Sermon Text: John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
In Da Vinci’s famous portrayal of The Last Supper we see the disciples arguing with each other. There’s lots defensive and accusatory postures in that painting. In Mark and Matthew’s Gospel Jesus delivers the line, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me; one who is eating with me.” You can imagine how the group devolved from there, how they would have reacted at such a startling announcement.
One year I was part of a live action Lord’s Supper, done in the middle of the Maundy Thursday service. The group created the tableau of Da Vinci’s artwork and froze into place. Then, one by one we sprung to life and delivered a monologue. Each disciple listed their achievements and their devotion, ending with the question, “Surely, not I Lord?”
That dramatic presentation of The Last Supper was intriguing because everyone was arguing and defending themselves about how they weren’t the worst. Certainly, they wouldn’t betray Jesus. Who would? Who would do such a horrible thing?
In John’s telling of the story, in the section that’s skipped in our lectionary today, the disciples move on from arguing about who is the worst and instead land on the question of who will be the greatest. That’s really disappointing and it provides an enormous amount of commentary on our human tendencies. Here, Jesus is sharing the fact that his suffering and death are imminent, and all the disciples can do is argue about their spot on the totem pole.
That’s the scene that surrounds this dinner party, and it speaks volumes about the disciples. It speaks volumes about us. A shocking truth is revealed and the immediate reaction is the question, “how will this affect me personally?” Not, “Oh, man Jesus, that sounds awful.” Not, “Jesus, how can we help you?” Not “Jesus, tell us more so we can better understand.” But, “Surely, not I Lord?” and “Clearly, I’m the greatest.” Mix all that together with the fact that the disciples couldn’t even stay awake and pray with Jesus in the garden when he is clearly disturbed and distraught and you have some truly embarrassing behavior from these men.
Am I being too hard on the disciples for their behavior this night? Possibly. However, I don’t think I could have done any better. I don’t think any of us could have done any better if we were thrust into this situation. I know I have certainly had my fair share of selfish thoughts and self-promotion at the expense of others. What makes me think that I wouldn’t also do that at the expense of Jesus?
This all reminds me of my favorite image of sin. In the Latin it’s called incurvatis in se, or, to be curved or turned inward on oneself. When given the choice, we naturally think about ourselves and our own interests rather than the interest of others or the interests of God. And when we do that, when we curve inwards on ourselves, then we become like our reflection when looking into a spoon—distorted and upside down. St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Carl Barth, they all commonly used this definition of sin, and the its examples are omnipresent in our world, especially during these last two Covid years. Don’t believe me? Then I invite you to remember the hoarding that was rampant at the very beginning. The runs on toilet paper and peanut butter really said something about who we are.
Instead of arguing about who’s the greatest or who’s the worst, Jesus provides a new way forward, an alternative. If you want to be great, if you want to be first, then you will serve others, you will be humble, you will be subservient, you will not act out of naked self-interest. Jesus teaches this lesson as he removes his outer garment, wraps a towel around his waist, and washes and dries twenty-four dusty feet. After he is done with the basin of water he continues to give of himself this night as he gathers the disciples around the table. This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you.
It says in our Gospel that Jesus was motivated by the knowledge he had of what was next. His knowledge drives his actions to serve and to love and to give. As he washes and dries and breaks and blesses he sets the standard. Let love be your driving force. Serve one another as I have served you. Love one another as I have loved you.
Jesus frees us from pecking orders and arguments about greatness and every ego measuring competition we can conjure. If you want to be great, don’t curve in on yourself, but extend outwards to others and to God.
That is how we will be alive in God. That is how Jesus brought the power of God to life, through selfless service that continues, even in the weightiness of this very night.
Jesus gives the example, and we remember him. Not just in wine and bread, body and blood, but also in service and in action.
What a blessing to be served. What a blessing it is to serve. AMEN