Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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"Farewell Discourse I: Servanthood"

Mark 10:35-45

John 13:1-17

     It’s the start of the liturgical season of Lent, and time for a little sermon series.  Today, and over the next four Sundays, I’ll be presenting “A Farewell Discourse.”  Each week, we’ll consider a portion of Jesus’ teaching directed specifically toward His disciples on the last evening of His earthly life. While the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke offer only short accounts of what was said and done on that fateful night  [the centerpiece of each being the “Last Supper”], John offers a full five chapters, 155 verses, and says nothing of that supper, save what we’ll read this morning in verse 2 of chapter 13.  Instead, John chronicles in great detail Jesus’ parting words of spiritual instruction and encouragement.  I want to give you a heads-up that the teachings we’ll be sharing over the next five weeks aren’t necessarily intended to make us comfortable.  In fact, we may at times find ourselves fidgeting in our seats.  Some of us may even think to ourselves, “How dare the pastor…. At any rate, I will attempt to preach the word in its fullness.  You may want to join me in wearing comfortable socks, because “if” as they say, “the shoe fits……”

          (Read John 13:1-17)      In the next to the last sentence of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s inaugural address delivered on January 20, 1961, the newly-elected POTUS issued this challenge to a nation in his thick Massachusetts accent: “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”Perhaps the late President had a hunch about the change that was soon to sweep over America.    Some historians have called the decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s a watershed time in the world view of Americans.  Before and during the World War II era, our nation was largely characterized by an ethos of what they label “self-oblation.”  What in the world does that mean?  Simply put, most people thought nothing of sacrificing themselves for the well-being of others.  American freedoms and liberties were widely understood as means by which the interests and well-being of society at-large were served and protected.  It was by no means a perfect era.  Corruption, injustices, greed, dishonesty, elements of our fallen human condition, were all too prevalent then as they are now.

      But something happened over the course of around three decades; the span of a generation. As the rock and roll band, The Who, once sang: my generation.”  Especially in the ‘60’s, Americans began to question establishment with a boldness and fervor never before seen.  Institutions were exposed in their imperfections.  Time-honored cultural pillars such as industry, education, religion, government, law enforcement;  all were shaken at their foundations by an aggressive popular culture which plied the tools of both satire and direct attack.  A new American ethos was emerging; ironically reflected by Englishman John Lennon’s lyrics: “Imagine there’s no country…no religion too.  It’s easy if you try.”

      Along with this suspicion of all which had previously been held dear, there came an inward turning of America.  Weary of war, weary of top-down government, weary of restrictive religious dogma, weary of abuse of the working class, weary of economic imbalance, a new generation  started asking, “What about meMy interests?  My well-being?  My rights and privileges?”  These seemed fair and noble questions at the time.  But as with so many swings of the pendulum, there was a shift from one extreme to the other; especially in the ‘70’s.  The one constant of freedom and liberty was re-appropriated to serve me; my interests; my well-being; my rights and privileges. As for you, I wish you well, but you’re on your own.  In effect, J.F.K.’s question was reversed:  Ask not what you can do for your country.  Ask what your country can do for you.”

      I’m not a political scientist, and I realize I risk painting this paradigm shift with an overly-broad stroke of the brush.  But I suspect I’m not the only one to have sensed an extreme selfishness and self-centeredness take hold in America as with the grip of a vice.  We’ve become a nation of individuals less concerned with how we can serve, but more concerned with how we can be served.

      A young couple has just moved into a community and are church-shopping.  They come to the Main Street Church of Jesus Christ, and what are the first questions they ask?  What are some of the mission and outreach opportunities in which our family can become involved?  If we felt called to teach, would there potentially be a spot for us?  Does the choir need a soprano who can read music and sing like a sparrow?  What are some ways the members assist the pastor in her job? Maybe, but not very likely.  The questions will more likely sound like this:  “What programs do you have for our children while we go out to breakfast?  Do you have a mid-week service because we go to bed late on Saturday nights and like to sleep in Sunday mornings?  What opportunities for my spiritual growth are offered here?  Is the ladies room up-to-date?  Now there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this latter set of questions.  But where are they oriented? Toward the interests of others, or toward the interests of me and mine?  You see, the prevailing issue in the minds of too many Christians isn’t what can I do to serve the Main Street Church of Jesus Christ?  It is: what can the Main Street Church of Jesus Christ do to serve me

