The Gift of Humility
John 13: 1-8
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
The Gift of Humility
On the occasion of Maundy Thursday, 2020, we recall the events that took place on the night before Jesus was arrested and charged with blasphemy and treason.
It was something that they had done probably hundreds of times over their three years together – to eat together at the end of the day. Now however, things are different.
There is tension in the air. The authorities have set things in motion for the arrest. Judas is waiting for his opportunity to identify Jesus. For Jesus and the twelve, this will be their last meal together.
Jesus does something that he has never done before. He takes a basin and a towel and then, on his knees, one by one he washes the feet of the disciples.
He comes to Peter. Headstrong and outspoken, Peter says no, he won’t allow it. Jesus insists – and says that he has to do this, he has no choice, and Peter is not in control.
Why does he wash their feet? Perhaps it was his way of making sure they would remember their last meal together. Perhaps it was his way of expressing his love and gratitude for them and their service. Perhaps Jesus, ever the teacher, is trying to teach them one final lesson.
Ultimately though, Jesus is demonstrating the nature of God and the truth about God’s love for humanity. He is giving the disciples a gift, the gift of humility.
You see, there is this basic thing about those of us who believe in God. That is that when we say it is more blessed to give than to receive, we understand. We would rather give, because giving is a reflection of being in a position of strength and gratitude. We like giving because giving reflects our belief that we are truly blessed by a generous God.
On the other hand, receiving can be a bit more challenging. To receive a gift requires some measure of humility. You know the dynamic that goes like this – you receive a gift from someone, and you immediately want to return the favor? Often that is done out of desire to ‘even things up’ and eliminate the feeling that you ‘owe’ that person something.
And, the greater the gift, the more difficult it can be to receive it. We prefer to possess those things that we think we have earned. Often, in spite of all of our talk about unmerited grace, we are much more comfortable with the old works-righteousness approach that says that we are not ‘given’ anything, we earn it. We earn it through being good, working hard, and doing the right things.
But that is not how God works. In the most simple and yet profound equation of all, God constantly tells us that our salvation never, ever has been dependent on our own actions. God constantly reminds us that if love has to be earned, it’s not really love. God reminds us that when it comes to God’s love for us, we don’t deserve it and could never earn it even when we try. But in the end we don’t have to. It is, and always will be, a gift. The only requirement is that it has to be accepted as such, and that requires humility.
A hymn that speaks to this topic is the ancient hymn of “Kenosis” found in Philippians chapter 2. Using the term kenosis to mean the ‘emptying of divine qualities,’ Paul writes:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
So on this Maundy Thursday, and heading into Easter weekend, may we find and receive the gift of humility. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we ‘work’ at being humble, only that we receive it as a gift from God. This is our promise from God, the God who is all good, all the time. Thanks be to God. Amen.