John 13:1-17, 31-35 – Maundy Thursday

Welcome, friends. The Gospel of John, chapter 13, provides the last words and final actions of Jesus Christ for his disciples. And it all centers in humble love. Click the videos below, and let us observe and remember…

Maundy Thursday, Pastor Tim Ehrhardt
Behold the Lamb (Communion Hymn) – sung by Keith & Kristyn Getty, words by Stuart Townsend, 2009

Holy God, you give us this meal of bread and wine in which we celebrate your great compassion; grant that we may work with you to fulfil our prayers, and to love and serve others as Christ has loved us; this we ask through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who is alive with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Philippians 2:5-11 – Palm Sunday

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (NIV)

I often take the posture of kneeling or prostrating when I pray. I do this, not because I think my prayers are more effective that way, but because this embodies my petitions with a recognition of Christ’s lordship over my life. Also, for me, there is no experience quite like using the kneelers on church pews and bowing together in a common experience of recognizing the lordship of Jesus Christ.

I sometimes ponder a question as I am on my knees: What kind of people would we be if we looked like these verses in Philippians?  The Apostle Paul said to the church in Philippi that their “attitude” should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. Their mindset, the way they think about everything, ought to be just like the mind of Christ. If we want to know how to think well and live well, how to relate to others in a good way, then we ought to thoroughly adopt the mind and the attitude of Jesus.  

How we should think and live comes from God. Within the life of the triune God exists three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. Within this great three-in-one God exists perfect love, absolute holiness, united harmony, and constant respect. The Holy Scriptures tell us that just as God is holy, we are to be holy. Just as God is love, so we are to love one another. Just as God is harmonious, we are to live in harmony with one another. And just as God is supremely exemplified in the person of Jesus as a humble servant, so we are to practice humility and service in all our relations.

None of this is optional for the Christian. There is no place in the believer’s life for pride, posturing, and power-broking. There is to be humility, taking the posture of lowliness, and using any kind of influence for the benefit and encouragement of others – just like Jesus did while on this earth.

In a world pre-occupied with power and control, safety and security, influence and throwing its weight around, there is Jesus. He did just the opposite of engaging in upward mobility; he practiced downward mobility, and in doing so Christ descended into greatness as Lord and Savior.

Jesus did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped. The pre-incarnate Christ did not sit in heaven as the second person of the Trinity and hold onto his lofty position with tight fists – he did not grasp it tightly. When Jesus came to this earth, there was a humble willingness to open his hands and relinquish his rights and privileges as God. Christ made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. Jesus gladly, not reluctantly, emptied himself for us. Jesus became one of us.

The television series, Undercover Boss, is a reality show in which high-level corporate executives leave the comfort of their offices and secretly take low-level jobs within their companies to find out how things are really working and what their employees are honestly thinking about their jobs and what is happening. In the process of this undercover mission, they learn of the perceptions about their companies, the spirit of their work forces and — maybe — something about themselves as well.

None of the executives cease to be executives. They just make a willing decision to take the lowest level job in their own company to hopefully benefit the employees and the entire corporation. The best episodes are when the most generous executives go above and beyond helping the employees around them at the end of the show. 

Jesus descended to earth. He never ceased to be God. Yet, Christ willingly put his kingly robe in the closet and donned Dickies and work boots. He came among us and purposely limited himself to identify with us fully – and secured for us the greatest generosity imaginable – an answer to the problem of guilt and shame through forgiveness of sins.

Jesus became a servant. He completely tied himself to us. Jesus did not come to this earth seeking to be served, but sought to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. Christ kept going lower and lower to the point of descending to the greatest humiliation of all – death on a cross. Jesus endured the ultimate shame of the ancient world by dying a terrible death. The King of the universe was killed by vicious humanity so that he might redeem and save those very same people from their terrible plight of bondage to evil.

