  to “I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Jesus was confident, encouraging, and bold, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). But his tone was also ominous and sad. Jesus warned the disciples that they would “all fall away on account” of him. He quoted from the prophet Zechariah: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” (Zechariah 13:7;  Matthew 26:31). Yet the sober realization that he was about to be betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, and abandoned by the rest of the disciples, did not distract Jesus from preparing and praying for all the disciples, including us. There is no place for heroic spirituality either inside or outside the upper room.

 

Upper Room Reflection

Why do our dreams of Christian service often clash with God’s will?

How do we know we are following Jesus in the Jesus way?

What does falling away on Jesus’ account look like in your culture?

Are you more fearful of personal humiliation than you are of disappointing your Savior?

 



[1] Oswald Chambers, So Send I You (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, © 1930, 1964), 19, 69.

The God Who Kneels – Day 34


A New Way To Follow

“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

                                                                                                               John 13:34

 

Jesus lays out a new commandment. This is how the followers of Jesus are to live in the in-between time, between “the already” and the “not yet.”  The apostle John wrote in his epistle, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12). The invisible God’s visibility is revealed today in and through the body of believers marked by the love of Christ. John defined the meaning of this love. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10). Once again we see the inseparable relationship between the divine atonement and the praxis of discipleship.

In the prologue to his gospel, John defined the unique and humble visibility of the revelation of God: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18). Salvation history is fulfilled in the one who “being in very nature God. . .  made himself nothing” (Philippians 2:6-7).   The invisible visibility of the hidden God made known in Jesus offers the most profound rationale for today’s discipleship.  From the beginning and throughout salvation history everything was carefully orchestrated by God to prepare for the stark simplicity of Jesus laid in a manger and nailed to the cross. This is the unadorned sacrifice that saves us from our sin and redeems us for the very presence of God. In the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, God remained true to the principle and pattern of the unadorned altar (Exodus 20:22-26). The concrete reality of his presence, “full of grace and truth,” revealed a glory unlike the world had ever seen. For his humble glory revealed his love.

What is new in this new commandment is that love is based on and empowered by the atoning sacrifice of Christ. People have always loved one another. There is love between husbands and wives, parents and children. There is love between friends. In carnal affection, even adulterers and adulteresses love one another and criminals can be said to love one another. But this new commandment calls us to love the way Christ loves. This love is not based on common-sense self-interest but on costly grace and the principle of the cross (“my life for yours”). New commandment love is consistent with the new covenant and the great commission. This heart-scripted love communicates to the world that we belong to the Lord Jesus. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love another.”  New commandment love makes concrete and real Jesus’ agenda laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. The “false literal,” a stand-in for the real presence of Christ, is not allowed to substitute for the real demonstration of Christ’s love.

Peter’s reaction to all of this is typical of our own. Like Peter, we insist on our own version of heroic spirituality. We have in mind how we are going to make a name for ourselves in Christian service. Peter boldly claimed, “I will lay down my life for you.” His boast is reminiscent of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, when the devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” Satan said, “throw yourself down from here” (Luke 4:9). We are tempted to do something spectacular to prove ourselves, to rise above the average, ordinary Christian and distinguish ourselves in some special way.

In the moment, Peter has his own visions of grandeur. His dream of self-sacrifice eclipsed the reality of Christ’s sacrifice. The subtle danger of spiritual narcissism is unnerving because it is so easy to spot in others and so terribly difficult to see in ourselves. We are prone to false dreams of courage and conviction that vanish when we awaken to the harsh realities of costly discipleship. We nurture the need for approval and commendation in a self-preoccupied culture, all the while Christ is calling us to humble foot-washing. We look up to a spiritual CEO of a huge religious mall, dubiously called a church, but Christ calls us to serve a household of faith in diligence and humility. We want a bold, audacious project that demands heroic sacrifice, yet Christ calls us to care for an invalid parent or teach a fifth grade Sunday school class.

 

Upper Room Reflection

How is the invisible God made visible today?

What is the difference between being self-conscious and being self-aware?

What makes the “new commandment” new?

What has made the Christian life easier or harder than you expected?