“Red Letter Challenge: Serving” – John 13:1-17
Easter 7 – June 2, 2019
Introduction: the Red Letter Challenge
Just over a month ago, we started this series of sermons on the Red Letter Challenge. We are
addressing some of the main topics that Jesus addressed in his red letters, if you have a red letter
edition of the Bible. Jesus said a lot of things, and he urged us to both hear His words and to put
them into practice. Sometimes there are whole chapters that are red letters! Pastor Zach Zehnder
of Florida has distilled Jesus’ red letter words into five main categories. We have already dealt
with BEING – the fact that we need to be in relationship with Jesus, we need to develop that
relationship with Jesus so that we know what to do and so that we are equipped to do it. BEING
comes first, DOING flows from the being. The second topic was FORGIVING. That was the
couch cushion Sunday. God wants to flip over the moral couch cushions of our lives, and to
make us clean through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross so that we can do what He asks us to do
with clean hearts and lives, and so that we can have a forgiving attitude toward others. I want to
encourage those of you who are reading the book and following the challenges – keep up the
good BEING and FORGIVING. Today we land on the third topic – SERVING. Let me tell you a
personal story of serving.
1. SERVING during the “Flood of the Century”
I have to take you back just over 22 years. We were living in Winnipeg, where I was the pastor
of Immanuel Lutheran Church. It was Sunday morning, April 6, 1997, and I decided NOT to
serve the people of Immanuel that Sunday. In fact, I didn’t even set my alarm for that morning.
Now, before you call me an irresponsible pastor, I need to tell you about April 5. That Saturday
evening, we had a ferocious snow storm, complete with a driving cold wind. I don’t know how
much it snowed – maybe a foot or so – but it was the wind which really made things miserable.
Our son had gone to a friend’s house earlier in the evening – about 6 blocks from our house.
When we were called to go get him at about 9:00, Deanna and I both went. We had to shovel 3
or 4 times just to get from our back lane garage to the street. Once we got on the street we were
OK – for 4 of the 6 blocks! I had to walk the rest of the way, while Deanna remained in the
vehicle. Our son and I had to walk back to the van against the bitter wind. And then we had to
shovel again to get back to our garage. What normally should have taken us 10 minutes at the
most took 45 minutes that night. I knew that there was no way anyone was getting to church in
the morning, so I didn’t even set my alarm. The next few days were miserable, but a month later,
the snow from that storm was melting and the worst part was that the melting snow in North
Dakota (it was a huge storm!) was making its way into the Red River system, and moving north
toward Winnipeg. By early May, the Red River became the Red Sea, and most of southern
Manitoba was under water in what was called the Flood of the Century. Winnipeg was squarely
in the sights of that massive ever expanding river. From mid-April on, the attention of the entire
city was on building up dikes along the Red River as it flowed through Winnipeg, and on
protecting the most vulnerable homes that were built along the river banks. I distinctly remember
saying to the congregation one Sunday that if they called the church that week and I wasn’t there
that I would be out sandbagging. And I was. I was part of a mind-boggling effort to build 12 foot
high sandbag dikes that were also 6 feet wide. I wasn’t the only one who helped. High school
classes were canceled so the students could fill sandbags. The army was called in. Neighbours
and people from all over the city pitched in to save homes. One breach of the dike system would
be devastating to the entire city! Because Winnipeg is quite literally as flat as a pancake it wasn’t
just the homes bordering the river that were in jeopardy. If the river were to spill its banks, or
breach the dikes, the tremendous power and force of the water would toss the sandbags aside like
little toys and fill basement after basement. Thousands and thousands of people helped and
served so that tens of thousands of homes would be saved. The people whose homes were on the
river were helpless without the efforts of the many. It was a case of Manitoba’s license plate
slogan – Friendly Manitoba – being lived out in real life.
I don’t know why people helped, but I suspect and I hope that a lot of people served because of
what Jesus said and did. I know that’s why I helped. Our home was far away from the river. We
were probably pretty safe. But Jesus has called us to serve others as He has served us. Our
motivation is important. I didn’t do it for the free sandwiches and donuts that I got for lunch each
day. I didn’t do it with hopes that I would get my picture in the paper (like a federal politician). I
did it because Jesus once said “that you should do as I have done for you.”
