The story is told of three men, all in the New Testament, who were born blind but who had been healed miraculously by Jesus. These men heard about one another and decided to get together to celebrate their unity in Christ and to exchange testimonies. After the men introduced themselves to each another and exchanged warm embraces, Bartimaeus began.
He said, "Gentlemen, I can just hardly wait to tell you what Jesus has done for me. I was outside the city of Jericho when Jesus and a mob of people walked by. I cried out, 'Son of David! Son of David! Have mercy on me!' and Jesus stopped. The crowd quieted down. He asked me the most unusual question. He said, 'What do you want me to do for you?' And I said, 'Rabbi, I want to see.' He said, 'Go your way. Your faith has made you well.' Gentlemen, at that moment—instantaneously—I was healed, and I could see. I have come to this conclusion: that when it comes to healing blind men, Jesus uses our faith and his word, and that equals healing."
The other two men should have been enthusiastic about this, but they weren't enthusiastic at all. The man from Bethsaida began his testimony by saying, "Gentlemen, my story of how Christ touched me isn't anything like that. Jesus took me out of the city, and he spat directly in my eyes. And then he touched my eyes with his hands. I was expecting the instantaneous healing you received. But I opened my eyes, and I would have rather been blind. It was awful. I saw men as trees walking. I thought, If this is what it's like when you're healed by Jesus, I don't want it. Then Jesus repeated the procedure. He spat in my eyes again and touched me again. Gentlemen, the second time I opened my eyes, I could see. And I am convinced that when Jesus heals blind men, he uses spit, and it's always in two stages."
The other man was red in the face. He said, "Gentlemen, I would seriously doubt the validity of both of your healings. When Jesus healed me, he used saliva all right. But he didn't spit in my face; he spit in the ground, and he took the saliva and the dirt and made mud packs and put mud packs in my eyes. It was most uncomfortable. Then he told me to go to the pool of Siloam and commanded that I wash the mud out there. As I washed out the mud that he had made, I could instantly see. I'm convinced that when Jesus heals blind men, he uses mud and the holy waters of the pool of Siloam."
Needless to say, the outcome of the conference was devastating. Forgetting their common bond in Jesus, the three blind men who could now see went away divided, focusing on their own experience and on their own doctrine, which had become icons to them. Of course, three distinct denominations developed from that day—the Spitites, the Mudites, and the Bartimites—the Spitites making as their sacrament saliva and everything in key stages, the Mudites making a sacrament out of mud and the holy water at the pool of Siloam, and the Bartimites focusing on Bartimaeus, their charismatic leader, with no sacraments necessary at all, only Christ's word and our faith.
Though the story is obviously apocryphal, we can all relate to it. The bond of unity in the body of Christ can so quickly be broken. The church of Jesus is easily pushed off its tracks and derailed through division in the church. And as we heard this morning, seeds of division don't need to be planted in the church. These are hearty perennials that grow up out of the old nature—your nature and mine.
A critical question tonight that I would like to have the Lord answer is this: As we go back to our places of ministry, as we go back to places where people are embroiled sometimes in very hot debate, where there are personality differences and clashes, where there are boards and staff that many times do not characterize the love of Christ, how are we to be ministers of unity?
We have to look to the broader context of John 17 to get the answer to that question. You'll remember that when Jesus prayed this high priestly prayer—that we would be one as the Father is one with the Son—he prayed this not by himself but surrounded by twelve disciples where the air was thick with personal and political agendas. You remember they came to that prepared upper room to celebrate the Last Supper, the Passover, and also to hear the upper room discourse and to have Christ pray for them.
And as they entered that upper room, they had proud hearts and dirty feet. Each one of them walked by the customary pitcher of water and basin and towel that was by the front door, and these men reclined around that low, Middle-Eastern table with dirty feet in one another's faces. The table talk that night was about which of them was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
We don't talk this way any more. We are too sophisticated for that. In fact, I haven't heard anybody in this assembly trying to convince another person that he will be greater when everybody gets to heaven. Instead, we want our ideas to become greatest. We want our doctrines—those interpretations of Scripture relating to gender roles, to worship, to how we should do church, to difficult decisions made at a leadership level—to become greatest. All of us, if we were to get down into the mystery of our sin, would admit that we can paint it different colors, but underneath it's all the same: it's all the flesh seeking to be greater, greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
It's in this environment that Jesus, the Leader, passes down a legacy to all leaders as to what it means to be a minister of unity. I have two points tonight from our context. The first is this: We are to look as leaders at Christ the Leader and follow his model. Second, we are to obey his mandate.
