Thursday, November 27, 2008

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Taking up the Towel

"Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father.  Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. . . . 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 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 the disciples feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him" (John 13:1, 3-5).

Foot-washing was something common in Jesus' day.  People wore sandals after all, and walked on dusty dirty roads traveled upon by people and animals, and sat cross-legged at the table when they ate.  It was nice to have clean feet when you sat at the table to eat.  As common courtesy, the head of a household would have servants to wash the feet of his guests as they arrived at his house for a meal.  What was not common, in fact, was possibly even in bad taste, would be for the master of the house to embrace this menial task.  This was the job for a servant.

When the disciples arrived at the place that had been prepared for Jesus and them to eat the passover meal, we don't know if there was a household servant who washed their feet or not.  If they had already had their feet washed, Jesus' action here would be even more intentional simply because it would have been seen as unnecessary or redundant.  If they had not had their feet washed when they came in, the fact that the One who is Teacher and Lord takes up the towel makes a bold statement.  And, the fact that the other gospels mention a discussion at this last supper as to who was the greatest, combined to give Jesus a powerful lead-in to this very tactile demonstration of servant-hood.

Add to this, the fact that Jesus did this in the middle of the meal being served (which would seem to suggest that there were servants around).  It was not like they were sitting around waiting for the meal to start and Jesus plugged in something to fill the time.  It was not like the meal was over and Jesus suggested foot-washing like something they could do now with the rest of their evening.  The meal was being served, and not just any meal, this was the Passover meal with all kinds of specific directions for how it all goes and moves from one element to another.  Certain dishes at certain times, prayers, cups of wine, words to say.  All was interrupted by the Teacher and Lord getting up from the table at an inopportune time and doing the unthinkable.  Taking the towel.  He knew who he was and he knew his power and his position with respect to God and the world, and yet he "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant . . . he humbled himself" (Philippians 2:7-8).  This was no different from what had been his attitude from beginning to end.

Peter protested that it should not be this way.  Jesus convinced him that it was important and Peter gave in.  And he proceeded to wash all of the disciples feet and dry them with the towel.  Jesus also must have washed Judas' feet as a symbol of servant-hood and submission even though Judas had already said yes to betraying him.  I wonder what that was like?  I wonder what was in Jesus' eyes as he looked at Judas and washed his feet?  This act, remember, was a part of "show[ing] them the full extent of his love" (John 13:1).

That this was not just about having clean feet was obvious from Jesus question to the disciples after he had finished washing their feet, put his clothes back on, and returned to his place at the table.  He asked them, "Do you understand what I have done for you?" and then went on to explain:

"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.  I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them" (John 13:13-17). 

Am I advocating a return to the practice of actual foot-washing in the church?  Might not be a bad idea.  Have you ever even tried it for real?  That can be included in what Jesus is teaching us, but the obvious big idea is servant-hood.  It is to loose our own sense of importance or position or right and to embrace serving others.  Jesus did it.  And he was God!  He laid down his right and came to serve.  On another occasion, another time when the disciples were jockeying for position, he said,

"Whoever wants to become greatest among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:43-45). 

Jesus set the example.  We are to do as he has done.  We are to share his same attitude (see Philippians 2:5-8).  He did it and we are not greater than him.  Now you know it.  We will be blessed if we do it.  I have not come to be served.  I have come to serve.  I will do whatever I can wherever I can as the Lord leads and directs.  Here am I.  Send me.  I will take up the towel that You, Lord, have passed on to me!

Click here to read Doug McGlashan's, "The Towel" It is an excellent conclusion to this challenge!

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