Brothers and sisters, I hope it’s not covetousness on my part when I confess that I really, really want an Atlanta Braves World Series ring. The Braves had the ring ceremony last Saturday in which they handed them out to the team. And these rings are awesome!
Among many other things, the rings have a total of 755 diamonds—44 of which are configured in such a way to pay tribute to Number 44 Hank Aaron, who died last year. On one side there’s a pearl in reference to the famous pearl necklace that Joc Pederson wore. The top of the ring has a lid that opens to reveal an engraving of the Truist Park stadium with micro LED lights that light up.
As I said, these rings are awesome and I want one. And maybe you object, “But, Brent, you didn’t do anything to earn it.” And maybe so… but plenty of people in Major League organizations receive World Series rings who don’t necessarily earn it.
For instance, have you ever heard of the legendary Russell Nua? How could you not have heard of a man who has been awarded five—count ’em, five—World Series rings! Someone like that would have trouble turning doorknobs wearing all that bling on his fingers! But you haven’t heard of Russell Nua because he’s a massage therapist—who happens to have worked for World Series-winning teams including the Red Sox and the Marlins.1 He got rings for being a massage therapist.
And you may say, “Okay, but he at least he helped the teams in some way!”
Okay, but what about Dan Uggla. If you’re a Braves fan, you may remember Uggla. He got traded to the Giants and after the Giants won the Series 2014, he got a World Series ring. And you say, “Yes, but he was on the team. He deserved it.”
But did he?
In 2014 Dan Uggla played a total of four games for the 2014 Giants—not World Series game, just four games during the regular season. He went 0 for 11, he struck out six times,and he made two errors. The Giants cut him from the roster after only a couple of weeks. Yet, because he happened to be on the team during that season, he got a ring.
Still… if it’s bad enough that Dan Uggla got a ring, I’m sure we can all agree that if the Braves gave yours truly a World Series ring—valued at tens of thousands of dollars—that would be incredibly unfair.
(Although if they want to, I’ll still let them!)
But my point is, we human beings really want to earn the gifts that we’re given. We want to deserve them at least a little bit. We want to prove to the world that we’re worthy in some way of what someone gives to us.
Even when that Someone is God, and we’re talking about God’s grace.
So in tonight’s sermon, I want use this scripture from John 13 to explore the meaning of the grace that Jesus offers his disciples, including us. I want to talk about, one, the way Christ cleanses us; two, the “completeness” of this cleansing; and, three, the command that he gives us in response to this grace.
This sermon is about the cleansing, the completeness, and the command.
First, the cleansing…
If we think it’s unfair that someone like me should receive a World Series ring for doing nothing at all, then maybe we’re not so different from Peter in today’s scripture. In verse 8, he tells Jesus, “You shall never wash my feet!” Listen, I know that it’s easy for us present-day readers to pick on Peter, who always seems to put his foot in his mouth. But let’s hear him out. At least Peter understands this truth: “I do not deserve to have my Lord and Master, Jesus, do something so menial, so humiliating for me—something that only a servant or slave should ever have to do. Certainly not this person who is so much better than I am! I don’t deserve this.”
And he’s absolutely right about that! He doesn’t deserve it.
So Peter’s objection sounds very humble… except…
There’s still a note of pride here: Peter comes across so humble, yet he still seems to know better than Jesus what Jesus ought to do. It’s not the first time this has happened. Remember Peter’s reaction after Jesus tells his disciples that he’s going suffer and die on the cross. “No, Lord, I’ll never let that happen to you!”
Finally, and most importantly, it’s as if Peter were saying something like this: “Lord, am I really so filthy that I require you—my King, my Savior, my Lord—even God-in-the-flesh—to cleanse me? The very fact that you think I need you to do this for me wounds my pride, Lord.”
In other words, Peter is saying, “Lord, my problem is not so large that I need you to solve it. It’s just a little dirt on my feet. I can handle it.”
But Peter is wrong: And part of what Jesus is showing him and his fellow disciples is that, in fact, his problem is so large that only Jesus can solve it. Which is what Jesus means in verse 8 when he tells him,“If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”
Whoa! Suddenly it’s clear that Jesus is no longer talking about just a foot-washing. Rather, he’s talking about the kind of cleansing that this foot-washing symbolizes—which is, Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross for our sins. Remember the apostle John’s words in Revelation? Referring to the saints in heaven, he says, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”2 Or Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, referring to the kinds of sins that these Corinthians used to commit before Christ got hold of them: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”3
So when Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me,” he’s talking about nothing less than heaven or hell, eternal life or eternal damnation. He’s saying, “Through my suffering and death on the cross I’m going to wash away your sins. If you won’t receive this cleansing, then you can never be part of me… you can never be part of God’s family… and you can never have eternal life.”
