Towel & Yoke

Session Date: 
Sunday, April 14, 2019
Bible Text: 
John 13:1-17, 34-35


Palm Sunday 2019


A key thing to note about John’s gospel is that he often shows more of the contents of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples than the other three gospels.


A second key in John is that Jesus is always in control and always headed to the cross and the empty tomb. The garden prayer about removing the cup is not for John’s Jesus. Palm Sunday’s triumphal entry and the turmoil of the Holy Week Passion is because Jesus’ hour has come. He had come along way, and all along the way, he was obedient to his God’s will.


His obedience, and his control, was an act of love for all humankind. He had a special love for those who had chosen to follow him and had stayed with him through all the turbulence that accompanied his journey.


A story is told about a moment in the American Revolution when a man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers repairing a small defensive barrier. Their leader was shouting commands, but making no attempt to help them. Asked why by the rider, he retorted with great dignity, “Sir, I’m a corporal!”


The stranger apologized, dismounted, and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers. The job done, he turned to the corporal and said, “Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you again.” Then George Washington got back on his horse and rode off.


In the story of the foot-washing, Jesus sets the example for all of us to follow as we process through Holy Week and through life. It is remarkable to watch the scene, Judas has already betrayed Jesus, yet there he sits, dining with everyone. As the meal is shared, Jesus takes the place of a servant washing their feet even in the midst of betrayal. He washed Judas’ feet!


Foot washing was not a strange action. In fact it was a needed service for those who traveled the dusty, dirty roads that Jesus and the disciples were on each day. Socks did not exist! It was an act of honor on behalf of a host to wash a guest’s feet, and it was a sign of dishonor not to do so. It was not uncommon for wives to wash their husband’s feet and for children to do the same for their parents.


In that context, Peter’s reaction is only natural. His vision of Jesus is to be above the common everyday things that people live with. He is not happy with the idea of Jesus becoming the servant of anyone, especially the disciples. It was unthinkable! And as usual, Peter speaks what he feels, without a lot of thought.


Jesus tells him to his face that he has to wash Peter’s feet. Still missing the point, Peter then is all in, sort of: “Lord, not my feet only, but also wash my hands and my head!” Jesus points out that a person already clean doesn’t need his whole body washed again, only the feet still need attention. Then he points out, referring to Judas, that not all present are clean.


On this Palm Sunday, consider this question, what would you do if you knew you would die a violent death in a matter of days? Would you want to be alone in prayer? Would you want to spend time with your loved ones? What would you emphasize? Would you share your prize recipes and gardening tips or would you focus on what’s most important in your life?


Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, because he knew. Over and over John has shown Jesus talking about “his hour.” Now it has come. And with that knowledge, he took off his cloak, put a towel around his waist and washed the dirty feet of the disciples. Who else would put that on their terminal bucket list? As one of his last ministry acts, Jesus shows the disciples the importance of humbly serving one another.


Paul summarized it in Philippians: 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.
(Phil. 2:3-8)

During a trip to Phoenix to open a home for the poor, Mother Teresa was interviewed by a radio station. In an off-air moment, the interviewer asked Mother Teresa if there was anything he could do for her. He was expecting her to request a contribution or more media attention to help raise money for the new home. So he was taken aback when she replied, “Yes, there is. Find somebody nobody else loves, and love them.”

Jesus showed us that serving others, demonstrating our love in tangible ways, is paramount. For him it is a priority and we must see it that way as well.

John is telling us that not just in spite of but because he understood who he was, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. It takes an understanding of our identity to be able humble ourselves. The world tells us that we need to make ourselves look good in front of others, that we need to lift ourselves up and demonstrate how important we are. I am not saying the Bible has an answer for everything because technically speaking it does not. What it does tell us, however, on a human level is: All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (MT. 23:12)

It’s like the corporal who couldn’t humble himself and was humbled by the commander-in-chief. If we don’t understand who we are in Jesus, we will be unwilling to humble ourselves until the Lord himself humbles us.

Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, was known for his humble service within the multibillion dollar empire he founded. When asked what made him so successful, he replied, “my MBA.” He didn’t mean a graduate degree in business, he meant “a mop-and-bucket attitude.” No task was too insignificant for him to tackle; he simply jumped in and got the job done.

If anyone could have taken a pass on humbling himself to wash the grubby feet of a bunch of fisherman, it was Jesus. Because he knew he was Lord of the universe and because he was not worried about his self-image he was able to show his love in humble service. He took up the towel and basin and stooped to serve.

This Holy Week, it is important that we try to discover our need to be in Jesus’ presence and the additional need of being served by Jesus himself. It is a hard idea to come to grips with. Listen again to the exchange with Peter:

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, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 


When Jesus makes it clear that being served by Jesus is one of the conditions for having a relationship with him, Peter has a change of heart. The symbolism here is not just that Peter must let him wash his feet, but also to the more thorough washing that Jesus will perform the next day when his blood is shed for Peter’s sin and for ours.


350 years ago, Anglican Bishop Jeremy Taylor wrote: And he chose to wash their feet rather than their head, that he might have the opportunity of a more humble posture, and a more apt signification of his charity. Thus God lays everything aside, that he may serve his servants: heaven stoops to earth, and one abyss calls upon another, and the miseries of humanity, which were next to infinite, are excelled by a mercy equal to the immensity of God.


“Heaven stoops to earth” What a thought. What a blessing. But can we identify with Peter. The truth is that our pride often gets in the way of our living the life Jesus wants us to live. We all want others to think well of us and there is nothing wrong with that, unless it gets in the way of our discipleship.


Our own efforts will only take us so far. The message to Peter, and to us, is that unless we let Jesus wash us, we have no relationship with him. Unless we recognize the mistake of our pride- the mistake that says “I’m good enough on my own,” then there is no room for Jesus in our lives. We’ll never be able to say, as Peter, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head.” That is recognizing that the towel of Jesus also comes with a yoke, a symbol that we are servants in the service of Jesus.


Jesus shows us by word and deed that you cannot call yourself a Christian if you are unwilling to serve in humility. That doesn’t mean we don’t have individual gifts and places of service, sometimes very public ones, roles of leadership, but each of us should be willing to humble ourselves, to demonstrate our love for those we serve.


In the final analysis, foot washing isn’t about foot washing, it’s about serving others through personal sacrifice, humbling ourselves when we don’t have to because we don’t have to. It’s somebody watching the children of a neighbor who has good reasons for needing to get out of the house. It’s showing up at anther’s door with hot soup on a cold night knowing that the folks in need have lost power. It’s about clearing someone’s driveway of snow, or their yard of leaves, because you know they are not healthy enough to do it themselves. It’s listening to a neighbor who needs to talk when you don’t have time to listen. Or it’s about listening to someone who thinks different, acts different, believes different than you, and listening to what ails them. It is giving ourselves when we don’t have to.


It is walking and talking with Jesus on the road of life. It is about sharing a meal as darkness approaches. It is about washing our lives in the promise of the Savior and being diligent in waiting with him as the world becomes a dark place.


Finally, this Holy Week, and every day after, it is about standing at the foot of a cross and in faithfulness standing by an empty tomb as the darkness is lifted and life becomes hopeful once again.