Before the Passover festival began, Jesus was keenly aware that his hour had come.
From beginning to end, Jesus’ days were marked by his love for his people.
Before Jesus and his disciples gathered for dinner, the adversary filled Judas Iscariot’s heart with plans of deceit and betrayal.
Jesus, knowing that he was one with God, stood up from dinner and removed his outer robes. He then wrapped himself in a towel, poured water in a basin, and began to wash the feet of the disciples, drying them with his towel.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
Simon Peter said to him, “Then wash me but don’t stop with my feet. Cleanse my hands and head as well!”
Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After washing their feet and picking up his garments, he reclined at the table again. “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call Me teacher and Lord, and truly, that is who I am. If your Lord and teacher washes your feet, then you should wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth: a servant is not greater than the master. Those who are sent are not greater than the one who sends them. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
“My children, my time here is brief. You will be searching for me, but you cannot go where I am going. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
John 13:1-17, 31-35
In the summer of 2014, Stacy and I found ourselves wandering around the Negev desert in Israel. We were part of a study tour being led by Scott Heare and AHUMC’s own Ryan Jacobson. The Hebraic root of the word Negev means “dry,” and if you’ve ever been to the Negev, you know that’s an accurate name. We were there in July, so not only was the desert dry, it was really, really hot—like above 110 degrees hot. One on particularly hot and dry day, Scott called the 40 of us that were part of the study off of the bus and into the desert wilderness of the Negev. As soon as we all had our backpacks on, the bus left, and we began to hike.
After an hour or so, we had hiked into what felt like the middle of nowhere.
There were no roads or civilization to be seen, no tourists in sight—just 40 sweaty Methodists longing for shade and a clue to where we were going. As we paused for a break and frantically guzzled water from our backpacks, Scott chose this moment to tell us about the differences between sheep and goats. Now, it seemed like a strange and unusual thing to do at that moment when there were no sheep or goats anywhere around (let’s be honest, even sheep and goats are too smart to be in the middle of the desert in the middle of the day in July), but we were all flirting with heat exhaustion and just happy to be still for a moment, so we squinted at Scott in the desert sun and did our best to pay attention. Scott told us that sheep listen and follow the shepherd while goats do not listen or follow but instead wander as they go. He followed this wonderful bit of agrarian wisdom with a quote from the Christian scriptures where Jesus talks about sheep and goats.
With that, he picked up his backpack, offered no further explanation, and said, “Come, follow me,” as he took off hiking through the desert.
Stunned and a little confused, our herd eventually collected itself and wandered in the direction of Scott. After fifteen minutes or so, Scott stopped hiking, gathered us all around, and then—word for word—gave the same speech about sheep following and goats wandering. He then ended the short speech with the same scriptural quote and once again said, “Come, follow me,” as he turned to hike back in the direction from where we had originally come. We were still very confused, and the thought that the heat may have gotten to Scott certainly began to enter into our minds. Nonetheless, our huddled mass began to hike once more. When we arrived back at the exact spot of the first “sheep and goats” speech, Scott stopped, assembled us once more, and gave the same exact speech. “Sheep follow! Goats wander! We get it!” Weary hikers began to ask questions and raise their hands in objection—but Scott didn’t offer any new information. He simply finished his speech and said, “Come, follow me,” just as he had before and began retracing the hike we’d just finished. Reading this story now in comfortable, air-conditioned space without heat exhaustion and dehydration, you may already realize what Scott was up to. But I’ll confess that this went on for quite a while before any of us began to suspect that there was something we were supposed to do—something we were missing.
Back and forth we hiked..same hike, same speech—sheep follow, goats wander—no other information, just hiking and heat.
Finally, it dawned on someone who was hiking right behind Scott, that he was taking the same, extremely particular path back and forth. They noticed that Scott would go to the left of a certain bush every time or point out a specific rock as he stepped over it. Scott wasn’t just wandering. He was walking a specific trail and inviting us to follow him—inviting us to be sheep who follow the shepherd rather than goats who wander. Our band of heat-stroked hikers began to work together. We formed a line. We determined that if we ever wanted to get out of the desert alive, we needed to check our goat behavior, pay close attention to each step, and do exactly what Scott was doing. As Scott went to the left of a certain bush, the person behind him would go to the left of that bush and tell the person behind them to do the same. The instructions would pass back through the line so we could all follow the same exact path as Scott. It took a couple of hours for all of us to catch and follow each of the particular pieces of the path, but eventually we did it.
We became sheep that listened to and followed their shepherd.
When we finally nailed it, Scott led us to a shady rock formation to cool off, rehydrate, and share stories about all we had just experienced. He then led us in a new direction that quickly brought us to where the bus had been waiting out of sight the whole day. We piled into the glorious air conditioning, collapsed in our seats, and all fell asleep on the ride back. Needless to say, that day of a thousand hikes in the Negev was transformational. As Stacy and I have reflected on that experience, it has occurred to us that our transformation did not take place because we learned a lesson but because we lived one. Scott and Ryan didn’t put us in a room and give us a lecture. They didn’t write a devotional for us to read. They didn’t even offer us a sermon. Their offer wasn’t information. Their offer was an invitation to follow, to emulate, to directly experience the transformation that comes through living it—all of it—sweat and dirt, confusion and awakening.
It wasn’t information. It was embodiment.
Embodiment is one of those words that sounds like what it means. It means to give something abstract a body—something concrete—something that can be experienced. When we embody an idea or a feeling, we express it in a tangible, touchable way—in a way that we can engage and experience with our bodies, our whole selves. The difference between sheep and goats, be it philosophical or metaphorical, had previously just been an idea to me. It wasn’t transformational. It was just information in my head until our experience in the Negev. There, it became tangible, experiential, embodied. It got inside me and changed me. When we look at the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in the 13th chapter of John’s Gospel...
I can’t help but wonder if it’s about embodiment.
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