Christ gave us a model to follow
If you have your Bibles, I'd like you to turn to John 13. Jesus says in verse 34: "A new command I give you: Love one another." Then Jesus went on to say, "As I have loved you, so you must love one another." The disciples knew exactly what Jesus was talking about ("As I have loved you …") because in the context of chapter 13, verse 1 makes a very interesting statement: "Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love."
It's a well-known story, but Jesus gets up from the table, with the air thick with selfish ambition. The Leader shows us how to be leaders in similar circumstances, even in this environment where he knew all twelve would desert him and would outright betray him. And Jesus took off his outer garment. I don't want to over-allegorize the text. But when we as leaders wash feet, there's always something we have to take off. We always have to lose something. "And [he] wrapped a towel around his waist," and verse 5, "After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with a towel that was wrapped around him."
I won't read what followed with Peter refusing to have his feet washed. But then down to verse 13: "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things you will be blessed if you do them."
What do we do when we go back to our churches and ministries and things are difficult relationally? What do we do when there are people in our congregations who are no longer listening to one another? Who no longer want to meet one another in the foyer after the service? What do we do when the whole church, or at least the majority of the church, feels we should go in one direction following Christ but there is a minority that wants to go in the exact opposite direction? We do what Jesus did. We wash feet. We find ways to serve and love the very people who are embroiled in bitter debate, which is, at the root, selfish ambition.
When I went to North Vancouver to be the pastor, I had many folks from Abbottsford tell me that North Vancouver was a very difficult mission field. I suppose it is. The town has had a number of church splits. Many of the evangelical churches have had a lot of problems. They said, "It's going to be tough there." When I went to North Shore, my vision and agenda was simply to survive. I just wanted to be able to look back after three or four years, if the Lord would allow us to be there that long, and say, "God blessed us." The church did grow. Some souls were saved. The church is experiencing a certain amount of health. I saw the local church as the place I would pour my life into. That was my vision, and that's a good vision.
But I didn't realize that the Holy Spirit had a much larger vision for me and North Vancouver. There was a group of pastors who had been praying for eight years, every Tuesday at noon, the prayer in John 17, that all may be one. They had been praying for revival in the church of North Vancouver.
When they asked me to come to their prayer meeting just after I had arrived, I went. Later, they told me there was terror in my eyes when I arrived. I didn't really know what God might ask me to do. Certainly North Shore Alliance is a big enough struggle apart from the entire city of North Vancouver. But these men honestly believed that when Jesus speaks to the church, he speaks to entire cities. That if he spoke to the church in Laodicea and Smyrna and Ephesus and Philadelphia, he speaks to the church of North Vancouver. And all of us have to have an ear to hear all evangelicals, all lovers of Jesus, to know what the Spirit is saying to the church.
I think my brothers realized that this young, insecure pastor, wanting to earn his spurs as a senior pastor, was going to be a tough one to get on board. It was my predecessor, Arnie Towes, who started that prayer group. It's sometimes hard following a good man.
And so, what do you do when there's one man who is hell-bent on his personal agenda, though it has to do with his church, and everybody else senses that the Holy Spirit is taking us much broader and deeper? You wash his feet.
These men began to wash my feet. One day an Anglican priest came to our church to talk with me and pray for me, and I wasn't in. He asked the secretary if he could go into our sanctuary and pray for me and for our church. She said, "By all means." And she led him in and watched as he went and knelt down by our pulpit and prayed there for 20 minutes for me and our church. Later I discovered that his prayer had been that we in the Alliance at the North Shore would not lose the vision of A.B. Simpson. I laughed when I heard him pray that for the first time. I thought, You're an Anglican, and you're more Alliance than we are. When I told my congregation about what the rector had done, their hearts were warmed, and they began to love Anglicans. Now, when our people drive by St. Simon's church, they bless the congregation at St. Simon's. Feet washing breaks down barriers. Feet washing paves the way for the Holy Spirit to grab even the renegades.
When Brennan Manning, an evangelical Catholic, was waiting to catch a plane in the Atlanta airport, he sat down in one of the many places where usually black men shine white men's shoes. And an elderly black man began to shine Brennan's shoes. And Brennan had this feeling inside that after he was done, he should pay him and tip him and then reverse the roles.
And when he was finished, he stood up and looked at the black man and said, "Now, sir, I would like to shine your shoes." And the black man recoiled and stepped back and said, "You're going to do what?" He said, "I'd like to shine your shoes. Come on. You sit down here. How would you like them done?" And the black man began to cry, and he said, "No white man ever talked to me like this before." And the story ends with the white Catholic with arms around a black Atlanta man, and they've only just met, tears flowing, reconciliation taking place.
Christ gave us a mandate to obey
But Christ's model is not enough. There's one more thing: Christ's mandate. John 20: the disciples were still living on the wrong side of the resurrection. You remember the story when they were behind a locked door, when they should have been out telling the world about the resurrected Christ—they were terrified, cloistered in that dark room. And there the slain and risen Lamb appeared to them. And he did three things that I believe he wants to do for us tonight.
