Superheroes are big right now.
Millions in profit are being made right now from the telling of epic battles between heroes and villains, and whether it’s in comic or theatrical form, people want to hear the stories. Maybe it’s because we ourselves dream of being “super” in some way, or because we know the “villains” around us and want to see them vanquished.
Sometimes we imagine ourselves in the story, and dream up what we would do. Perhaps we envision an evil villain aiming to take over the world. He takes what he wants, destroys what he wants, and kills who he wants. We pretend he has tried to trick us into joining his side, and when that didn’t work, has tried to set our team of fellow heroes against each other. We raise the stakes, deciding he is incredibly deceptive, powerful, and has fooled countless people into following him.
Naturally, we make ourselves powerful too. As kids we went overboard, and gave ourselves whatever power we wanted: we can teleport like Dr. Strange, control weather like Storm, heal like Wolverine, make objects appear like Loki, read minds like Professor X… the possibilities are only limited to our imagination. We also — somehow — know the villain’s plan, and know he’s about to attack.
So here we are, about to face off with a powerful villain, and we know we have whatever power we want to save the world.
How would you save the world?
Seriously, how would you do it? I asked this question to a group of high schoolers and received some interesting responses. Some had elaborate plans, where each person in their group had a different power. Some got creative, such as “power pinky”, which allowed one student to turn his pinky into a bat, or the power to create a flood of sticky maple syrup. Each scenario conveyed a demonstration of power that quickly brought an end to evil.
This all happened when I was invited to share to a visiting service team, and while they thought this was a disconnected icebreaker, it was actually strategic; I wanted them to be able to compare their natural response to another. After hearing their epic plans, I would flip the slide to reveal the words “Based on a true story.”
It took them a moment, but because this was supposed to be a spiritually-based session, they eventually pieced it together.
Who is the evil villain?
Scripture says Satan came to steal, kill, and destroy, that he is a deceiver, and that he is trying to rule the world. He loves to manipulate believers to create disunity, and is a formidable force.
Who is the superhero?
Jesus, and he’s assembled his own team, who have been given tremendous power.
So, how do Jesus and his super team save the world?
Our gut response is “the cross”, but there is a powerful moment before this that fits our hypothetical hero scenario above, and sets into action Jesus’s incredible plan for his team to save the world; it is found in John 13:
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
We need to pause here for a moment. When we read “he loved them to the end”, our minds assume a time-based understanding: he loved them until he died, or he loved them to the end of eternity. But there is another connotation of “to the end”, which can be found in other translations: he wanted to show the full extent of his love, to love them to the utmost. Whatever his plan is, a core goal is to convey the fullness of what love is.
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God…
So, the evil villain is already at work deceiving and sowing division. But Jesus — like you in the scenario above — knew he had been given access to utter power; he knew that he came from God and would return to God. He was poised as we were, with the ability to do anything to stop evil; but while we would use a force of power to destroy evil, or end all wars, or eliminate hunger, pain, and destruction, Jesus does something utterly different:
…so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
Jesus had the power to do anything, and he chose to humble himself to the role of a servant, washing their disgusting feet. Perhaps you’ve had your feet washed — or done the washing — in a church or ministry setting before. While that moment is reflective of this one, it is very different. While foot washing today is an act of remembrance, what Jesus was doing was inappropriate and humiliating for a Rabbi or teacher; the disciples could not imagine such a dishonoring act from someone they claimed was the “Son of God.” Peter shows this:
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”( Side note: John 13:7 — “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” — is a fantastic verse to have on hand for those inevitable moments in life when you have no clue what God is doing.)
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Peter is so convinced of his understanding that he boldly opposes Jesus: “NO! You will NEVER!” We know Peter loves Jesus, but for him to oppose his Rabbi, Teacher, and the Son of God shows that his love had a limit. His Messiah was supposed to be a warrior-king, not an embarrassment that touches nasty feet. Even if we give Peter the benefit of a doubt, and say he thought Jesus was testing them to see who wouldn’t let him degrade himself, it’s still clear that Peter held more to his understanding than utter release to the “foolishness of God.” Fortunately, Jesus truly loved Peter and knew him well:
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
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.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
Now Peter is scared he has messed up, and the pendulum swings to the other extreme. Jesus — ever patient — continues to love him.
