Preached by Sarah Wolf
This summer, I had the opportunity to work as an intern in a Presbyterian church in Ohio. Throughout my time there I attempted to immerse myself in the life of that church – taking every opportunity that I could to experience as much as I could. One of these experiences involved spending a week with the youth in Webster Springs, West Virginia, where we spent our days building a ramp for a homebound man and our evenings we participated in a group devotional.
One night, I assigned scripture passages for the kids to look up and analyze. They were to look at how we lived out their particular verse that week in our work, fellowship, and devotions, and then also to think about how they might continue to live out that verse when they got back home. One pair was assigned the text of John 13, in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and instructs them to in turn wash others’.
In summarizing this verse for the rest of the group, one youth referred to Jesus’ instructions as a "chain reaction." They explained that once the disciples had been given the instructions by Jesus to serve each other, they then continued to serve others, who received the teachings of Christ and in turn served others and so on.
Maybe it’s just me, but this phrase – "chain reaction" kind of blew my mind. Before, I had always just pictured this scene as one in a longer drama that ultimately ended with Christ’s death and resurrection. The foot-washing scene seemed odd to me and I knew that Jesus’ behavior would have been seen as unusual to the disciples. Jesus’ urging for the disciples to do the same – kind of sounded like most of what Jesus normally said. This idea of Jesus’ actions that night starting a chain-reaction of faith and service placed the scene in an entirely new light for me.
Jesus had just performed an act that was probably unimaginable to his disciples. He had stooped to wash their feet. He had removed himself from the table, lowered himself to the floor and proceeded to wash the disciples’ feet. He was (both physically and figuratively) placing himself in the role of servant to serve his disciples.
Verse 12 indicates a return to the "Teacher and Lord" role with which they are no doubt more comfortable. Jesus clothes himself, and returns to his place at the table, ready to explain his actions to the once-again baffled disciples.
Having re-established himself as their Teacher and Lord, he questions them on what they have just seen. (As a former teacher, I do love that Jesus makes sure that his students get it).
No, Jesus is not about to allow the disciples to write this bizarre turn of events off as just another one of those "weird things that Jesus did that we don’t quite understand." Jesus is about to break it down for them.
Jesus asks them, "do you know what I have done to you?" Now, the Greek language offers a lot of leeway when it comes to prepositions. This question could have been interpreted as "do you know what I have done for you?" which would have been completely valid as Jesus had just washed their feet and in one way had provided a service for them. Most English translations, however, choose "to" instead of "for." Jesus has done something to them. Jesus has instituted a change in the disciples. Something from which there is no going back.
In science class, kids learn about physical and chemical changes. (And I’m going to ask you to bear with me here, I taught English – definitely not science so I might get this explanation wrong.)
The most common example of physical change is water and its various states. Water can freeze and become ice, evaporate and become water vapor, melt and become water again and so on. When something goes through a chemical change, it becomes something entirely new. One of the more common examples is that when iron comes in contact with oxygen and is in the presence of water, it goes through a chemical change; it forms an iron oxide which is rust. Often these chemical reactions are aided with the help of a catalyst – something that speeds up the process.
One of the main differences between physical and chemical changes is that with chemical change, the very makeup of the substance changes. Something new is created. There is no going back to its previous state. Where water has a cycle in which it is constantly reverting back to a previous physical state, rust can never turn back into iron. What Jesus has done to the disciples is a chemical change. By showing them what it means to love and to serve one another and exhorting them to do the same, Jesus has changed their very being. There is no going back to their previous ways of life.
Chain-reaction. Catalyst. These scientific terms point to active movement and involvement. A forward motion. With these words, the dim, quiet room filled with confused disciples is replaced by a room full of energized disciples. "We CAN do this. It IS possible."
