Today we are asking the question what does it mean to be whole people in the presence of others. What does it mean to be shaped into wholeness, into the maturity, the fullness of who we are meant to be in the presence of other people? We know, when we've been alive long enough, that we cannot become whole people on our own, by ourselves, in solitude. In fact, if we make some simple observations about how we are shaped as people, we see that we are profoundly shaped by the larger social environments that we choose to participate in. So it's right and good for us to ask the question, how does personal transformation take place in a community, in the presence of others.
We're going to answer that question from John 13. But before we do that, I want to look at two different, highly impactful circles that have already shaped us, before we even came in this morning.
Circle of condemnation
The circle of condemnation is a social space where your flaws are noticed, picked apart, and pointed out by other people. Other people in the circle point out your flaws and weaknesses, not to help you out but to shame you, harass you, or try to change your behavior, try to get you to conform. When other people are able to find weaknesses in you, pick them out, call them out, it makes them feel better. Their ranking in the circle of condemnation goes up while yours goes down.
I'll tell you about a circle of condemnation I found myself in when I was around ten years old. I was in Little League. It was one of the first organized sports I'd ever played, and I wasn't very good. I didn't have strong athletic ability. I was smaller than most of the other people on the team and in the league at large. I was also learning the skills of baseball, learning basic things like how to lean into a pitch instead of flinching when it comes past you. When to swing. One of my only advantages was the fact that because I was shorter, I had a very small strike zone. So whenever I got up to bat, they'd always be yelling, "Going for a walk!" I always thought, Yeah of course I'm going for a walk, it's my strategic advantage.
On one such occasion I did get on base. So I was on first base, which really only increases the anxiety, because then you're a potential run. So how you perform once you're on base is almost more important than when you're up to bat. Someone got a hit, and it was my turn to run to second base. But the thing is, they were going to throw me out, so I went to slide. I wasn't really confident enough, you have to really trust that the slide is going to work. So I hedged, and I landed on my knees. I slid into second base on my knees.
Now, the circle of condemnation was all around me. It was more of a diamond because it's baseball, but if you include the dugouts, it's kind of a circle. There was jeers and laughter. On the part of my teammates there was groaning, and on the part of the other team there were jeers. I remember, somebody called out, "He slid on his knees! What an idiot!" So what happens in the circle of condemnation? People find out your flaws and then they give you a name. They name you after your weaknesses, and they connect your identity, who you are in your core, with what you did or didn't do. To what you can or can't do. You're given a name.
So what names have you been given in the course of your life? Maybe for you it wasn't the baseball diamond. Maybe for you it was the dinner table. That's where you got your names, that's where you got your condemnation. Or maybe it was the classroom, the gym, the cheerleading squad, or your fraternity. Where did you get your name that called out your weakness, where were your weaknesses exposed when you didn't want them to be exposed, when you didn't choose for them to be exposed? That's the circle of condemnation. It shapes us, doesn't it? We have to process through it. We have to get over it. Some of us never get over it. Some of us are in a workplace right now that very much feels like a circle of condemnation, or a social place or cultural space where there are always flaws being pointed out, or where there's always weaknesses being exposed, where it's a zero sum game.
That's what's really going on in the circle of condemnation: it's a zero sum game. If I'm going to win, you have to lose. That zero sum game is based off of arbitrary standards for human behavior. Arbitrary, socially constructed standards about what it looks like to win, and what it looks like to lose. In some circles it's academic competence, in other circles it's physical appearance, in other circles it's how much power you have or don't have. Zero sum game, based on arbitrary standards. It shapes us. In order to survive, what do you have to do? In the circle of condemnation, if you're going to survive, you have to hide your flaws. You've got to hide you weaknesses, keep them tucked away, compensate or over-compensate for them with your strengths, or persecute others.
Circle of affirmation
Now if you find your way through that circle, and most of us have, you get to the second circle, which is a much better place, the circle of affirmation. In the circle of affirmation, you are loved and appreciated for who you are. There is a fundamental acceptance and appreciation for you and for others in the circle. Fundamentally, there is an a priori assumption that you are welcome here, you are appreciated here, and you are loved here. Instead of flaws being a sign of weakness, flaws are actually a badge of honor in the circle of affirmation. Instead of other people calling out your flaws and weaknesses, you get to share them when you're ready. When you're in a place of trust, you get to share your flaws and other people cover them, saying, "That's good about you, and in fact that draws me closer to you, and that's a war scar that unites us." Flaws become badges of honor. They become war scars that bind us together. We share our vulnerabilities of our own volition rather than having other people point them out in order to shame us.
There's this really cool community book exchange in Rogers Park. I was walking down a street one day and I noticed there was this shelf of books. The setup was: take a book but leave a book. It was a community book exchange in good faith. We're offering you books in good faith that you're going to pick up a book, and out of the oxytocin flowing through your body you're going to put another book on the shelf, and let other people read the book you have. It's kind of a community exchange.
