About a week ago, someone retweeted a quote by Kevin DeYoung, a Reformed pastor, author, and blogger at (sigh) The Gospel Coalition into my timeline. He said:
The sovereignty of God and the mystery of election is the great motivation for missions and evangelism
I just got back from spending a weekend with my Confirmation students on their annual retreat. The theme of this retreat is always evangelism. We talk about the Story of God and His people, Israel, the Story of Jesus, the students’ own personal stories, and we learn how we can effectively share this Story with others. In this entire weekend, focused on missions and evangelism, do you know how many times I mentioned the “sovereignty of God” and “the mystery of election”? Zero. Perhaps I’m doing it wrong. But I don’t think I am.
You see, if I was to truly hold to a Calvinist perspective on God’s sovereignty (that He decides and renders certain all that happens) and election (that God predetermines some individuals for salvation and other individuals for damnation) then I don’t think I would be motivated to evangelize at all. People are either The Elect or they are The Reprobate. Evangelism, in this framework, seems more like playing roulette than anything else (“Five hundred bucks on elect!”). I don’t know who is elect, you don’t know who is elect, so anytime you share God’s word with someone, you are rolling the dice that God has elected them to salvation. If someone is elect, God will save them no matter what I do. If they are not, then they will be damned no matter what I do. If God’s sovereignty and election are what was supposed to motivate me to evangelize, then I probably wouldn’t.
And why not? There is too much dissonance between motive/belief and behavior for my comfort. My actions in evangelism would to some extent betray what I believe about how salvation works.
So, while I didn’t talk much about sovereignty or election on my retreat, I did talk quite a bit about something else: love. Love is our motivation for missions. Love for God as revealed to us in His Son Jesus Christ. Love for our neighbor, who is missing out on the whole point of existence by not being in a relationship with the Creator. Love is our motivation, and if that’s not enough, then you are doing it wrong. It wouldn’t matter to me if someone was elect or not; if I loved them, I would do all that I could to help them know Jesus.
I believe love is our motivation for mission because it was God’s motivation for His mission in the world. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son…” Romans 5:8 “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The reason God’s sovereignty and the mystery of election are not proper motivations for missions and evangelism is because they aren’t even God’s motivation for reaching into this world and rescuing us.
If love is our motivation, then we will be more inclined to live a life of selfless devotion to God and our neighbor in seeking to be God’s messengers of love, hope, forgiveness, and salvation in this world. Here, there is no dissonance between motivation/belief and action.
We need to remember that God is love. If we are not about love, then we are not about what God is about. If we are not motivated to missions by his love for us and this world and our love for our neighbor, then we are not about what God is about.
On his last night with his disciples, Jesus did something that would, quite frankly, make me very uncomfortable. He got out a bucket, some wash cloths, and decided to wash his disciples’ feet.
This would make me uncomfortable for a couple of reasons. One, I hate feet, in general and my own. I think they are gross. I don’t even like to touch my own feet, let alone have someone else touch them. So, there’s that.
Two, washing my feet is something that I am perfectly comfortable doing on my own. Yes, I know that it was common in that culture to have some lowly servant wash the feet of the guests who had just arrived for dinner. I think this is a part of that culture I would have no problem rejecting.
I would wash my own feet. It doesn’t take long. I could do it just the way I want. And, it would be 100% less awkward.
I think that’s a part of the reason why Jesus insisted on washing his disciples’ feet.
Serving people can be awkward and uncomfortable. For both sides involved.
For the one doing the washing, it’s an act of humility. You are washing someone’s ugly, dirty, disgusting feet with your own hands. You don’t know where those feet have been and what they have stepped in. All you know is that someone has dirty feet, and it’s your job to wash them.
And this is usually the way we read that passage (John 13, for those scoring at home). We read it through the eyes of Jesus, and we should, since he did tell us to do likewise for each other. We read it as our duty to go out and serve others, no matter how humbling that may be. And that’s what my students did on their mission trip to Sanford, Maine last week.
We partnered with our fellow Covenant church, Evergreen Covenant for a week of service in one of the poorer neighborhoods in the town. Our students saw the poverty first hand when we walked around the neighborhood to invite kids to our afternoon activity camp in the park. They saw rusted out cars, screen doors hanging from one hinge, garbage piled up on screened-in porches, and kids with no change of clothes. We pulled weeds, mulched, cleaned up a food pantry, pulled more weeds, played tons and tons of games with the kids, did crafts with them, and then pulled more weeds. We passed out food to seniors in needs. We revitalized a community garden, and cleaned up the flower beds outside the elementary school. We helped fix up a playground at an early education center. We showed love to little kids, many who live in broken homes. And then we pulled more weeds.