2. SERVING by washing feet
Let me tell you the context story for those red letter words of Jesus. It was Maundy Thursday, the
night before Jesus was crucified. Jesus and His disciples had gathered in the Upper Room to
celebrate the Jewish Passover meal. Maybe one detail had been missed, or maybe nobody was
willing to play the role of a servant. Jesus took the opportunity to teach the disciples and us a
lesson on humility and selfless servanthood. He got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing,
wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then He began to wash His
disciples feet and dry them with the towel. You know, they didn’t wear socks and shoes in those
days, so feet got dirty and stinky. It would normally be the role of a servant or maybe the
lowliest one in the group to wash feet, but Jesus – Lord and Master though He was – stooped
down to perform this menial task.
He washed the feet of all the disciples. What is notable is the dialog between Peter and Jesus.
Peter didn’t want to have Jesus wash HIS feet. He was too proud to have His rabbi and teacher
perform such a low and common task as washing his feet. But Jesus replied that if He didn’t
wash Peter’s feet, Peter was in essence excluding himself from following Jesus, to which Peter
spontaneously replied, “Well, then, wash ALL of me.” It’s significant that Peter – a few hours
later – would be the disciple who would three times deny even knowing Jesus. Jesus washed him
before his denials, and He reinstated him after the resurrection. The other even more notable
thing is that Judas – the betrayer – was also the recipient of this foot washing, this act of service.
Within the conversation, Jesus specifically said “not all of you are clean” and He said this
because He knew that Judas would betray Him. We know that Judas was present because only a
few verses later, still in John 13, Jesus said that one of them would betray Him, and then He
identified His betrayer by giving Judas a piece of bread. So, unexpectedly, Jesus even served one
of His most bitter human enemies.
What do we learn about serving from this episode in John 13? You know, we don’t even have to
figure it out for ourselves. Jesus made the application for us. He said, “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.” There we have it – an example of servanthood and humility. Jesus served
us, we also serve others.
3. Jesus’ greatest act of service
Jesus’ greatest act of service was not washing His disciples’ feet. It was not healing people with
leprosy, blindness or fever. It was not eating with Zacchaeus the cheating tax collector, or
touching and blessing the little children when the disciples believed that to be inappropriate for a
learned and respected rabbi. Jesus’ greatest act of service was – well, let’s turn to some other red
letters from the very lips of Jesus to identify that greatest act of service, Jesus’ own self-
described purpose. He said, “The Son of Man – that’s the mysterious way that He referred to
Himself – the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a
ransom for many.” To give His life as a ransom for many – that ransom took place when Jesus
paid the ransom price of His very own costly and precious blood, dying on the cross for the
forgiveness of our sins – OUR SINS!! That is the greatest act of self-sacrifice and service the
world has ever known. St. Paul explains (in black letters) in 2 Corinthians 5 that God was
reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting our sins against us. In his first letter, that
disciple Peter explains (again in black letters) that we were redeemed (ransomed) with the
precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. Jesus took our sin and shame and
guilt and condemnation, making us clean, and righteous, and forgiven, and holy before God our
heavenly Father. He didn’t just wash our feet, He washed our entire lives, He washed away our
sins, for all eternity. That is unrivalled service that motivates us in love to serve others.
4. Common, everyday, ordinary ways to serve
Jesus told His disciples, He told us that the washing of feet servanthood was an example that we
should follow. Of course, washing someone’s feet does not have the same impact and meaning
today as it did 20 centuries ago in a hot, dry and dusty climate. But it doesn’t mean that we can
just wash our hands of that kind of servanthood – excuse the pun. Jesus is asking us to find
common everyday ordinary ways to serve others, without drawing undue attention to ourselves.