In a circle of affirmation, that's the way it works with grace. It's this self-generated grace. In good faith I offer you grace and affirm you in your flaws and in your weaknesses and who you are, and then in turn you are welcome to affirm me. "You're awesome!" "No, no, you're awesome!" It's a really wonderful thing to go from a circle of condemnation to a circle of affirmation. Actually, if you're in the circle of affirmation, you're more likely to grow. Although, depending on our temperament, we're drawn to one or the other. So in the circle of affirmation, brokenness becomes specialness.
Now, having been in both circles, I clearly advocate for the circle of affirmation. I was talking with some people in the congregation about the social psychologist Virginia Satire, who really unpacked what this looks like in a family. Healthy families are much more circles of affirmation than circles of condemnation. More likely to grow, more likely to flourish when there's an assumption of, you're welcome here and you're loved despite your flaws.
In the circle of affirmation, underneath the kindness, which is a virtue, and underneath the patience, which is a good virtue, there is a despair. I'm never going to really change and neither are you. I'm not ever going to really be complete, and so all I can really do is affirm you and you confirm me in my incompleteness. To celebrate it, really. To call our incompleteness strengths. To praise our incompleteness. To praise our flaws as strengths. It's refreshing at first, but after a while it can become kind of discouraging. That affirmation after affirmation after affirmation never truly sticks like the names from the circle of condemnation. There's sometimes never enough affirmation to cover over the condemnation that we got earlier on. It's never enough. It's like filling up a gas tank, but the holes are just too big to get this gas tank full. There always needs to be more. It's never quite enough. It isn't enough to simply be affirming of one another.
What's interesting is that the circle of condemnation and the circle of affirmation are both trying to solve the same problem of completion—a need for human completion, a need for a self. In the circle of condemnation you try to find yourself through achievement, through being better than others. In the circle of affirmation you find self through affirmation. What's interesting is that both the circle of affirmation and the circle of condemnation have the capacity to be both condemning and affirming. They just have different standards. If you're in the circle of affirmation and you're not affirming, you receive some of the strongest condemnation ever. "Hey, you're not allowed to be in this circle unless you're affirming, like us!" It's just a different standard. In the circle of condemnation, you can be affirming, you just have to live up to a certain standard. Whether it's academic, physical, or psychological, whatever it might be, it's just a different standard. Both have the capacity to affirm you, both have the capacity to condemn you. In neither case is the problem of becoming a self ever solved. You are still trying to figure out how to become the person you were made to be.
Circle of transformation
Now in John 13, Jesus is going to invite us to a third circle. It's really wonderful if you can move to an affirming environment, but we're not meant to stay there. Jesus wants us to move to a third circle, the circle of transformation. The circle of transformation is created when Jesus invades either a condemnation circle or an affirmation circle. He comes right into the middle of that circle with the very holiness of God. He suddenly changes our orientation. Suddenly we have something to fix our eyes on, which is God's perfect holiness. In the circle of condemnation we're huddled around each others' performance, in the circle of affirmation we're huddled around each others' positivity, but in the circle of transformation we huddle around the living God.
John 13:3 says this, "Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and he had come from God, and he was going back to God, rose from supper." Jesus was an embodiment of the holiness of God. He had come from the fellowship of the Trinity. He had come from the fellowship of the holy, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He was going to go back into that fellowship. But before he did, he was going to create a circle of transformation by going right into the middle of the disciples and showing them what the character of God looks like. It was not a fun experience for them, it was a foreign experience for them, but it was a transforming experience for them.
Jesus comes up to Peter and, having taken his outer garments off, having taken on a towel, the towel of a servant, he knelt at Peter's feet and took Peter's smelly feet and began to wash his feet. Peter was upset about this because it turned over all of the social rules that Peter was used to. The lowliest person was the one who takes people's stinky feet and cleanses them. This was a very necessary thing to do in the ancient world, as there was no road cleaning and sewage systems like what we have that makes everything nice and wonderful. There were not regular showers or baths, and so feet were incredibly stinky and incredibly awful, and so it was the lowest status person that was supposed to clean feet, not the highest standing person.
It really bothered Peter because Jesus was messing up his social order. So he says, "Jesus, you're not going to wash my feet! Not you, you're not going to wash my feet! That's not how it works. It's not going to be this upside down situation." Jesus responds in verse seven, "What I'm doing now you do not understand, but you will understand." He's saying, there will be an event called the cross, and that will completely upend your understanding of the character of God and my mission. Jesus says, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Jesus is interpreting; he's using the feet washing as a symbol of the cross. The cross, as Jesus is teaching it here and in the rest of John, is like a cleansing bath for every human soul. It's meant to be an exchange between our sinfulness and God's holiness. God takes on our sinfulness, our incompleteness. He actually takes our flaws into himself, and in exchange he gives us the holiness of God, and he transforms us in the process.
