Belonging

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 13:6-9

He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

John 13:6-9 rsv

An ancient Christian catechism begins with this question: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer: “That I with body and soul, in life and in death, am not my own but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” That’s a great word about belonging, about belonging to Christ. The question I want to dwell on today with you is, how does this come about? How does it happen that a person belongs to Jesus Christ?

WAYS OF BELONGING

Think of the ways in which we commonly use this verb “to belong.” Sometimes it has to do with talent or achievement. We’ve been hearing in the sports news lately about candidates for the Heisman trophy, the award given each year to the most outstanding college football player. We might say about the athlete who wins this year that he “belongs in the select company of Heisman trophy winners.” By that we mean he is a worthy recipient. He has demonstrated superior ability. He has compiled impressive statistics. “He belongs,” we say, “among the great ones.”

Sometimes people come to “belong” on the basis of their own initiative and choice. Here’s a volunteer interest group that welcomes all comers. If you decide that you’d like to be a member, you join. You throw in your lot with this association. It’s a personal decision on your part. You take the necessary steps to become affiliated. Then, purely on the basis of your own choice, you “belong.”

But there’s another kind of belonging that has nothing to do with what we may have achieved or decided. For example, you belong to a certain family because you were born into it. It was nothing you did or chose. It simply happened to you.

In a similar way, you’re a citizen of a specific country because it’s the land of your birth. You came into the world in the midst of that nation. It’s your country. You’re one of its citizens. You belong.

Or maybe you were adopted into a family. A husband and wife heard about you. You had no parents and no home and they took you in. They wanted you. They chose you. And now you belong.

It’s that kind of belonging that satisfies the deepest need of our hearts, isn’t it? To belong merely because of our talents and achievements doesn’t do it. Our abilities may desert us. Our performance may decline. If belonging depends on our maintaining a certain level of excellence, it’s not very secure. Or again, if it depends only on my choice, what is there to hold me? I may choose in; I may opt out. What difference does it make – and who cares? Belonging to groups like that may be superficial and unsatisfying.

We all want to belong in the sense that we are accepted and wanted. We yearn to be valued, cherished, held onto. We want more than a status or a membership. We want a home, a place where we’re always welcome, relationships that are strong and enduring. We want to belong in the sense that we are genuinely and lastingly loved.

BELONGING TO CHRIST

Here in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel according to John, Jesus speaks in a striking way about people belonging to Him. You may remember the scene. It’s the last night that Jesus is to spend with His disciples before His crucifixion. They’ve gathered in an upper room to celebrate the Passover feast. The meal has ended and Jesus rises to His feet. His followers watch expectantly, wondering what will happen now. He lays aside His outer garment and wraps a towel about Him. Then, to their astonishment, He begins to wash each disciple’s feet. A hush falls over the group. Nothing is heard but the occasional splashing of water in the basin as Jesus performs His service for His followers.

We wonder what was going on in their minds. Had they been reluctant earlier to wash one another’s feet and did they now feel ashamed, mortified because Jesus was doing what they had been too proud to do? Were they moved by His gentle graciousness? Or were they most of all shocked by the incongruity of it – that He should be doing this for them?

That apparently was Peter’s feeling when the Lord approached Him. He was the first to say something. Perhaps, as was often the case, He was speaking for the rest as well. He asks, “Lord, are You washing my feet?” That is, “Are You, the Master, performing a service for me? This service?” Rabbis received many favors and services from their scholars as tokens of respect and gratitude, but even the rawest recruit was not expected to wash his teacher’s feet. That was a task so lowly that it was considered only slave’s work. No one else would be expected to take it on. Peter can’t make sense of this. “You, Lord? Kneeling before me? Washing my feet? How can that be?”

There’s a refreshing humility in this response. Peter has a sense of the fitness of things. He knows who Jesus is and who he is. The roles seem to be reversed here. Peter knows he’s not in the least worthy.

But there’s also something in his words that we find less commendable. He’s ready to question what his Master is doing. He presumes to know better how things should be handled. It’s as though he feels the need to instruct Jesus, to bring the unseemliness of this to His attention.

The Lord answers with the utmost patience, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but after these things you will know.” He understands how Peter might be scandalized at this. He accepts the love and loyalty behind the question. But He also makes it clear that Peter simply doesn’t understand. Later he will. After these things, that is, after the events that are soon to come, Peter will grasp the meaning of what is happening to him. It’s as though Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry, Peter, it will all become clear to you. I have my own reasons for what I am doing.”

