The other day, one of my pastoral students came to me after class. “A few of us have been talking, and we have a question for you. Are you trying to discourage us?” It is not the first time I’ve heard this question. Discouragement is not my intention. I am aiming for disillusionment. I want to shatter my students’ romanticized notion of church life and replace it with one that is more realistic.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns of the damage caused by unrealistic expectations of life in the church. “Certainly, serious Christians who are put in a community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life should be, and they will be anxious to realize it,” Bonhoeffer explains. “But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves is bound to overwhelm us, as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of Christian community.”
This gift of disillusionment is not an easy one to accept. We tend to be idealists when it comes to the church. We would rather hold on to our dreams. But instead of an ideal community, what we get is the church as it really is. Not our delicate airbrushed fantasy of those who always act in love and speak kindly to one another, but a loutish, clumsy-tongued, rabble with dirty feet. God allows this, not to make us cynical, but for our own good. Disillusionment with the church and even with ourselves is a gift. Bonhoeffer cautions, “Only that community which enters into the experience of this great disillusionment with all its unpleasant and evil appearances begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”
The Art of Missing the Point
We are not the first to have trouble accepting this gift. According to John 13:12, at the Last Supper after Jesus had finished washing the disciples’ feet and put on his clothes, he returned to his place and asked, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” There is really only one honest answer to this question: We don’t. Not really. Oh, we get the point generally. How could we not, when Jesus answers his own question? The lesson is that Jesus sets the example. He washed the disciples’ feet, so we should wash one another’s feet. The servant is no greater than the master. It’s obvious when put that way, and it’s hard not to feel a little impatient with Peter. How could he be so dull? Who doesn’t get the point?
Yet every time I read the Gospel account of this event, I can’t help feeling like a dull student who watches as the teacher solves a complex math problem on the board, blinking in confusion but trying to look aware. It’s so obvious when the teacher does it. Simple. Elegant. Beautiful even. When the teacher is done, I say to myself: “That was so obvious!” Even I could have done that. I should have done that. But somehow, when I when I try to follow the steps by myself, something seems to break down.
What seemed so obvious in the awkward silence of the Upper Room is no longer so clear to me in the noisy tumult of regular life. It completely slips my mind as I stand on the train platform, ready to elbow the woman standing next to me so that I will win the commuters’ lottery and be the one who is standing directly in front of the train car door when it slides open.
A Misplaced Center of Gravity
“Do you understand what I have done for you?” Jesus asks. It turns out he knew the answer before he asked the question. Jesus warned Peter in advance that he would not understand what was about to take place. To our ears, Peter’s refusal to allow Jesus to wash his feet sounds like an improvement in the conversation. It seems admirable. Humble even. Only moments ago the disciples had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. But there is an edge to Jesus’ reply. Why does he rebuke Peter instead of praising him? You would think that he would have been happy to see that Peter recognized that there was someone at the table who was greater than them all. Peter was not putting on airs. He was entirely sincere. But he was also arrogant. The arrogant are always sincere. It is this sincerity which makes it so easy to be arrogant. We are convinced—unshakably convinced. And yet we are wrong.
Peter’s problem is not that he can’t see Jesus clearly. His problem is that he can’t see himself. He is too humble to let himself be washed, but too proud to do the washing. He hasn’t washed his own feet. He won’t wash the other disciples’ feet. And despite his conviction that Jesus is greater, he doesn’t even offer to wash Jesus’ feet. Peter’s objection looks like humility. It sounds like devotion. But it is really just narcissism and pride attempting to disguise itself in the rags of false humility. It may be pride in a different form, but it is still pride and just as deadly.
“The devilish strategy of pride,” Dorothy Sayers writes, “is that it attacks us not on our weak points, but on our strong. It is preeminently the sin of the noble mind.” That is the way of pride. Pride is just as willing to encourage self-depreciation as it is self-congratulation. Pride will occupy a small space just as happily as a large one. In fact, pride is more than pleased to see us content ourselves with a small space, just so long as it can convince us that we are the center of that space. Pride is willing to keep company with any of the Christian virtues, if it can persuade us that we are the cause of those virtues. “Pride,” Sayers explains, “places man instead of God at the center of gravity.”
Living with Divine Disequilibrium
Disturbing the center of gravity is exactly what Jesus has in mind. Both for Peter and for us. He is creating disequilibrium. Putting everyone off balance. He has been doing it throughout the Last Supper and he’s not finished yet: “‘Then, Lord,’ Simon Peter replied, ‘not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!’ Jesus answered, ‘A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you’” (John 13:9-10).
