“Do you know what I have done to you? The answer to this question will always be: No. We will never understand the depth and breadth and height of Jesus’ love for us. We will never understand the exact mechanics of our salvation. But there are moments when we can feel it to be true.”
Sermon Preached: Thursday, April 6, 2023 at Trinity on the Green
Maundy Thursday, Year A: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 | 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 | John 13:1-17, 31b-35 | Psalm 116:1, 10-17
Jesus said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?” May I speak in the name of God, who is to us Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the midst of this evening’s Gospel passage, after washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus asks the disciples this question: Do you know what I have done to you? It’s a question without an answer, at least in the recorded text of the Gospel of John – though I can’t help but wonder if one of the disciples, probably Peter (isn’t it always Peter?), gave some kind of snarky response. Um, yes Jesus. You just washed our feet. Obviously. Clearly, this is not the answer that Jesus is looking for.
Do you know what I have done to you? Jesus asks, imploring the disciples to stop and think about the importance of this moment. Do you know what I have done to you?
The actual answer to this question, if you think about it, is no. No, the disciples do not understand what Jesus has done to them, in washing their feet. The disciples do not understand, period. They do not understand that this is the last time they will gather together for a meal with Jesus. They do not understand how powerful it is that the Son of God came not to be served, but to serve. They do not understand that their lives are about to be changed forever when Jesus is arrested and crucified. The disciples do not understand that death is not the end; that resurrection will come on the third day.
Do you know what I have done to you? These words hang in the air, unanswered, and such a perfect summary of the mystery of Holy Week. Do you know what I have done to you?
One answer to this question – one very important answer – is that Jesus saves us. That is the outcome of Holy Week, after all is said and done. Jesus lives, Jesus dies, Jesus is raised from the dead – and somehow, in the process of all of that, we human beings are saved.
The word salvation, σωτηρία in the original Greek, appears throughout the New Testament. In the Gospel of Luke the prophet Zechariah proclaims that Jesus has come to save us from our enemies, to give God’s people “the knowledge of salvation” (Luke 1:71; 77). In the Book of Acts, Peter avows “there is salvation in no one else [but Jesus], for there is no name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). And the apostle Paul, throughout his letters, loves to talk about salvation – a word that occurs so many times, in so many different contexts, that it’s impossible to summarize in this moment.
Even without these references to scripture, most people know that Christians are all about salvation. We are familiar with the “altar call” inviting people to “accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.” We are familiar with the billboards on the highway that say “Jesus Saves.” And many of us have been taught, from a very young age, that Jesus died on the cross to save our sins.
Do you know what I have done to you? Jesus asks the disciples. Do you know what I have done to you?
For centuries and centuries Christians have been trying to answer this question – trying to understand what exactly Jesus did to affect our salvation. Why is it that Jesus had to die to save us? What did Jesus save us from? And why does it matter?
There is a whole subcategory of the theology dedicated to answering these questions: atonement theology. For some of you this area might be familiar, and for others it might be completely new. Atonement theories are ways that Christians have tried to describe just how it is that Jesus saves. Do you know what I have done to you? Jesus asks. Rather than admit “we don’t know,” people throughout history have tried to answer this question (what a human thing to do) by positing these theories. I’ll summarize a few, to give you a taste:
1) The Ransom Theory – this is the idea that we human beings are held hostage in some way by sin, going back to Adam and Eve. Jesus’ death was the ransom that allowed God to free us from the clutches of Satan and sin.
2) The Satisfaction Theory – similar to the Ransom Theory, the Satisfaction Theory suggests that there is some wrong caused by sin that needs to be righted – but in this theory Satan is not the one demanding payment. Rather, it is God who requires Jesus’ death as a way to balance the scales – so that God can be merciful to humans, while still adhering to a kind of cosmic justice.
3) Christus Victor – Christ Victorious. In this theory, there is no ransom or debt to be paid. Instead, Jesus’ death and resurrection defeat the powers of sin and death – giving human beings the opportunity to be free of these things too.
4) The Moral Influence Theory – This theory suggests that salvation comes not only through Jesus’ death, but through Jesus’ life and teaching. In this instance, Jesus’ death is a continuation and consequence of his lifelong commitment to radical love.
These are just four theories. There are more of them, and several variations on the theories that I summarized just now. I know that this is somewhat dry material. I know that the words atonement theory sounds more like they belong in a lecture, than in a sermon. Still, I share these theories here – because it can make a world of difference to pause and reflect on what we actually believe about the cross and salvation. It makes a profound difference, for people whose religious upbringing emphasized sin and shame, to know that there are other ways of understanding Jesus’ saving grace. It matters if we think of the cross as a necessary evil, or if we think of it as a tragic consequence of people’s inability to recognize the goodness of Jesus. It matters whether we think only of Jesus’ death, when we think about salvation, or whether we think about Jesus’ life, too, as equally a part of our salvation.
Do you know what I have done to you? Jesus asks, after washing the disciples’ feet.
With these words, Jesus is not asking the disciples about what he will do for them, when he dies on the cross. Jesus is not asking us to make theories about his actions, or theologize this moment. Instead, Jesus is simply inviting the disciples to be present. To watch. To listen. To feel the depth of meaning beneath Jesus’ offer to wash the disciples’ feet. To feel the depth of meaning behind the meal the disciples are about to share. It’s as if Jesus is saying: pay attention! Do you know what I have done to you? Do you know that these actions – this bread and wine – are a part of my saving grace too?
Do you know what I have done to you?
These are words that help confirm what I already know in my heart to be true: that the cross is not the sole source of our salvation. Jesus’ life is a part of that salvation too. On this night – the night before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, before Good Friday and the cross – we celebrate those aspects of salvation that are revealed to us, not in death, but rather in Jesus’ life. We are saved by the radical love of God’s son, who broke bread with rich and poor alike, with sinners and saints. We are saved by the holy example of a person who came not to be served but to serve – a king who bent down to wash the dusty feet of his friends. We are saved by the one who gave us a new commandment: to love one another. We are saved by Jesus’ life, in that he showed us a new way to live.
Do you know what I have done to you?
The answer to this question will always be: No. We will never understand the depth and breadth and height of Jesus’ love for us. We will never understand the exact mechanics of our salvation. But there are moments when we can feel it to be true. We can feel a weight lifted off our shoulders when we confess our sin to God. We can feel how good it is to be a part of the Body of Christ when we gather around the table and break bread together. We can feel the spirit of God moving in this place: through words and music, through coincidence and community.
Pay attention. Watch. Listen. Look for the thread of salvation in your life, just beneath the surface. And meditate on these words that Jesus asks the disciples, and all of us: Do you know what I have done to you? Amen.