You know who else he loved? The one “who was going to betray him.” Take note of what this passage says and does not say: it says that Jesus knew exactly what Judas was going to do, and it does not say that Jesus skipped his feet. Jesus walked up to Judas — a man who had walked with Jesus for years, whom Jesus had loved genuinely, and who was about to give him up to be murdered for a bag of money — bent down with his outer garments off, and washed his repugnant feet like the lowest of servants.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.
“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.”
They considered him “Teacher”, “Lord”, and the “Son of God” so deeply that they gave up their livelihood, left their homes, and followed him into some strange and often dangerous situations. They were his disciples, and as such did what he did. So Jesus says, “You say I’m someone you want to follow and replicate, so now that I’ve humbled myself and served you in this way, how are you going to respond? Will you do the same?”
This is Jesus’s secret plan to defeat the villain. Our understanding would have us believe the villain would need to be defeated at that moment, and we wouldn’t waste time with foot washing or allow the cross; we learn in Revelation that Jesus knew the time for the enemy’s defeat had not yet come, but the time for his secret weapon had.
Love is the secret weapon Jesus gave his disciples. Here is what is wild: they thought they knew what love was, and were already doing it, but Jesus “saved the world” by demonstrating the type of love God was offering. It wasn’t a new command — even the old testament commands us to “love God and love others” — but in a way, it was a new command, because of how deeply they had misunderstood it.
Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.1 John 2:7-8
It seems like a contradiction: “I am not writing you a new command… yet I am writing you a new command.” He is basically saying, “you’ve always had this information on how to live a full life, on how to love, but you’ve misinterpreted it; and now that you can see it lived out through Christ — and at times in yourself — it seems new.”
Our problem is we are deceived by our confidence that we know how life works, and what it’s about. When something opposes our confidence or our hopes and goals, we resist; we don’t want to be wrong, and we don’t want to lose what we could have. We end up spending so much of life missing out on full life.
Think of it this way: many people hate Monopoly because it’s long and can turn vicious. Many can point to times throughout their lives where they’ve had rough games to support their hate, and feel confident they understand the game. Then one day Hasbro said, “actually, you’ve been playing it wrong.” They went on to say that the correct game play states when you land on a property, you either buy it or it goes to auction; either way, instead of several rounds passing with property not being purchased, all property is quickly divvied out, usually at a discount. It creates a shorter game where players are happier because of their discounted properties.
It’s like Hasbro is saying, “you’ve always had this information in the rules on how to have a fun game, but you’ve misinterpreted it; and now that you hear that Monopoly can be fun, it seems like a new rule and a new game.“
Our bad games of Monopoly aren’t Hasbro’s fault; we’re the ones who assumed we knew how to play and missed the mark. And John wants us to know it’s not God’s fault that we misunderstand love; we’re the ones playing the game wrong.
We play the game wrong because the rules of the game are foolishness to our understanding.
We can’t love as God has called us because it costs us too much. It cost Jesus his life and God His son, because “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only son…” To agape-love doesn’t just cost us a lot, but everything, beyond physical loss to a loss of our will, our dreams, and our justice. It’s too much… but God is enough.
We can’t love as God has called us because “God is love” and we are not God. We can’t just create it from nothing like we can force a smile, and when love costs us we won’t have the resolve anyway. Yet, God loves us and desires to be with us: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us” and “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.“
We struggle to love as God has called us because we struggle to love each other. We are deceived by the evil villain to allow disunity among us, and the enemy knows this is an effective way to jam the secret weapon. “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” After all, “whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.“
All of these passages are from 1 John 4, the same book that pointed out that the call to love isn’t a new command, but when we actually understand Love, it will feel like a new command, and our way of playing the game will need to change.
The disciples were ready to folllow Jesus into anything — even death — until it looked as ineffective and humiliating as a Rabbi washing feet. This was the line they did not want to cross, because they loved their self-preservation and self-advancement enough that they didn’t want to lose either.
So Jesus “set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.“ He rejected his preservation and advancement, taking on shame and death that he did not deserve. He then looked at his disciples and said, “You claimed you wanted to follow me… will you follow me here?”
He asks the same of us. If we claim to be Christians — Christ-followers — are we willing to follow him to the place where he invites us to give up our acclaim, our reputation, and our safety? Are we willing to follow him to the place where he invites us to love when we don’t have the capacity to do so, and to love those we don’t think deserve it?
Are we willing to follow him to the utmost places, or only up to the point — like those in John 6:66 — when it goes from serving our purposes to destroying our purposes, and then follow something else?
He may not be the hero we want, but he is the hero we need. He is the only hero that can defeat the ultimate evil villain; in fact, he has already won.