All this was done to wash the feet of the people of Sanford. All this was done to emulate Jesus in his service of disciples, and, ultimately, the whole world.
But, on this trip, for the first time, I read this story through the eyes of Peter.
It was Peter who objected to Jesus washing his feet. Perhaps he has the same hang up about feet that I do. It’s possible. You certainly can’t prove me wrong.
But I think he objected because to let someone wash your feet is an admission that your feet are dirty. And to let someone serve you is an admission that you need to be served. And this is where it gets uncomfortable.
Often times, for me, pride gets in the way of letting people help me. I don’t want people to wash my feet. It’s an admission that I am broken and need help, that I am not self-sufficient and that I do not have all the resources to make my life work.
And the people we helped this week, I imagine, could have had a similar reaction. The parents who dropped their kids off at our camp could have been reminded that they couldn’t afford to send their kids to the Parks & Rec camp meeting at the same park. The missionary we helped could have been reminded that she is getting older and can’t keep up with her yard work anymore. The community leader responsible for the garden we tended could have been reminded that she lacks the help, energy, and resources to maintain the community garden. The seniors we packed food for could have been reminded that they can’t just go to Shaw’s or Hannaford and buy the groceries that they need. The principal of the school we helped could have been reminded of her lack of resources.
Being served is not exactly dignifying. It can be an awkward reminder that you don’t have all your stuff together.
So that could be why Peter objected. That and the fact that someone as great as Jesus was lowering himself to wash even Peter’s feet could have set him off. The conversation went like this:
6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
Jesus tells Peter that he needs to be washed, and that he is the one to do it and he pretty much needs to get over himself. Peter hears this, and, of course, learns the wrong lesson and says this:
9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
I actually relate to Peter here. He hears that his feet need washing and assumes it means his whole body needs washing. He thinks that he is totally broken and in need of total repair. He thinks he is all dirty and all of him needs washing. But Jesus responds this way:
10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
Jesus tells Peter that he does not need to be completely washed since he already bathed. It’s only his feet that were dirty. He is not totally dirty, just his feet.
The people we served were not totally dirty. They just needed to have their feet washed.
The kids we served were perfectly normal kids; they just needed a safe place to play during 5 summer afternoons. Their parents love their kids and are doing their best; they just needed a place to send their kids for free. The school we helped isn’t a lost cause by miles; they just needed extra help around the outside of their building. The missionary we helped is going to Thailand to minister in prison later this year; she just needed some extra muscle to care for her overgrown yard.
These people aren’t totally dirty. They just needed their feet washed. So we did.
We weren’t totally changing their lives. We weren’t rescuing them from systemic poverty. We weren’t fixing all of their brokenness. We were just loving them in a way that they needed to be love and in a way in which we could love them.
They had a small need. And we did whatever we could to fill that need. That’s all.
And that’s all it should be. We all need to realize that we all, at some point, will need to have our feet washed by someone. And it’s not an admission of failure, or of total brokenness, to let someone was them.
My wife is basically on bed rest. She has had a terrible pregnancy, and a lot of the things she would normally be able to do have fallen on me. It’s been hard for me to keep up with all the housework and yard work and take care of our two year old daughter. Still, like the stubborn man I am, I have soldiered on thinking I can do it myself.
Then people from church started bringing meals. And then they started mowing my lawn for me. It’s hard for a man to let someone else mow his lawn for him, but there I was, letting someone mow my lawn for me. It was hard to swallow my pride and allow this to happen, but then I remembered this story, and remembered that I’m not a total failure. I just need a little help in a trying time. So I let them help me. I let them wash my feet.
When we serve, we need to remember that we are not washing someone’s entire body. We are just washing their feet. We need to treat them with dignity, respect, and understand that they are most likely doing all they can with what they have. When we are served, we need to remember that it doesn’t mean we are totally damaged or broken. It means we just need a little help. And that’s OK.
As a postscript, please allow me to brag on my students a little bit. They were flexible when plans changed and brought a great attitude to every project we were given. They left it all on the field without complaint, and I love them for it. (I love them anyway but this past week gave me extra reasons to do so). I was truly blessed by them and by the other adults who helped lead this trip.