THE MINISTRY OF THE TOWEL
It is time once again to get back into our study of the Gospel of John. We have so much more work to do. I am certainly spending more time with John than the other gospels due to the fact that there is information found in John that is not found in the synoptic gospels. (Matthew, Mark, Luke) For the past two days we looked at the death and resurrection of Lazarus. If you remember from yesterday it was the raising of Lazarus from the dead that led to the Jews wanting to kill Jesus. And, we are told, they wanted to kill Lazarus. Afterwards, John tells us (like the synoptic gospels do) that Jesus rode into Jerusalem.
"It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father." (John 13:1a) John gives us a timeline in this passage that is unique as we shall see. Notice that here, Jesus is leaving this world and going back to the Father. If you recall from chapter one we are told that Jesus tabernacled with us. In other words, he pitched a tent among us. Now, it is time for him to "take up his tent."
"The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus...so he (Jesus) 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 his disciples feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him." (John 13:2,4-5)
John does not give detail about the last supper as the synoptic writers do. In the synoptic gospels the meal is a Passover meal. Here it is not. There is a reason for this, as the timeline in John's gospel differs from the rest. Here, in John, Jesus get up from dinner and begins to wash the disciple's feet. This story is not found in the other three gospels. Jesus is about to wash Peter's feet when Peter protests the whole thing: "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?' 'You shall never wash my feet.'" (John 13:6b,8b) Now, on the surface this sounds like Peter is being disobedient, or whatever negative word we want to use. Peter often gets a bad wrap, and sometimes deservingly so. But, when we understand more about the scenario we will understand why Peter said what he said. Unfortunately, when we see the beautiful painting of the last supper we see Jesus and the disciples sitting at a rectangle table. And, Jesus has long, flowing hair that is a shade of blond. They were not sitting, nor was the table rectangle. I wont spoil anything about the appearance of Jesus. If you recall, when Jesus was at the home of Martha and Mary, where was Lazarus? He "was among those reclining at the table." (John 12:2b) Yes, it has been discovered that they reclined while eating. But, there is more. The table was, in the best way for me to describe it, somewhat horseshoe shaped. This is just to give you a mental image. It has been discovered that at the table there were seats designated for certain individuals and their role at the meal. One such scholar has observed that seated on one end of the table was most likely John who was seated in the position of the head servant. Next to the head servant would be the host of the meal. Who was seated there? Yes, Jesus. That's why it has often been said that John's head was in the bosom of Jesus. Therefore, he was the disciple whom Jesus loved, or the beloved disciple. This is what that tradition is based upon. (This is subject to further debate) Well, interestingly enough, next to the host would be the guest of honor. Can you guess who that most likely was? Yes, according to this scholar it was none other than Judas. Well, the disciples were positioned around the table. Guess who was seated at the far end, opposite of John? It was Peter. Can you guess what seat he was in? The seat reserved for the least servant. In other words, the servant who washed the feet of the guests. Peter is simply saying to Jesus; "Hey, this is my role."
"When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. 'Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another's feet. I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you.'" (John 13:12,14)
Did Jesus just institute foot washing as a sacrament? Some churches do practice foot washing, including some United Methodist churches. On the surface it sounds like Jesus is saying that we should have foot washing services just as we have communion. I, however, disagree. I don't think that this is necessarily what Jesus is saying. I believe that Jesus is instituting the spirit of service more than he is a foot washing service. He is saying that one must be willing to do unto other just as he did to them. I have been to a foot washing service. Yes, it is humbling. Anytime someone washes your feet it is humbling, no matter if its in church, a hospital room, or wherever. But, I observed that before people arrived at the foot washing service what had they done before hand? Washed their own feet really good. They put on clean socks. They may have even sprayed something on them, who knows? In Jesus' day they wore sandals. Their feet got dirty. They had people whose roles were to wash the feet of guests. (The least servant) Could it be that Jesus is saying to us; be willing to humble yourself in whatever manner in the service of others? Be willing to serve one another? The answer is "Yes." There are many symbols of Christianity. We think of the cross, a fish, etc. But, do we ever consider the towel as a symbol of Christian service? Then there is more:
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:34-35) Yes, I believe that this is connected to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. Yet, there is so much here that grabs my attention. Notice, Jesus tells them to love one another. This command is different than the one found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. It was in that sermon that Jesus commanded the love of enemies. Not in John. I think this brings us to another theme in John. In John, chapter 15, verse 18-19, Jesus says: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would have loved its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world." In John, the believers are separated from the world. (non-believers, or those who have not been born from above) The believers are portrayed as being a community. I tend to believe that the gospel of John was written to a community. Anyone outside that community was a part of the world.
Well, tomorrow we will look at the fourteenth chapter of John. I'm not sure we can get through the whole chapter r not because there is so much to discuss. But, I invite you to join me. -Pastor Rick