We are to be humble people, embracing a lowly status of slaves to God and to one another. The ancient Philippian church had a real problem with pride which is why Paul talked about emulating the mind and attitude of Christ in his humiliation. The following are exhortations Paul gave to the Philippians, which were to reflect the practice of humility in relationships:

  • Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (1:27). 
  • Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves (2:3). 
  • Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling (2:12). 
  • Do everything without complaining or arguing (2:14). 
  • Join with others in following my example and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you (3:17). 
  • Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (4:6). 

Because of Christ’s humble obedience to the Father, he was exalted from the lowest place to the highest place.  King Jesus is on the throne, above everyone and everything. Because of his descent to this earth, Christ has ascended in glory and honor. We can now see God in a new way, through Jesus. And when we do, it causes us to kneel in prayer and profess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

In the ancient world, this was subversive language. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not, and ultimate allegiance does not belong to the Roman Empire. If Jesus is Lord, the local gods are not. And in our day, it is no different. Historical characters and religious deities may come and go, but the issue of ultimate allegiance still pertains to us. If Jesus is Lord, no politician or celebrity is owed lordship status. Pride and arrogance are to be put down at every turn in favor of humble service and loving actions.

If we are to follow Jesus Christ truly and really, we will practice downward mobility and embrace humility. Bowing, kneeling, and prostrating will become second nature to us as we give our unflagging allegiance to Jesus. We will accept our creaturehood and God as Creator. We will live in the reality that Jesus is Sovereign over all creation. 

As we enter the Christian Holy Week, let us acknowledge and know the humiliation and exaltation of Christ….

Just watch my servant blossom!
    Exalted, tall, head and shoulders above the crowd!
But he didn’t begin that way.
    At first everyone was appalled.
He didn’t even look human—
    a ruined face, disfigured past recognition.
Nations all over the world will be in awe, taken aback,
    kings shocked into silence when they see him.
For what was unheard of they’ll see with their own eyes,
    what was unthinkable they’ll have right before them.

Who believes what we’ve heard and seen?
    Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?

The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,
    a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
    nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
    a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
    We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
    our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
    that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
    that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
    Through his bruises we get healed.
We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost.
    We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong,
    on him, on him.

He was beaten, he was tortured,
    but he didn’t say a word.
Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered
    and like a sheep being sheared,
    he took it all in silence.
Justice miscarried, and he was led off—
    and did anyone really know what was happening?
He died without a thought for his own welfare,
    beaten bloody for the sins of my people.
They buried him with the wicked,
    threw him in a grave with a rich man,
Even though he’d never hurt a soul
    or said one word that wasn’t true.

Still, it’s what God had in mind all along,
    to crush him with pain.
The plan was that he gives himself as an offering for sin
    so that he’d see life come from it—life, life, and more life.
    And God’s plan will deeply prosper through him.

Out of that terrible travail of soul,
    he’ll see that it’s worth it and be glad he did it.
Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant,
    will make many “righteous ones,”
    as he himself carries the burden of their sins.
Therefore I’ll reward him extravagantly—
    the best of everything, the highest honors—
Because he looked death in the face and didn’t flinch,
    because he embraced the company of the lowest.
He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many,
    he took up the cause of all the black sheep. (Isaiah 52:13-53:12, MSG)

God in the Flesh

The Word Became Flesh by Guatemalan painter Hyatt Moore

In the biggest cities of the world, like Mexico City, and Manilla, there are huge garbage dumps that cover several square miles. On top of these heaps of waste there live thousands of families who have made this their home. Each day they send their kids out to forage for scraps so they can have something to eat and survive.  Few others tread where these families are.  Yet, there are believers who make the journey and try to bring the gospel of grace and mercy to such a place.

As incredible and sad a situation that this is, it is incomparable to the journey from heaven to earth that Jesus made. Christ came to the sin-soaked dump of this world, to us who were living on a heap of garbage and entered our lives to save us from our wretched condition. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, frames the Gospel of John 1:14 this way:

The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.