This passage from John is not just about Jesus suggesting a radical way of living through service. The linchpin in the argument toward self-giving service is the beatitude at the end – "If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them." In contrast to Matthew’s eight beatitudes, John only offers two – one of which is found in this passage. If the disciples want to receive God’s blessing, they are to do as Christ has instructed them. One commentary1 suggests that it might be helpful to invert Jesus’ beatitude: "If you know what is required of you, miserable are you if you fail to do it." If the disciples had not taken on this new way of life and the generations of Christians following, Christianity would not look the way it does today. And we are here today. We know about this domino effect of education and service to others because we are here. This church, the Presbyterian Church, the holy catholic church – we are all here and in this together.
And it’s not just the standard 12 disciples that are responsible for the spread of Christianity. Frances Taylor Gench, in her analysis on John, points out that for the Gospel writer, the number of disciples Jesus had is not set at 12. John actually only refers to Jesus’ having twelve disciples twice. She writes, "John plays down their role and uses the term ‘disciples’ to describe a much wider group of followers." This group of followers "clearly included women, and is one in which the evangelist hopes that readers will locate themselves."2 This means, then, that if we are able to place ourselves within this acted out parable, then Jesus is changing not just his disciples 2000 years ago, but charging us to do the same today.
In his opening to chapter 11 in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, "Imitate me, then, just as I imitate Christ. I praise you because you always remember me and follow the teachings that I have handed you."
Paul is yet another link in the chain reaction toward discipleship. Christ appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul then began preaching in Damascus and beyond, reaching both Jew and Gentile. Paul still reaches us through his many epistles to the early churches. The important part for us and for Paul is that in imitating Paul, we remember who Paul is imitating in the first place – Christ.
We also know that the Corinthians know the teachings that Paul has taught them because he praises them in verse 2. Some translations use "follow" as in "follow the teachings" instead of "maintain". The emphasis on maintenance points to the forward movement of the Church. Not only are the members of the congregation following the teachings of Christ, they are maintaining the traditions – they are making sure that they continue. They are taking the lessons learned from Paul and turning around and teaching their children and the other curious members of their community.
The texts from John and 1 Corinthians point to a way of living in Christ in which we always remember who first taught us while at the same time, look forward to maintain the traditions and to teach others. Through these sacred Scriptures, we encounter a Christ who calls us to live in a radical way – in a way that will start patterns of renewal in ourselves and in each other.
I know it may seem strange that only a few days after Christmas we study a passage that is generally designated for Holy Week. But I think it’s important to remember the connection between the event we celebrated this past Thursday and the event we will celebrate in a few months on Maundy Thursday. You see, we can’t get to Maundy Thursday without the event of Christmas and Christmas would lose its meaning without the events on Maundy Thursday and the days that follow.
I don’t know about you, but one of the saddest moments of my year is after all of the presents are opened. I realize that Christmas isn’t just about the presents (I’ve taken several classes at Columbia that ensures that I realize this), but for me, the waiting to open the presents was the best part of the season. Everything was oriented toward Christmas morning and once that was over – what else was there to look forward to? When I was younger, I used to mentally extend the Christmas season until every single present was opened. This meant that if my grandparents in Ohio told me they had a present for me and I knew that I probably wouldn’t get to open it until I visited them in March, then I got to extend the Christmas season until that present was opened. Again, it wasn’t just the presents (although those were good…) I just loved the warm feelings and excitement associated with Christmas. And for me, once the presents were opened, that signaled an end to those feelings.
Maybe you experienced that this week. Or maybe you will once the Christmas decorations are down. Or maybe you didn’t even catch the Christmas bug this year. The good news is that with the birth of Christ, the season has just begun. Christmas is a reminder of the initial domino in that chain reaction – Jesus Christ. Isaiah tells us that from the get-go, Jesus is going to change the world – "He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall the poor and decide with equity for the meek." The passage shows us the radical ways in which Jesus will disrupt the status quo. Those who were considered to be natural enemies, shall live peaceably with one another. The world has changed, there is no reverting back to a previous state. And who is it that starts these events in motion? A baby, born in the humblest of settings to a bewildered but faithful mother and father who will help to ensure that everything stays in motion.
And a little child shall lead them…
1. Daniel Stevick, Jesus and His Own. 36.
2. Frances Taylor Gench, Encounters with Jesus. 97.