When Prime Minister Chretien threw a sandbag or two during the Flood of the Century, it wasn’t
really to help the flood relief effort. It was an attention-getting photo op to demonstrate that he
and his party cared for the people of Winnipeg as a federal election was drawing near, some 3
weeks later. Jesus asks us not to serve to get in the limelight. In fact, our servanthood is probably
the most servant-like when no one really notices. It might be in simple acts like letting another
car get a parking spot at the mall, or allowing someone to step ahead of you in line at the grocery
check-out. It might be serving a meal at Union Gospel Mission, or reading books to some
kindergartners. It might be looking after your grandchildren for a night or two – you might love
to do that anyway, but you do it for the sake of their parents who really need a dinner out alone,
or a sleep-in morning. That’s service. You can add all kinds of examples of your own.
5. Serving unexpectedly
Jesus’ example in John 13 even included the serving of Judas, washing the feet of the man who
would betray Him to the Romans, and to a crucifixion death a couple of hours later. But even
that is a teaching moment for us. Is there some way, some opportunity for you to serve even
those who wouldn’t expect it? We watched an episode of “When Calls The Heart” this past
week. Mr. Gowan had been a thorn in the side of Abigail a number of times during the series,
and now he was on trial for embezzling some money from the frontier town while he served as
mayor. Abigail attended the trial in another town, and spoke in defense of Gowan as a character
witness. She didn’t have to. Many were surprised that she did. But she was serving Gowan.
Maybe there is someone that you could surprisingly serve, and they would be blown away by
your actions simply because they were so unexpected.
Another version of that kind of service comes from Jesus’ advice in Luke 14. Jesus had been
invited to eat in the home of a prominent Pharisee. There were some other important people
there, and Jesus noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table – maybe at the
head of the table, or beside the host, or in the most comfortable chair. Jesus made two comments.
First, he said that “if you get invited to a wedding you shouldn’t sit in the place of honour, for
you might get demoted and that would be humiliating. Rather you should sit in a less important
place, so that if that’s not the appropriate spot for you, you would be moved to a more
honourable seat.” That’s kind of like Campbell’s Move of the Game at a football game. Someone
sitting way up in the nosebleed section is picked to move to the great season’s tickets seats
owned by the moving company.
The second thing Jesus said is that if you are planning a lunch or dinner, don’t just invite your
friends and family members and neighbours who can repay you with a similar invitation. Invite
the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and you will be blessed by the satisfaction of
having served someone who can’t repay you. That’s true servanthood. Have you ever done that?
Let that blow your mind… do something for someone, serve someone who can’t repay you!
Some more red letters of Jesus explain, “Let your light shine before others that they may see
your good deeds – that is, your service – and praise your Father in heaven.” Our service is not to
gain brownie points with God. Nor is it to get pats on the back by others. We can’t save
ourselves – Jesus has already done that. But our good deeds, our service may save someone else.
They may see our unexpected service, ask about it, hear about Jesus and come to the point where
they, too, believe, and praise God in heaven.
6. Serving vocations
If you say, what can I do, how can I serve? I would contend that there are few vocations in life
that don’t serve others. A doctor, police, someone in retail, manufacturing, transportation… they
all serve others. If you are a mom or dad, a grandparent, a teacher, coach, florist or care giver…
they all serve others. Maybe only those who sell drugs or those who are hired killers don’t serve
others. Then again, hired killers do serve the person who hired them… but for no good reason!
And there are opportunities to serve here in the church, too – either on a Sunday morning, or
with the youth group, or Vacation Bible School, or Sunday School, or in leadership. That service,
too, points others to our serving Saviour.
7. Take-home points
There is lots more I could say, but let me close with some of Pastor Zehnder’s take-home points
on SERVING, and then close with some words from St. Paul about that red-letter Jesus!!
The motivation behind what you do is more important than what you do.
We want to serve Jesus because He has served us.
You cannot save yourself but you can help save someone else.
Nothing fulfills you more than serving others.
You have been made by God to serve and to live for something bigger than yourself.
Zehnder points to God’s words to the Israelites in Exodus 19:
‘Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy
Disciple Peter wrote words that sound eerily similar to that but they are directed toward those
that follow Jesus.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession,
that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful
You are the plan and there is no Plan B.
We represent Jesus best when we serve well.
Now… these memorable words from Philippians 2 about how our red-letter Saviour served us.
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in
very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human
likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to
death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the
name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and
on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the
glory of God the Father.” Amen.