But that wasn’t enough for this headstrong disciple, Peter. He didn’t seem to hear what Jesus was saying. He seemed more convinced than ever that something was terribly wrong. With a burst of feeling he cries, “You won’t wash my feet, not ever!” What can we say about that? Not very much that’s good. There may be a kind of humility to it and some wounded devotion, but it’s all grossly misguided. What stands out most is Peter’s downright stubbornness. He refuses to believe what the Lord has just told him. He rebels against his Master’s clear intent. And, as he has done before, he assumes a place of superiority to his fellow disciples. They may tolerate Jesus doing this for them but not he. He is too loyal a follower for that!

Now comes the word from Jesus about belonging. Listen: “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” In other words, “If I don’t cleanse you, you don’t belong to Me.” What did He mean by that? Was He giving ultimate meaning to this foot washing incident? Was He saying, “This is absolutely necessary. If I don’t wash your feet, you can’t be one of My followers”?

That can’t be the intent of Jesus’ words. The washing of the disciples’ feet was not a saving event in itself. Nowhere in the New Testament is it said that a person must have his feet washed by Jesus in order to be His true follower. No, the foot washing was a sign. It pointed to something beyond itself.

Jesus had already spoken about events that were soon to happen. On the very next day, He was to die and this would be no ordinary death. Jesus’ crucifixion would be a cleansing act. He would so bear the sins of His people, so suffer what they deserve that their guilt and defilement would be taken away. They would be washed and purified through His atoning sacrifice. Jesus is speaking of that when He says to Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”

The drama unfolding in the Upper Room is a kind of parable from life. What Jesus was doing for them there symbolically He would do in reality on Golgotha when He gave Himself to die for their sins. The foot washing was a hint of the Atonement. The lowly service of love demonstrated for them at the feast was a picture of the vastly greater love by which He would cleanse them and present them blameless before God.

What Jesus was insisting on was not that foot washing was necessary for salvation but that His death is. The point was not that their feet had to be washed with water but that their hearts needed to be cleansed through Jesus’ self-sacrifice. Unless Jesus cleanses us through His atoning death on our behalf, we have no part in Him; we do not belong to Him.

ONLY BY HIS GRACE

Do we get the message now? We cannot belong to Jesus, we cannot be numbered among the people of God, on the basis of our performance, our achievements. Nothing that Peter had done or ever could do would so qualify him. He had left all, remember, to follow Jesus. After the resurrection of the Lord, Peter served for years as a faithful, fearless herald of the gospel. He was flogged and imprisoned for Jesus’ sake. Finally, he died the death of a martyr. None of that, according to Jesus, made Peter acceptable. That did not forge the bond between him and his Lord. Even with all of that in view, Jesus could say, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”

What about Peter’s decision, his commitment? He had responded to the call of the Lord, clambered out of his fishing boat, set out to follow. He had confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. He had promised to be faithful unto death, never to forsake the Lord. No one was ever more vocal or vehement about his personal decision to be loyal to Jesus than Peter was. But that wasn’t the basis for his belonging either. With all of that in view, Jesus still said to His fisherman friend, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”

We’re all a good deal like Peter – more than we’d like to admit. We’re all inclined to think at times that we know better than the Lord and to imagine that something about ourselves can somehow make us acceptable. We’d like to think that our accomplishments, our virtues, our character have at least something to do with our becoming right with God. We’d like to point to our professions of faith, decisions we’ve made, crises of commitment, to feel that that at least has some part in getting us into God’s family. But as long as we’re focusing on those things, we’re missing the point.

Let me tell you some great good news. The gospel tells us that God so loved the world, so loved people like you and me that He gave His only Son. The gospel is that when you and I were still sinners, soiled and rebellious, Christ died for us. He was way ahead of us. He has loved us, the Scripture says, with an everlasting love. And therefore, in lovingkindness He has drawn us to Himself. That unspeakable love revealed in Jesus’ dying for us comes long before all our earning and achieving, all our serving and suffering. It comes before even our deciding, believing and professing. We are saved, we are accepted, we belong, because God in His amazing grace has given His Son for us, to bear our sins in His own body on the cross. That is the bedrock reality on which all our deciding and believing, all our faithfulness and following rest.

Becoming a Christian is simply opening our hands and our hearts to receive the great gift of God’s love. It’s admitting our need and letting Him meet it. It’s confessing our sin and letting Him cleanse it away. It’s receiving with a grateful, trusting heart Jesus with all that He has done and continues to do for us. And all who welcome His cleansing grace can say with joy and assurance, “My only comfort in life and in death is that I belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ!”

PRAYER: Father, for the love that is beforehand with us, we praise You. Help us so to trust Your cleansing grace in Jesus Christ that we may know today that we belong. In Christ’s name. Amen.