Jesus did not merely appear to be human; he is human. The Christ of God, enjoying unhindered fellowship within the Godhead of Father, Son, and Spirit, became like us and lived with all the same things we face from day to day.  He “tabernacled” with us, using the imagery of God’s presence with the ancient Israelites (Exodus 25-31, 35-40). Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us.

We must remember that the Apostle John and the other gospel writers were evangelists; they wrote so that people might believe in Jesus and come to see what God has done through joining them in this broken world. Another John, John the Baptist, had a sole purpose in life to be a witness of Jesus to others, to testify to the truth that Christ came to rescue us from our terrible condition.

The Apostle John saw Jesus interact with families in the dump. He knew what was happening, that God was coming to save the people. The way to reach people, who are so concerned for scurrying about their business and trying to survive apart from God, is through the incarnation – in testifying to what God has done in Christ and being sent as little incarnations entering people’s lives. 

In this way, believers are like the moon, not producing light ourselves, but in the middle of darkness, reflecting the light of the sun so that the earth may know that Jesus is coming. The mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus became human and descended to live among us.

Any birth is an incredible miracle. I was present at the births of all three of my daughters, and one of my grandsons. There is nothing quite like it. Life coming into the world for the very first time is an unparalleled mystery with an unmatched sense of majesty. Although childbirth involves pain, agony, and mess, it is all quickly forgotten amidst the joy of this little baby becoming alive to all that is around them.

What a crazy contradiction of a virgin having a child gestate in her womb and then giving birth! That is something more than a miracle. It is Divine accommodation or condescension in which God does the unimaginable and unthinkable in not only coming to earth but entering as a vulnerable human baby. The great and mighty Sovereign of the universe got down on all fours and descended far beneath such loftiness. God got off the throne and sat on the garbage heap with us.

God is so far above and beyond us that to be revealed and communicate to us, the Holy Trinity conspired to enter the earth by means of a baby. God came to us. The sixteenth century Reformer, John Calvin, framed the incarnation of Christ in these terms:

“God lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children. Such modes of expression… accommodate the knowledge of the divine to our feebleness. In doing so, God must, of course, stoop far below his proper height… Because our weakness cannot reach his height, any description which we receive of God must be lowered to our capacity to be intelligible… God voluntarily lowers himself not as he really is but as we conceive of him.”

Indeed, God coos at us and babbles baby-talk not because that is his language but so that we can understand. What is more, God became flesh and blood for us, so we can climb up into his lap or lean into him, just as John did with Jesus. (John 13:23-25)

The incarnation of Christ means God loves us so deeply and completely that Jesus became one of us to bring that love with skin on, in ways that truly communicate empathy, compassion, kindness, and goodness to people. This is grace, that God first conformed to us before we are conformed to Christ. God went to the greatest lengths possible to reach us, save us, and bring us into the life of the Trinity.

Jesus climbed into our skin to assure us that God understands and cares. Jesus also gets into our hearts and invites us to know God. Even though Christ said a lot of things that can be difficult to understand, the love of coming alongside another person communicates well in any language and culture. Jesus, full of both grace and truth, bent over backwards to speak and act in ways that say, “I love you.”

God got down and dirty with us. The Lord jumped into the fray of broken humanity. God connected Jesus to an umbilical cord, covered him in the muck of fetal afterbirth, and caused him to cry alongside the sorrows of humanity. None of this was illusion or appearance. It was real, just like us. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews said this:

Since the children are made of flesh and blood, it is logical that the Savior took on flesh and blood to rescue them by his death. By embracing death, taking it into himself, he destroyed the Devil’s hold on death and freed all who cower through life, scared to death of death.