I remember, a few years after that Little League experience, my first job was working on a farm. One of the things that we would do is take these bags of compost, that were bags of leaves, that had been rotting under rain and snow, rotting in plastic bags for like an entire winter. In the spring we would take them out, we would rip these open and put our hands deep in the compost and mold, and we would spread them out over all the crops. It was really effective for growing fruits and vegetables, but it left me more dirty than I've ever been in my entire life before or after. I would come home and just completely need a shower. There was something interesting that would happen. When I would wash my hands or would shower after a day like this, when the water would hit my hands or when the water would hit my body, it would instantly turn this greenish brown color. I couldn't see that greenish brown color just looking at my hands or just looking at my body. I could see some dirt, I could see some things that needed to be washed away. But it struck me that instantly, as the water hit my body, it took on this grotesque color and I had no idea that was in me. I had no idea that had gone so deep. I had no idea that I needed a shower that much. I knew I needed some kind of washing, but I didn't know what a fundamental washing I needed.
When Jesus took on our sin, when he was laid out on the cross, it was an honest display of what our sin actually is. It was an honest display of how deep our brokenness goes. It's way worse than we thought it was, even in the circle of condemnation. It's way worse than when we slide to second base on our knees. Our anger goes so much deeper than we think it does. Our lust goes so much deeper than we think it does. Our bitterness and lack of forgiveness towards others goes so much deeper than we think it does. Our pride and need to be recognized by other people goes so much deeper than we think it does. Jesus says, "I want to wash you, but in the process of washing you, it's going to come out!"
I even love this exchange between Peter and Jesus, because as soon as Jesus says, "Unless I wash you, you have no share in me," then Peter goes off, "Well if you don't wash me wash everything wash my head wash my body and everything else." One of the things that we know about Peter is that he was an incredibly brash person. He was very impulsive. It's almost as if in this moment, Jesus is drawing out Peter's immaturity, Peter's sin. He's drawing it out in the process of showing him what he will do once and for all in the cross.
It's ok that all of that stuff comes out. It's ok that you feel the sting of the cleansing. I'm going to give you the holiness of God. The holiness of God is his very character. It's his divine nature and he wants to give it to us. That is our completion. But in the process he needs to scrub, and the scrubbing stings. It's a qualitatively different sting than the wounds we got in the circle of condemnation. It's qualitatively deeper healing than the affirmations we got in the circle of affirmation. It's deeper. It's richer. It's ok that it hurts. It's ok that it heals. Because it is our completion.
Hebrews 12 tells us, don't despise it when God treats you like a son or a daughter. What he's doing is allowing you to share in the holiness of God. We don't have a share in God's nature unless he treats us as sons and daughters and takes us through a scrubbing process. He takes us through the exchange where we come before the cross, and we see our sin, we see that Jesus has become our sin, and it's like a shower, it washes us. It cleanses us, and maybe it even stings in the process, but in return we get the righteousness of God. We get his white robes. We get to share in the nature of the Trinity. We get to sit at the table with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We get the divine nature through the cross, through this exchange. That's what we get in the circle of transformation, nothing more and nothing less than the holiness of God.
We're still in the presence of others, but we are huddled around the holy. It disturbs us, it stings us, it cleanses us, it completes us in a way we cannot complete ourselves, either through performance or through affirmation. In the circle of transformation there is hope. There is hope that we can share in God's divine nature. There is hope that over the course of our earthly life we will change. There is hope that through the death and resurrection of Jesus we will live forever with God in his perfection, in his completeness. We will truly become ourselves now, and we will truly be ourselves when we meet Jesus face to face.
I want to welcome you to the circle of transformation that can be found. If you don't know Jesus personally, if you have questions about the cross, questions about Jesus being Lord or Savior, I invite you to consider the claim of Christianity. Consider the claims of Jesus. Simply open up the Gospel of John and read through it, and consider whether or not the claims of Jesus are true. Because if they are true, the promises blow away any other promises we can get from other people.
The second invitation is to baptism. This is a response. When we respond in faith to the cross, to the promise of the cross, we say "Yes God, yes Jesus, I want you to wash me. I want you to cleanse me." And that will be pictured in the baptism. And that will be continued, that process of transformation will continue beyond the process of baptism.
The third thing I want to invite you to do is join a small group. If you want to taste and see what the circle of transformation will look like, will taste like, imperfectly though it might be, I invite you to join a small group. In these social situations you're going to be able to pray together, read the Bible together, you're going to get to know other people. It's not exactly going to be heavy, deep, and real, but it's going to be a chance for you to know other people and begin the practice of the circle of transformation.
In the circle of condemnation our flaws are shamed by critics. In the circle of affirmation our flaws are affirmed by our fans. But in the circle of transformation our flaws are washed by the hands of God.