At the age of 17 I felt a call on my life. It was a vague call to ‘ministry’ but I knew that it was something into which I had to lean. To be called by Jesus at that time meant only one thing in my southern world—Jason’s bound to be a preacher. Not a pastor—a preacher. Not a missionary—a preacher. If you could not communicate to a large crowd in my southern world, you could not be called to ministry. Following the good advice of those around me, I stepped into preaching opportunities in the life of my home church.
If you want to be a preacher, I was told, you needed a nice suit. I didn’t have a suit. So my mother got one for me at the local Goodwill. Now, in theory it was a suit. In practice, it was a tight piece of polyester that I may or may not have melted the crotch while ironing. If you buttoned up the suit jacket, then the iron mark in the awkward nether regions could be concealed.
My first Sunday rolled around to preach. Well worn Bible…check. Cheesy cross tie that awkwardly had a lion smiling…check. Scuffed up dress shoes…check. Polyester suit that made all the Christian girls pray they could ‘go steady’ with me…double check.
Standing behind the pulpit, I heard my little polyester enclosed knees knocking together. I spoke quickly because I was nervous. My lateral ess stood out. I did the obligatory prayer after the scripture beseeching God to be with the message. Then I jumped into the message sketched out on sheets of loose-leaf notebook paper.
I began to warm up and get comfortable with my role on stage. Some of my points were landing. I was speaking somewhat coherently. I felt like God was going to bring the most convicting oracle of justice this side of the Prophet Isaiah. Then it happened.
Some lady in the back started chuckling. She whispered to the lady next to her and that woman started laughing. Why were these ladies laughing? I tried to move on. I roamed the stage heading towards the next point when something bright caught my eyes. Then it dawned on me.
Behind that creepy Christian tie with the smiling lion was a white dress shirt. That shirt was tucked into my polyester pants. Those polyester pants had been singed at the crotch. The crotch is where you’ll find the zipper.
Dangling out the front was a long piece of white fabric. I had not zipped up my pants. Truth be told, the pants could barely zip up. Every time I raised my arms to make a point, another centimeter of fabric crept out from its polyester jail. About the time I got excited for Christ’s return my pants indicated that my shirt was trying to get out and see him.
Awkwardly I walked behind the pulpit. I stumbled over my words. I attempted to zip up the pants that made it look like I was relieving myself behind the pulpit. I yanked on the melted zipper. Day ruined. Sorry Jesus…if I’m to follow you, get me a better suit.
Embarrassment led to failure. Failure led to the doubt of my call. Jesus—this should have been better!
This incident calls to mind an awkward encounter between Jesus and Peter in John 13. Why did Peter refuse to let Jesus wash his feet? One possibility is that Peter was embarrassed for Jesus. He didn’t want to see his rabbi, his master, perform such a humiliating task. Maybe he was trying to protect Jesus from his own undignified behavior. I believer there is another possibility.
Jesus told Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no place with me” (v. 8b). Such a statement indicates there’s more than filthy feet at stake here. Jesus recognized Peter’s core identity was being challenged in this act of service. A rabbi-disciple relationship was a powerful and intimate one in the ancient world. A disciple’s entire identity was defined by his master’s identity. When Peter made the decision to leave his fishing business and follow Jesus he was declaring to the world, “From now on I am linking my identity and reputation to Rabbi Jesus,” and that seemed like a good trade at the time. After all, Jesus performed miracles and raised the dead. Peter thought he had hitched his wagon to a rising star.
In the intimate scene of John 13, Peter quickly realized he’d hitched his wagon to a naked servant washing manure off feet. By doing this, Jesus was not only humiliating himself, he was also humiliating his disciples. He was dismantling their pride and self-importance. By definition, they were lower than Jesus their master, and he was displaying how low he could go. By refusing to allow Jesus to wash his feet, Peter was not protecting Jesus’ reputation. He was protecting his own.
Like Peter, we want a powerful, attractive, and a respectable Jesus because we want those qualities to be true of us. We want our value in the world to rise because of our association with Christ. So we are tempted to diminish or reject those parts of Jesus we don’t like—his poverty, humility, and unpopularity.