It is obvious, of course, that he did not go to all this trouble for angels. It was for people like us, children of Abraham. That is why he had to enter every detail of human life. Then, when he came before God as high priest to get rid of the people’s sins, he would have already experienced it all himself—all the pain, all the testing—and would be able to help where help was needed. (Hebrews 2:14-18, MSG)

God’s grace stretches out on the wide horizontal beam of the Cross with compassionate arms for the world. God’s truth goes down deep with the vertical beam of the cross to give stability for the world. The truth of Jesus Christ, the One who reveals God, is strong enough to support the wide beam of grace which stretches round the earth to bring deliverance from the garbage dump of sin, death, and hell.

May we rejoice and be glad in this reality, and may it move us to be used of God to save those on the sin heap of this world.

1 Peter 5:1-5 – Humble Service

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”(NIV)

Today’s New Testament lesson addresses two groups of people: Leaders and followers, the older and the younger, shepherds and sheep. Both have their distinct roles and places, yet both are to share together in the virtue of humility. Whether pastor or parishioner, mentor or mentee, humble service is to characterize all.

I spent a good chunk of my ministerial life working with college students and twenty-somethings. One of the reasons I like being around young adults is that they have a very well attuned barometer to hogwash coming from older folks. Unlike children and more mature adults, this group of people live in a nexus between an emerging awareness of the world without having yet been crusted over with bitterness or disillusionment. They can spot a disingenuous person across the room like an eagle eyes the difference between a fish and a rock at five-thousand feet in the air.

All of us have likely had the experience of not being able to explain why, but a certain interaction with a person just seems off – it smacks of being a bit too contrived and manipulative. The other person might talk a good line, yet your instincts tell you different. So, for example, if a church pastor or leader seems to be just going through the motions as if the work is a necessary evil, then there might be something behind it. It is always a good idea to stop and listen to your gut speak.

Difficult for many people is that life is not so much about learning a certain skill set, as if we were in a trade school. The skills approach relies upon learning to say certain things, do certain things, and press certain buttons in others, and then get a solid expected outcome. That kind of approach is where the finely attuned baloney meter goes off in others. They sense that this person talking to them is not bringing anything of themselves to the discussion; they’re just talking without listening; they just go on without a sense of dialogue in which they learn from you or reveal anything of themselves to you.

I genuinely believe humility is the cornerstone of all virtues and the foundation to effective personal interactions and group dynamics. Without humility, there is no sense of the majesty and dignity of the other person – there is only competition and a twisted hierarchy of those with power and those without. If humility is absent, life is a trade school in learning to get what I want on the backs of others.

However, with humility, who we are as people matters. I bring my feelings, my thoughts, my beliefs, my experiences, and my questions into the conversation or situation and seek to, in turn, discover what you think and feel. Then, together, we come to a third way of seeing that honors our collective sharing and consulting of one another with fresh collaboration which blesses the world. This is less a skill set, and more of just being a good human being.

Humility is a posture, not a skill to leverage for what we want. A humble disposition pursues learning, growth, and development. It sits with uncertainty and mystery so that genuine relationship has a real go at happening. Humility sits on the floor at Jesus’ feet and discovers something about self, God, and the interaction between each.

The humble emptying of oneself is necessary in awakening to a new awareness of God’s presence. It may not mean that shepherds and leaders have clear assurances and certain plans, yet it will surely involve living in the awkward in-between of assurance and uncertainty, being loved but not knowing where that love will take you, and following Jesus without a pre-negotiated plan. 

No one can malarkey their way through the Christian life; everyone needs the posture of humility. Jesus will be our Teacher, yet we will need to bring ourselves to the mix because Christianity is not dispassionately taking notes and then forensically regurgitating it all on an exam. Instead, Christianity is a dynamic spiritual encounter between God and self through the person of Jesus. It begins with humility. And the rewards of such living are permanent and eternal.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd of the sheep, give us the humility which realizes its ignorance, admits its mistakes, recognizes its need, welcomes advice, and accepts rebuke. Help us always to praise rather than to criticize, to sympathize rather than to discourage, to build rather than to destroy, and to think of people at their best rather than at their worst. This we ask for your name’s sake. Amen.