And this relates to an important detail that John mentions in verse 1: this foot-washing, alongside the Last Supper, takes place during Passover.
Do you remember what Passover commemorates? That time in the history of Israel when God set them free from bondage in Egypt. The Pharaoh finally agreed to free the Israelites after God sent the tenth and final plague against Egypt. In this plague, the Lord struck down the first born sons and firstborn male livestock of every household unless… the family who lived there sacrificed a spotless lamb and sprinkled the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintels.
And here’s an interesting question: Why did God send this plague to cause so much death and destruction?
And you might say, “That’s easy: He was punishing Pharaoh and the Egyptians, because of the way they mistreated the Israelites, and the way the Pharaoh refused to release them from slavery after the nine previous warnings.”
Okay, that sounds reasonable… but hold on… If God merely wanted to punish the Egyptians for their sins, what’s all this business with the Passover lamb? I mean, if God were just punishing the Egyptians, why require the Israelites to do anything? God knew which households belonged to Egyptians and which households belonged to Israelites. If he wanted to “pass over” Israelite houses, why did he need the blood of the lamb to do so?
The reason God required the Israelites to protect themselves with the blood of a lamb is this: If God is going to pour out his wrath on people because of their sins, then as a matter of simple justice no one is safe… no one is exempt… no one can be spared… Because we’ve all sinned. And we all deserve God’s wrath!
As the Psalmist says, “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive?”4 Or as Paul says in Romans: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one… For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… For the wages of sin is death”—and not just physical death, but eternal death in hell.5 As Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”6
See, the first part of the gospel of Jesus Christ—and gospel, you may recall, literally means “good news”—the first part of the good news of Jesus Christ sounds a lot like the bad news: We have a problem with sin over which we are powerless. Left to our own devices, apart from God’s grace, we will all face judgment, we will all be found guilty, and we will all be condemned to hell… Apart from God’s grace.
So the first step to receiving the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is doing what Peter, at least at first, seemed unwilling to do: To confess that we have a problem that only Jesus can solve… to recognize the enormity of our problem with sin… and to desire to change. Granted, we don’t possess within ourselves the power to change, but repentance means bringing to Jesus our desire to change. That’s all he needs. He’ll do the rest. That’s repentance.
And once you take that step, then you’re ready to hear the rest of the good news of the gospel: You’re ready to hear the words of John the Baptist, in John chapter 1, who says of his cousin Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Hear that? “Lamb of God”—that’s Passover language again.
And how does Jesus, like the Passover lamb, take away our sins? The Bible says that it’s by taking our sins upon himself and suffering the death penalty for them—indeed, suffering hell itself for them. In our place. So we don’t have to.
So that’s Point Number One: This foot-washing that Jesus performs for his disciples symbolizes the kind of cleansing that he’ll give them—and us—through his death on the cross!
And this brings us to Point Number Two: the completeness of the cleansing that Christ offers…
When I say that Christ’s atoning death is once for all time, I mean that all of our sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven. I mean that once we receive Jesus as Savior and Lord, we cannot commit any new sin that Jesus did not already pay for on the cross. I mean that nothing—“neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation”—which includes our sins, by the way, because they are part of creation—nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”!
But don’t take my word for it. Jesus makes this same point in verse 10: “Jesus said to him, ‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.’” Did you hear that? Completely clean.
The only exception, of course, is Judas, who refuses to receive the eternal cleansing that Christ offers.
But the other eleven are already “completely clean” and do not need to be cleansed by Jesus again. Because his cleansing lasts forever. Through faith in Christ they’ve already received the once-for-all-time cleansing that they need.
And that includes… even Peter… even the one who, boastful assurances to the contrary, will on three occasions that very night deny even knowing Jesus! That’s not as bad as betraying Jesus, but you gotta admit… it’s not much better, is it? Yet, somehow, Jesus says, even Peter is already “completely clean”… knowing full well the horrible sin that Peter commit in just a few hours’ time. Why? Because once Christ has cleansed you, no future sin can un-cleanse you—even the spectacularly large sin of denying knowing Jesus three times!
I grew up with old-fashioned video games—like Atari and Intellivision. And these computers had reset buttons. So you’d play, and if you messed up too badly you’d hit the reset button… and start from scratch… until you’d mess up again… and hit the reset button… until you messed up again and hit the reset button. Each time you start over, you say, “This time… this time… I’m not going to mess up! I’m going to play a perfect game.”
Brothers and sisters, the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a reset button: If you have received Christ as your Savior and trust in him as Lord, you can be confident that you are already perfect in God’s eyes. There’s literally nothing you can do that will make God love you more than he loves you now… No matter what your “score” currently is. You may be keeping score; but God isn’t.