Peter tries so hard to say the right thing, yet somehow he keeps getting it wrong. It is hard not to feel sorry for him. Maybe that’s because we identify so easily with Peter’s experience. How many times have we rushed in, firmly convinced that we knew what Jesus was doing, only to come away mystified when we discovered that we had missed the point? We think we know what God is up to and try to help him along. Yet somewhere along the way the wheels come off our little plan. But not God’s plan. God is still acting. But from our point of view, he’s behaving strangely. Like Peter, we just can’t figure out what he’s up to.
The things God does and the things he allows to take place in the church seem wrong. God seems to answer wrong prayers all the time. Or else he seems to answer our prayers in the wrong way (Ps. 10:1; 44:24; 73:3). How many times have we found ourselves as astonished as Peter and saying along with him: “Lord, what are you thinking?” The truth is, when it comes to figuring out what God is doing in our lives, we are almost always wrong. We are wrong at least when it comes to the fine details of God’s plan. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” Jesus asks. No, Jesus. We confess that we don’t. Not really. We are just going to have to trust you and wait to see what you’re up to.
A Fellowship of the Unwashed
Still, why doesn’t Peter get the point? It is easy for us to see what Jesus is doing in his case, so what’s Peter’s problem? This is often the way: When it comes to someone else’s life or lesson, I know exactly what God is doing. I can tell them in a minute. It’s my life I’m confused about, not theirs. Peter misses the point because Jesus has layered in multiple levels of interpretation into his metaphor. Jesus had two ideas embedded in this particular lesson. The first was about being washed. The second was about washing. Those who want to have a part in Jesus must first be washed clean by Jesus. But those who have been washed are also called to wash one another.
This is not an appeal to guilt, it is a statement of permission. It is a kind of liberation. Minutes earlier these disciples had been dreaming of glory. Reclining with unwashed feet and waiting to be served by someone else, they argued with one another about which of them was the greatest. By his actions, Jesus pointed them to a different path. Not to the high road of recognition, where each of us feels we must elbow the other out of the way if we are to make our mark, but to the low road of ordinary service. Few acts were more common in Jesus’ day than to wash the dust from someone’s sandaled foot. If Jesus can stoop, we too can stoop. By serving in such an ordinary manner, Jesus elevates every common act of service.
But if we follow the metaphor, we will find that Jesus is talking about more than the bare fact that we must serve one another. Jesus’ example calls us to a particular kind of service. It is a call to bear with one another. In so doing, Jesus reveals an important fact about life in the community of believers this side of heaven. Jesus reminds us that we who are the washed are also the unwashed. We are a community that has been cleansed by Christ’s word, but we are also a fellowship with dirty feet, and he invites us to be patient with one another’s failures and put up with each other’s shortcomings. In short, Jesus is calling us to forgive.
The Church as It Really Is
Jesus’ command to wash each other’s dirty feet shatters our idealized expectation of the church. Ours is not an inspired vision of the church as it might be. It is a fantasy of the church as it never was. This notion of the church that is free of mess, stain, and sin is as unrealistic as any airbrushed image of a supermodel. It is a view which confuses sanctification with perfectionism. Sanctification is the long process by which the Holy Spirit uses our real circumstances and the collateral damage caused by living in a sin-shattered world to shape us into the image of Christ. Perfection is sanctification’s ultimate goal, but it is one which will only be fully achieved in eternity.
Perfectionism is the opposite. The perfectionist’s version of the Christian life is an unrealistic expectation which hopes to avoid the fits and starts that come with the sanctification process. Perfectionism is an attempt to escape the long obedience of sanctification and smooth out the rough edges of our Christian experience. Perfectionism minimizes the damage that sin has wreaked upon us. The result is a Disneyfied vision of church life which has more in common with the Magic Kingdom than it does with the kingdom of God.
Reality is not a curse. When it is applied under the gracious hand of God, it is a remedy. Doing community in the real church helps cure us of our idealized notions of church, of our self-righteousness, and our judgmentalism. This is a judgmentalism that we often exercise not only toward the community at large but against ourselves. By forcing us to live in real, messy community, God graciously frustrates our attempt to build elegant ministry structures which need neither his grace nor his power. This fellowship among those with unwashed feet is a constant reminder that we are not a people who live by our wits, much less by our accomplishments. We are a people who live by grace and by promise. We are the church.
John Koessler serves on the faculty of Moody Bible Institute. His latest book is The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap (IVP).
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