Leading by Example

Farmer Dale’s Red Pickup Truck, by Wheeler/Bates

John 13:1–17


Great Googly Moogly!

The other day, as I was chasing down an idea connected to today’s sermon, I turned to that sage-of-our-age known as Google. “Great-and-all-knowing Google,” I asked, “tell me a joke about a bossy person.”

The Google told me many, many things. Among them were jokes about cheese, jokes about wives, excerpts from a book by Tina Fey, blog posts about conflict resolution, Yiddish phrases, a 2014 campaign to ban the use of the word “bossy,” and an absurdly large number of references to cows (apparently an american slang dating the early 1800’s). The Google may know many things, but none of them were very helpful.

Well, it did lead me to understand the reason our author today made the cow the bossy one. But who the bossy one is hardly matters—it is the leader that matters. And contrary to popular belief, the bossy one is rarely the real leader.

Bad Followers

This is one of those paces where we are challenged by Jesus. He sets a difficult example for us.

His teachings are so direct and clear that we decide he must have meant something more complicated.

His interactions are so driven by compassion that we assign him ulterior motives.

His commitment to taking care of himself by retreating and praying is so consistent that we decide being like Jesus requires us to be so busy we have no time for such “frivolities.”

His expansive forgiveness affects us so deeply that we work hard to decide who deserves it.

The path he walks is in such radical opposition to the forces of this world that we conclude we must utilize the forces and methods of this world in order to ensure that everyone walks it (whether they want to or not).

Jesus sets a difficult example for us. And we are so, so lousy at following.

John 13

This story in John 13 is incredibly important for followers of Jesus. Everything in Jesus’ life and ministry is coming to a head. We have been told earlier in the gospel story that Jesus now knows he is going to die (Mark 8:31-32; 9:31-32; Matthew 20:17-19). The third verse of our reading reveals that truth once again: “he was [soon] returning to God.”

And so driven by this reality, Jesus takes action. The disciples, we read elsewhere, don’t really have a clue what is going on and who Jesus really is; their eyes, hearts, and minds will only be opened to that after the resurrection (Luke 24:27). But a sense of expediency seems to overwhelm Jesus—He needs to make an important point, and he needs to make it now.

This lesson is not about what to believe. It is not directly about the Kingdom of God, which has been the center of Jesus’ teaching ministry. It is not even about what to do, as with Jesus’ instructions to the disciples and the 70 commissioned to heal and teach in Jesus’ name.

This lesson is about how. No matter what you believe, no matter what your understanding of the Kingdom of God, no matter what you dothis is how you are to be. This is what should permeate your every action, interaction, relationship, conversation, and commitment.

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master.” (John 13:14–16a NIV11)

If Jesus, our master, chooses to be a servant to us; then how much more are we to live and be as servants to all?

Baptists & Ordinances

I’ve made reference to this in other times and places, but I got in trouble at my ordination council. One of the many steps toward my American Baptist ordination involved writing a paper about my theological commitments, a paper that required I talk about our ordinances.

Whereas many of our Christian sisters and brothers in other denominations talk about things like communion as “sacraments,” we Baptists have stubbornly insisted on calling them ordinances. They are symbols rather than magical acts; they matter only in the ways they matter to us. So instead of seven sacraments, we historically have affirmed two ordinances: baptism and communion. And we call them “ordinances” because we have said they, unlike the other five “sacraments” were ordered by our Lord Jesus Christ.

So me being……well……me, I had to stir the pot a little. I did affirm only two ordinances, though I talked a bit about how I believe God uses them to give us grace. And I also pointed out that baptism wasn’t really ordered by Jesus—in the Great Commission of Matt 28, “making disciples” is the command (the order), everything else is a part of what “disciple-making” means. And I could not resist a reference to John 13—where Jesus clearly orders something we don’t recognize as an ordinance.

I may have been stirring the pot, but it does bother me. Do we have any better reason to ignore Jesus’ words to perform this symbolic action than our own discomfort at the task? Is it merely a matter of pride that keeps us from following the example and command of our savior? Unfortunately, I have yet to come up with another explanation.

Back to Farmer Dale

And it’s more than us failing to fulfill the command toward physical action; we don’t even honor the meaning behind this very well. You can hardly leaf through the news without coming across some group of self-righteous Christians who are pompously asserting their authority on other people. Like Bossy Cow, they are the first to be critical of others and the last to give up their own position, authority, and resources. And they look as different from Jesus as Bossy Cow does from Farmer Dale.

It is Farmer Dale’s pickup, after all. Everyone present is there by his invitation. He risks his time and his truck in order to help them out. He endures constant criticism and bickering among the riders he picks up. He risks his relationships with them by offering to mediate the conflict that emerges when the truck breaks down. And he is, of course, the first to get out and push—even though he should by rights be the last to have to fill this menial role.

Bossy Cow inspires no one—except in that her criticism became contagious. Farmer Dale, however, inspires everyone to help out by being a servant leader.

As Christians, we sometimes think no one will hear unless we are shrill and condemning, taking a “hard line” with those who we identify as “sinners” or the “unsaved.” But this is not the way of Jesus.

Jesus was criticized for being too affirming of “sinners” the “unsaved” (Matthew 9:10-13; Luke 15; etc.).

Jesus gave up his rights, both his divine rights and his human rights out of love for you and for me (Philippians 2:5-8).

Jesus, on the eve of his death, thought the “how” of the faithful life important enough to perform the most menial task imaginable in the ancient world, hoping and praying that this radical action would at last capture the disciples’ attention—that they would, finally, understand that the way of Jesus requires we be servants of all.

Epitaths & the End

I find the last half of John 13:1 to be some of the most poignant words in the whole of the Bible. They are hard for me to read without choking up, most of the time. The NIV translates them in this way:

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1b).

Had Jesus lived in a world with tombstones, and had (of course) he remained dead—I believe this would have been his epitath: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

There is no greater symbol of Jesus’ attitude of service than the cross. On account of his love for us, “he loved [us] to the end”—he loved us enough to give up his life for our own.

What can we give up to pay him back for that? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Even if it were possible for us to live a perfect life from here on, to accomplish great things in the world in Jesus’ name, to be used by God to bring thousands or millions to the knowledge of Christ—it would still be a drop in the ocean of the debt of such great love. That’s why we speak of God’s grace. Because we do not deserve it, we cannot earn it, and we cannot pay God back for it.

But we can offer gratitude.

We can turn our lives over to Christ—so that Christ might live through us (Gal 2:20).

We can choose to follow the servant example of Jesus—one choice at a time, one moment and one day at a time.

We can commit to the “how” of Jesus’ cause as readily as the “what”—by choosing to be servants ourselves, and in doing so, walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

Only when we do this—only when we follow these steps of Jesus—will others follow our lead, will Christ’s Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.



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