He showed the disciples his wounds. He said, "See my credentials; see my wounds." I don't believe he did this just to prove that he was really Jesus. I don't know about you, but when you are a candidate for a church, the church looks to your strengths. And after you've been there a while, they begin looking to your scars. Your scars become your credentials. Jesus said, "See my hands and my feet." He spoke peace to them.
Then he said, "As the Father has sent me, so send I you." "As the Father has sent me—this is the result, these scars, and then he adds—"so send I you."
Before he gave them the Great Commission, according to the Gospel of John, he breathed on them. And he said, "Receive the Holy Spirit," because he knew they would never be able to carry out this part of the Great Commission without the breath of God. Then he gave them the Great Commission: "If you forgive men their sins, they shall be forgiven. But if you do not forgive men's sins, they shall not be forgiven." Christ's model was feet washing; Christ's mandate is forgiveness. This is the only way we will be ministers of unity: "See my scars? The Father sent me. This resulted. Now I send you, and this will result. How will you live with these scars? By receiving the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, and by forgiving others' sins."
Why would Jesus tell them to forgive others' sins? Because that was what they would be spending most of their time doing. Forgiving others' sins against themselves—not just against everybody else. One commentator said, "The breath of God was necessary. For where there is the breath of God, there is always forgiveness. And where there is forgiveness in the church, there is always the breath of God."
There's a Pentecostal pastor in North Vancouver who invited this same Anglican priest who prayed for me to come preach in his church. He came, and before he introduced him, Jim (the Pentecostal minister) got up and on behalf of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in Canada made a public apology for their pride and arrogance against the Anglican Church of Canada. The Anglican priest threw his arms around this Pentecostal man, and the two of them wept in that Pentecostal church. And as the Anglican priest began to preach, the Lord commanded a blessing. There was the coming down. But in our own churches, we need this.
Allow me the liberty to share a story that's close to home with our church. We had two people—I'd give a hundred members for each of these—a very godly man and a very godly woman. They were both in our small office at the same time. In the second service, the man was with his tellers trying to count money from the first offering. Tellers like their room. The woman, a young single mother with a young teenage girl, was trying to prepare for our youth group meeting, which was later in the day.
Our office is small, and the man thought the office should just be for tellers in the counting of money. She thought that the project for the youth group was important enough for her to stay there while the tellers were counting money.
Soon they became embroiled in a very bitter debate. But just at that moment, our church administrator, an untrained man theologically but filled with the Spirit, felt he should leave the second service and see how the tellers were doing in counting money. As he walked down the hall of our church toward the office, the young single mother, red in the face, came running out of that office. She said, "This church cares way more about money than they do people." She was ready to tell somebody else.
Frank, our administrator, grabbed her by the shoulders and said, "Please, forgive us." She continued. He said a second time, "Please, forgive us." But she continued. He said the third time, "I'm sure you're right. But won't you please forgive us?" And the third time, she gave up the fight and buried her head in his big chest and cried like a baby.
The next Friday was our Good Friday service, and we had the Lord's Supper. Before we began passing out the elements, this young single mother got up from her seat at the back of the church and walked way to the front of the sanctuary to embrace the man she had debated with in the office. The two of them hugged each other and expressed their love and forgave one another's sins. That day in church the Lord commanded a blessing.
This is where the church triumphs. When we as leaders follow the model of Christ and wash feet and forgive sins because of the breath of God that lives in us, the church does not look within, but we begin to look outward. We begin to become evangelistic.
The story of the Mudite and the Spitite and the Bartimite ends happily because the three men crucified their selfish passions. They began to wash one another's feet. And they began to forgive one another's sins. And they got together and began to celebrate their unity in Christ.
And they got another man—the Spitite, the Mudite, and the Bartimite grabbed the Mennonite. And the four of them—instead of looking at their own pet doctrines and their holy spit and mud and holy places and all the things that had become so sacred and to which they had attached their personal greatness—began to believe in only two things: their friend on the stretcher, the paralytic, was hopeless, lost, and hell-bound; they also agreed on the identity of the One who was in the house doing the Bible study.
Those two things they agreed upon—the condition of the lost man on the stretcher and the identity of the slain and risen Lamb who had the power to save and heal him. And the four men were involved in the most creative evangelism in the New Testament, ripping off a guy's roof and lowering that paralytic like a chandelier being lowered for a good cleaning. And a good cleaning that man got. That is what happens when the body of Christ begins to wash feet and forgive sins.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Brian Buhler is a spiritual director, homiletical coach, speaker, and artist based out of Surrey, BC, Canada.