Servant

March 31, 2010

It’s a very familiar feeling scene.

I would guess it’s one of the most painted Biblical scenes–Leonardo da Vinci’s painting being the most famous, of course. It was at the center of Dan Brown’s bestseller. There is a recent news story about paintings of the Last Supper over the years–that the amount of food and the size of the cups on the table has increased in paintings through the years (probably pointing toward increased portion sizes in the current age).

It’s likely the artists didn’t get it exactly right. Archeologists and scholars have discovered a little more about the culture of Jesus’ day since paint brushes began bringing this scene to canvas. But still, these paintings have made the scene in John 13 feel familiar to me.

It’s interesting that the paintings focus on the meal–the table. But the account in John 13 focuses on something else. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Jesus and his disciples at a table when you think about the narrative in John 13. I suppose there is a table of some kind, though, because the events described happen during supper. The Passover meal, to be specific.

I wonder what the disciples were thinking as Jesus took of his robe, replaced it with a towel and filled a basin with water?

I really wonder what exactly happened in the room the second Jesus knelt before the first disciple and began washing his feet. There is a lot missing in the story, I think. “He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him…” leaves some blanks for me. Was the room filled with a dumbstruck silence? Was there an immediate protest by one more of his friends? Did one of the disciples try to take over for him? Did one of them try to summon a servant? Were they embarrassed? Were they so used to Jesus by this time that they just rolled with it?

I am curious about Judas during this time. Was he nervous as he watched Jesus wash the feet of his friends and brothers? How did he feel when Jesus was actually in front of him, washing his feet? Did he feel like the traitor he was? Did he feel justified in what he had done?

We know one of them wasn’t happy to just go along with Jesus’ latest object lesson: Peter is adamant–“You will never wash my feet!” A few words from Jesus, though, and Peter is agreeable.

This passage is, of course, foreshadowing for what was to come. Jesus is now serving his disciples, setting an example for them. In a matter of hours, Jesus would go on to set the ultimate example of service by laying down not just his clothing, but his very life. It won’t just be feet that are washed, but sins washed away.

The act is moving, for sure. It’s the words that we often forget to live out:

You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” John 13:13-17

There are many churches that do foot washing on a regular basis because of these words. I, myself, have participated in a number of foot washing services through the years (and some hand washing services, too). It’s an exercise in humility and service, for sure, even if it is actually pretty different to wash feet today than it was to wash feet back in Jesus’ day.

Yet, Jesus’ message is a call beyond foot washing. He’s not just talking about the act he has just completed–he’s talking about the act that will be completed soon. If he, our Lord and teacher, has laid down his very life, we also ought to lay down our lives for others. In fact, he says something like later:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:12-13

Washing feet isn’t enough. We’re called to follow Christ’s example by laying down our very lives.

I can’t really wrap my mind around that, but I know I have a long way to go before I’m living out the true spirit of those words. There are some days when I can’t even manage to lay aside my personal preferences or lunch plans for my friends.

It’s amazing to me that Jesus, author, creator, spotless lamb came into this word in the most humble of ways, lived a hard existence of service and submission, and then laid down his very life for a bunch of people who wouldn’t understand or appreciate it. And just like I imagine the disciples reaction when the water was poured into the basin, I don’t understand, really.

I’m grateful, though, and that gratitude makes me want to understand. I want to serve, I want to put others before myself, I want to live a life of laying myself down…and not feel self-righteous or martyr-like when I do it.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:3-11

Pray for me. I’ll pray for you, too.