Remember the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The tax collector was all about keeping score. “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector!”7 I don’t think that the Pharisee thought of himself as without sin, but he was comparing himself to others—and he thought it was on the basis of his “relative righteousness” that God would save him. He had a much “higher score” on the righteousness scale than that guy, after all.
What he failed to understand, of course, is that if he was going to be saved, it was going to be on the basis of Jesus Christ’s “score,” and how he measured up to him.
I heard a pastor say this recently: Imagine the worst person you can think of from history… And most people say, “Hitler.” He gets the lowest score on the righteousness scale. Let’s say righteousness is at the level of this floor. Okay? Now imagine the best, most righteous person (besides Jesus) who’s ever lived… Maybe Mother Teresa. Well, she’s very righteous, we say… So her righteousness would be as high as the ceiling of this sanctuary.
Okay, and then we’d say that the rest of us fall somewhere in between. Right? Maybe a little closer to the ceiling than the floor—we hope! The Pharisee in the parable came to God believing that his righteousness put him near the ceiling.
And that’s fine… Maybe he was. But if we measured Jesus’ righteousness by that standard, where would he be?
About as high as the moon! And the good news, the Bible says, is that Christ has given you his righteousness as a free gift! And it’s on the basis of his righteousness that any of us is saved.
“You are completely clean!” Right now… If, like Peter and ten of his fellow disciples, you believe in Jesus!
And that’s Point Number Two: Completeness… You are completely clean… right now… forever… if you trust in Christ!
Finally, Point Number Three… command… Jesus tells us to do something… in response to the grace that he gives us. Look at verses 14 and 15: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Later, in verse 34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
And now you might say, “Uh-oh!” Jesus is laying down the law: “Thou shalt love the way I love… or else.”
Not at all!
Because you’re not doing any of this—you’re not striving to love like Jesus to earn anything.
You’re going to do this—however imperfectly—because why wouldn’t you love like this?
I’m reminded of one disciple of Jesus who lived out the command of Jesus in a literal way. I’m referring to a former prostitute in Luke chapter 7, who crashes a dinner party held in Jesus’ honor in order to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears.8 And dry them with her hair. These tears that she’s crying are not tears of sorrow, but tears of joy and gratitude and relief. Why? Because she understood that her sins were many, that she deserved condemnation and death and hell, she understood that she was helpless to do anything to make herself worthy ofGod’s mercy, yet Jesus forgave her.
And here she was—performing a lowly, humiliating act of service for Jesus… being judged, and criticized, and looked down upon by the other people who saw her… and it was a personally expensive act of service because she anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment.
So here’s my question: Was it hard for this woman to “serve Jesus” in this costly sort of way?
Hard? Are you kidding? Her attitude was like, “Try and stop me! Wild horses couldn’t drag me away from performing this humble act of service for my Lord. It brings me joy to do what I’m doing for Jesus. There’s nothing I would rather be doing!”
Her attitude was the same as Christ’s! In today’s scripture, there was nothing Jesus would rather be doing for his next 24 hours than to “serve us” by suffering and dying on a cross on our behalf! The Bible says that Jesus endured the cross “for the sake of the joy that was set before him”9—the joy of rescuing you and me from our sins!
My point is, when we follow the example of Jesus in verse 15, or when we obey the “new commandment” that Christ gives us in verse 34, we don’t roll up our sleeves and say, “Well, I guess I have to serve Jesus now… I guess I have to love like Jesus… This is really hard, and I don’t want to do it—I’d rather be doing anything else—but I’ve just got to grit my teeth and muscle my way through it… and endure it. Even though it makes me miserable.”
Is that how we fulfill this new commandment?
By no means! If we’re doing it right, and we’re following Christ’s example of service, we’re motivated by the same thing that motivates Christ… joy.
Jesus even tells us to be motivated by joy in verse 17: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” Blessed means to know true happiness and joy… blessed means to enjoy God’s favor… blessed means that even if it’s hard, we do it anyway, the joy we experience will make it all worth it!
When Jesus says, “Do these things and be blessed,” he is inviting us, first of all, to experience joy! That’s what I want more than anything! Don’t you?
Jesus is saying, “I want you, my brothers and sisters who have been born again through faith in me, to experience more joy in your life, more lasting happiness, more satisfaction, more contentment, more peace. And let me show you how…”
But it starts the same way it started for the former prostitute in Luke 7… and the same way it starts for all of us disciples… by receiving the cleansing that Christ offers… through his atoning death on the cross.
And that’s what we remember, observe, reflect on, and celebrate tomorrow…