The God Who Kneels – Day 5

Seven Fault Lines

“You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
John 13:7

The hands-on God of the Bible is on bended knee, handling dirty feet, and teaching the church how to live in the world, how to love one another. No one in Christ ever graduates from this profile.  No one rises above Jesus’ Beatitudes. Herein lies the secret to Salt and Light impact and the true wisdom of seeking Christ’s Kingdom first and his righteousness. No disciple escapes the Great Commandment nor retires from the Great Commission. In Christ, we are all called to salvation, service, sacrifice and simplicity. We belong to the order of the towel and basin. The whole of John 13 becomes a community distinctive, a mark of the body of Christ more important than any denominational distinctive, not the ritual of foot-washing which some groups practice literally, but the theological and ethical thrust of what Jesus said and did.

We are tracking the descent of the Son of the Most High, who descends lower and lower. The act of foot-washing is Jesus’ final parable. On bended knee he explains the atonement through the metaphor of cleansing. He mentors discipleship through example and exposition. The wisdom of the household of faith cannot rise above the parable, proclamation, and passion of John 13. This chapter has much to teach us about following the Lord Jesus and what it means to be the church.

On day five it is important that we lay out an over-view of this seminal scene for Christian discipleship. On the surface it may look deceptively simple, but seven fault lines run below the surface of John 13. Meditation explores these tensions in the text and unearths the passion of the passage. Each one of these tensions will be explored in the days ahead.

The first tension is between an overly familiar reading of the text and the apostle John’s Spirit-inspired meaning of the text. Familiarity allows us to pass over this text without discerning the difference between admiration and discipleship. We may be tempted to read and preach this passage as a moralistic object lesson, but the Holy Spirit intends much more in Jesus’ act and interaction. Ironically, the text of choice for motivating church volunteers dulls our sensitivity to the meaning of the text. We need a fresh reading, one that opens up the meaning and intensity of John’s narrative.

The second tension is between the doctrine of the atonement and the praxis of discipleship. There is an essential connection between the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the Jesus way of sacrificial service. The crucified Lord of all is preaching to us from his knees and he invites us to join him in the sacrificial life of discipleship: “to love one another as I have loved you.”

The third tension is between Jesus’ passion narrative and our life narrative. We are sometimes slow to realize that Christ’s passion narrative has turned each of our lives into passion narratives. We are not detached observers watching the Jesus’ drama. We are seated at the table of broken bread and poured out wine. We are called to follow the crucified Lord.

The fourth tension is between Jesus’ deliberate action and our obedience. We like the idea of free grace and no-load discipleship. Jesus didn’t wash our feet and go to the cross so that we could realize our potential and feel successful. The intensity of the upper room is not religion as usual.

The fifth tension is between Jesus’ humility and our quest for honor. The meaning of the upper room ought to pervade every sanctuary, board room, lecture hall, living room and kitchen. I may preach humility but I am tempted to practice hubris. Where does self-promotion, institutional pride, and expensive public relations fit in the ethos of the upper room? John 13 offers a fresh understanding of spiritual ambition. We ought to ask ourselves, how do we keep up with the God who kneels?

The sixth tension is between Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. We ignore the personalities seated at the Last Supper at our peril, because we are very much like this company of confused and conflicted individuals. The great reformer Martin Luther was not as ready to write off Judas as a singular aberration of evil as we may be. He saw the likes of Judas and Peter in the church of his day. The tensions around that table are with us today. We are still coping with betrayal and denial around the Lord’s Table and in the board rooms of our churches. We are mixed bag both within ourselves and within the congregation.

The seventh tension is between divine humility and divine glory. Many of us have been trained to separate the theology of cross from the theology of glory, but Jesus insists on keeping them together. This is evident in the upper room. We cannot have the cross without the glory of God and we cannot have his glory without the cross. Humility and exaltation belong together. They are inseparable. But this glory has nothing to do with worldly glory and power, nothing to do with success in the eyes of the world. The Incarnate God who kneels shows us the glory of the Father’s love and approval.

In the days ahead we will explore these tensions in the text. To the degree that we identify with Jesus, his person and his work, we live in this tension. But it is exactly this tension that we have largely lost in contemporary Christian communication. We have obscured the polarity between Jesus-like lowliness and worldly success. We have blurred the distinction between human glory and God’s glory. We have blended Jesus-centered truth and cultural conformity.

The Danish Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard called this sorry state, Christianity without Christ. The Christianity of his day had taken on a religious life of its own—divorced from the message and method of Jesus. Instead of teaching people how to follow Jesus, preachers inspired congregations to admire Jesus. Kierkegaard accentuated the difference between discipleship and admiration. He called Christians to take up their cross and follow Jesus.

When we ignore the tension in the text, Christian communication becomes repetitive and boring. True meditation draws us into the real tension between the Word of God and the way of the world. We wrestle with sin and salvation, judgment and worship, law and grace. Real reflection confronts us with the fallen human condition and God’s redemptive provision. Jesus’ message in the upper room is light years away from the religious info-sermon and the latest self-help dribble. He embodied his final parable. His actions and words corresponded perfectly. Message and method converged in a sermon that exposed the fault lines running between conventional religious thinking and the Gospel. If at first you don’t understand this, give it time. As you read and reread John 13, Jesus, John, and the Holy Spirit will make sense of it for you, and you’ll find surprising life applications. We may not realize the depth of this truth at first, but Jesus promised “later you will understand.”

Upper Room Reflection

What does it mean to belong to the order of the towel and basin?
Which of the tensions in the text challenges your understanding of discipleship the most?
How have you experienced the difference between admiring Jesus and following Jesus?
What strategies or excuses do we use to evade the order of the towel and basin?