It was Passover, a holy time that included a holy supper. The Apostles would share this moment with Jesus in an upper room in Jerusalem, a city on edge in reaction to the arrival of this Teacher, this Healer, this Multiplier of Loaves and Fishes.
The moment seemed ripe for Jesus to reveal Himself in power and majesty to hundreds. Perhaps, this was an unspoken desire welling up in the hearts of those following after Him. Singing and chants greeted Him; His path to town covered with palm branches and garments.
Rather than pander to the crowds and bask in His popularity, Jesus brought His band of men together, alone and away from the buzz. The pivotal moments of history were just hours ahead. Gethsemane, the Cross, the Tomb — things the Savior had set His face toward since before the foundation of the world were coming.
A Stunning Display
Around the room sat the 12, all of them, including Judas, who would betray Jesus before the dawn of the next day. They all had eaten the traditional meal celebrating Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and Pharaoh. Jesus had turned the supper into an object lesson about His Body and His Blood. They were surprised at His words and pondered what it all meant.
Then, Jesus shocked them all.
He laid aside His garments and tied a towel around His waist, poured water into a basin and began washing their feet. Singer/songwriter Michael Card calls it a “parable about to come alive.”
Jesus, the Son of David, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, was serving His men from the bottom up. This was a powerful point He sought to impress upon the Apostles. Not long before this scene, these men had been engaged in a strong and forceful discussion. The topic? Who was the better and the best among them.
Jesus settled that argument, which they tried to hide from Him, by setting a child in their midst. The greatest, He told them, is the one who believes as a little child, a person who trusts and rests in the will of his father. Now, in taking the towel, Jesus revealed how the great acted in faith and love.
The whole encounter stunned the disciples and confounded them. Their Master, their Lord, wiped the muck and the mire from their toes. Aghast, Peter stood to stop Jesus. “Never, Lord, never shall You wash my feet!” But Jesus insisted, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” The impulsive Peter had been rebuked, again. “Get thee behind me, Satan” it wasn’t, but this was a rebuke nonetheless.
Go to the Low Point
Through the next chapters of the gospel of John, Jesus provided deep instruction and clear promises. First, however, He showed them the Way. Serve, He told them and reveal the fruit of love. Give yourselves to the lowest task. Wash feet, even the feet of your enemies.
At the table, Jesus took the bread and pointed to His Body, the bread of life that would be broken to feed all who choose to eat of it. He took the cup and considered His Blood, the precious flow that makes whiter than snow those who receive it and drink it in.
After the table, Jesus revealed the essence of His heart. The Servant of all, He stripped down and bent low to make us clean.
Again, this was not an act performed on a stage in a stadium and broadcast to millions. Only the few were there — and one of them stepped from the light and love in the room and went out into darkness.
Just this small group saw, felt, and heard Jesus that evening. And, oh what these men heard. Surely, they were told some of the most significant words ever spoken:
“Let not your hearts be troubled.”
“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
“Ask anything in My Name and I will do it.”
“The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send, shall teach you all things.”
“The Spirit will guide you into all truth.”
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
“Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
The third day would come, however. Jesus, risen, would be among them to speak and to eat for some days. He would leave though, flying away to His seat on high.
But Day 50 — Pentecost — would come, too. The Spirit sent, God would breathe, and the life of the Church would be born and inaugurated with mighty wind and fire and new ways of speaking.
By this, servants of the Savior, then and now, are equipped to go forth, to live, to love, to serve, to take the towel for each other and for all.
For more on serving with love, check out “Take the Towel,” a message preached by Thomas Schaller, pastor of Greater Grace Church of Baltimore.