      I think I understand the dilemma of the younger generation, because at least in my own eyes –if not in the eyes of my children – I’m still a part of it.  But my generation reflects the error, theologically-speaking, of Simon Peter and the other disciples.  Their concern was very much inwardly-turned, especially exposed in their asking Jesus things like, “How can I sit at your right hand in glory?” or “Which of us shall be greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?”  Now, just hours before Jesus’ death, He’s teaching them by way of an enacted parable of foot washing that they’re asking the wrong questions.  The heart of this thing, Jesus says through stooping down and cleansing their dusty, smelly pups, isn’t about being served; being honored; being elevated to the seat of prominence.  To the contrary, it’s about serving; being humble; taking the back seat instead of the front.

      Peter vehemently protests the fact that Jesus wants to undo his sandals and wash his feet, going even as far as to tell his Lord what He’s going, or not going to do.  “You will never wash my feet.”  In part, he is offended that the One whom he’d confessed to be the Messiah – the Son of God – would stoop so low; acting like some common servant; stripping himself not only of His garments, but of His very dignity.  But I think Peter is equally offended by what this implies for him as a disciple.  Like us, Peter is proud.  He’s concerned primarily with his own interests; his own well-being.  Now Jesus, don’t think I’m gonna do this stuff.  After all, I do have my pride.  Jesus gets the drift of Peter’s protest; where it’s coming from.  So Jesus lays it down as clearly as He can:  Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  Does this refer to Jesus cleansing Peter from sin?  On one level, yes.  But implied on another level is: If you don’t understand this as what I do and who I am, and what you’re to do and who you are, you can’t be a true disciple.  At least on the first level, Peter gets the point.  Sometimes, that’s all the further we get.

      After Jesus had finished this, what some call a foot washing “sacrament,” He must explain the meaning of this enacted parable:  “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord --- and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”  Jesus does nothing less here than de-fine what it is to be His follower; His disciples; a Christian.  It’s not about asking, “How can I be served?,” but rather, “How can I serve?”  It’s not about self-interest.  It’s about other’s interest. I am free not as an end, but as a means by which I can attend to the well-being of a brother or sister, not just attend to my own.  Reformer Martin Luther said it well when he wrote: “A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.”

      So where is our orientation?  Are we in the Main Street Church of Jesus Christ to serve, or to be served?  I cannot answer that for you.  You cannot answer that for me.  We must all answer that question for ourselves, as did every disciple who sat with Jesus at table on that fateful night of farewell discourse.  Hey, I was once an Elder or Deacon.  I’ve taught Sunday School.  I’ve sung in the choir.  I come to church (when I can get up in time).  What do you think pastor?  It really doesn’t matter what I think.  Jesus asks the question of each and every one of us, whether fidgeting in our seats, or squirming in the pulpit.  And it’s less about degree of service; more about the quality of heart and orientation of spirit underlying our service.  Jesus alone knows our motives, and it does matter what He thinks. 

      The season of Lent is about examining our spiritual selves.  A piece of that examination is having the courage to look deeply and honestly into our own hearts, and our own motivations for serving….. or not serving.  And there is only One who can ultimately examine these things with us; the One who says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  In these weeks ahead, let’s open our hearts – perhaps like never before – to that Spirit which in the parting words of Jesus’ farewell discourse confronts us, convicts us, purifies us, and motivates us for service.  And may Jesus shape and mold us all into a servant people, and a servant church.


Almighty God, we embark together upon this Lenten journey of spiritual discernment.  Grant us the courage to be honest with ourselves, and with You.  Grant us the confidence that we can  come before You in our sinful and broken condition, and find forgiveness and renewal.  Grant us the hope that in and through Jesus Christ, we can be transformed into new creations which reflect the best of our humanity, and reflect the best of Your love.  All this we pray in that name which is above every name.  Amen.

Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102