No time does this become great in us like those moments when we ‘fail.’
In an earlier scene Jesus asked his followers who people said he was. Some say Elijah. Some say John the Baptist. Jesus hones in, “Who do you say I am?” Peter is the first to respond. “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
Yeah Peter – you get it!
But then Jesus forecasts the way of the Messiah and Peter attempts to help steer Jesus in a different direction away from crucifixion. In one story we go from a guy named Simon whose name is changed to Peter (rock) on whom the Church will be established to a disciple who is rebuked as a tool of Satan.
We can’t help but be sympathetic to Peter. Since Adam and Eve, we like to act like we know better than God about what God desires. We want to live as if God does not exist so he won’t interfere with our allusions of control and success. Jesus’ rebuke is that all disciples must be willing to lose their lives.
Peter is the first disciple to betray Jesus. He reveals that a lowly Messiah, who might lead us to failure, is not a Messiah we want. Plain and simple, Peter is embarrassed by Jesus.
When Jesus predicts death and stoops down to wash feet, the mission is failing. It’s not conquering. It’s not successful. It’s tanking.
Tell me you don’t relate with this story:
- Efforts to do good seem to fail
- Prayer periods are as dry as dust
- Nothing seems to be happening
- God, at times, seems distant
- Faults continue
- People blame us unjustly
- Disappointments abound
Jesus is in this? Even stranger—this is the way of Jesus? In moments of failure and struggle we’re asking:
- Why, when I do my best to pray,
- to do good,
- try to get closer to God,
- make sacrifices for others,
- and put up with all kinds of trials
- am I so beset with troubles,
- break an arm or a leg,
- have a loved one get a debilitating disease,
- lose a loved one,
- or have some grievous addiction?
The expectations of Peter are alive in us today. We expect to have some mystical union whereby we’re superior to others OR through which we can escape via some spiritual experience. These expectations feed the naïve idea that the kingdom of God will solve all problems or that it’s somewhere OUT there away from us.
Such placement reveals a false hope that we will be placed above the normal, everyday, nitty-gritty of life. In short, we expect that growing in Christ will somehow help us feel special.
We are special but not because of those things.
God’s “special” is his incredible connection with our ordinary lives. His companionship amid our…
- Sense of failure
- Getting nowhere spiritually
The Gospels show that the kingdom of God is so clearly in the daily life that “successful” Christian makes no sense. It’s irrelevant. Trusting in God disregards the success that often leads us to believe God is absent when x y and z happens.
We meet the God of everyday.
In a world in which God seems to be absent, people have to conjure up ideal situations in order to survive. Poets and seers develop myths. One for religious people is that to fully arrive is to achieve a state of moral perfection. Fully arriving, we erroneously believe, will be a state of being in which failure never happens.
Does the death and resurrection of Jesus offer an alternative story?
The divine emptiness of Jesus as he cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is where the power and mercy of the kingdom are maximized. We experience that same emptiness in our daily lives as we wait for something to happen that will “fix” everything that seems wrong in our world (or in us).
Jesus affirms, “To grow in the kingdom of God is to grow right where your bundle of difficulties, your sense of getting nowhere and waiting in prayer for experiences that never happen.”
Maturity in Christ is not the achievement of some perfection or an escape from our worlds. It is the radical change of attitude that enables us to deal effectively with our weaknesses and problems.
The humble acceptance of our lives—always becoming. Allowing a lowly savior to wash our feet. Being willing to wash the feet of others. Not always getting what we want or deserve.
God isn’t always in the business of changing our situations but Divine Love is about using those situations to change us. Jesus calls this grace.
Becoming more and more like Jesus is to journey in a broken world, with our broken selves, and experience purification and growth through it. Jesus washes our feet in those lowly moments to show us that there is no place that his grace and redemption will not go.
I ask you to sit with Peter. Look down on your Rabbi washing your feet. Feel the cool water pour over your foot. Witness servanthood. Go and do likewise.
In all of that—I pray a pragmatic, polyester prayer for you.