When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. 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. Very truly I tell you, 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…. Very truly I tell you, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.’
The pace changes in John 13 as we are given an insight into Jesus’ most intimate moments with His disciples. Leading up to this point, ever since the journey to Jerusalem for the Festival of Tabernacles, John’s account has told of increasingly intense confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders. Tension has been building in the narrative as people debate the significance of this man and His words. The pace of the story has increased as Jesus moves relentlessly towards the cross. Yet here we have a breathing space as we join Jesus in the upper room with the twelve. John 14-16 contains some of the most profound recorded teaching of Jesus. His relationship with His Father, His approaching departure and the role of the coming Spirit are major themes. Before He teaches them with words, however, Jesus will teach them through example. He does something truly profound and shocking. Jesus, the Master, washes the feet of His followers.
Peter (who else?) protested when Jesus stooped to clean the accumulated muck of Jerusalem’s feet from his feet, but Jesus insisted that it had to be. Peter’s problem was deeper than the mired skin of his soles – He had a muddy heart, contaminated by sin and this too needed washed. Until he could admit his need and allow himself to be served, he could never be clean and truly belong to Jesus. As this realisation dawns on him the big fisherman, never one for half measures, asks Jesus to wash his hands and feet. Before Peter can add any more body parts to his list, Jesus explains that Peter is already clean (the reason why becomes clear in Chapter 17, as we will see in the next post). So are the other disciples with one exception – an allusion to Judas who will soon leave to betray his Master. Indeed the account will soon shift to Jesus’ predictions of Judas’s betrayal and of Peter’s denial. Before that, however, Jesus takes the opportunity to explain the significance of what He has done with a basin of water and a towel. He has set an example to be followed.
The path of servanthood is not a natural way for the sinful human heart. Even within the Church, among the people Christ has redeemed, it is too common for people to seek self-promotion and status. The disciples, struggling to comprehend that Jesus really is God’s Messiah, are depicted several times in the Gospels bickering over who deserved the highest position in Jesus’ kingdom. Their story is all too true and we must recognise ourselves among their number. Yet this is not the path of Christ. The One sent by the Father has taken the form of a servant. He is the Master, yet He has taken this downward step. Do they really think they are greater than He is? Will they refuse to do what they have just seen Him do? No servant is greater than the master! The path of service in Jesus name will be one of repeated self-denial. The call to Christian mission is one of following in the example of the Servant King.
In practice, this means that the Christian missionary does not come to a context with arrogance, expecting to be acknowledged and given status. There are situations, even today, where missionaries and pastors are given special respect. Tele-evangelists in the USA and self-styled apostles in African-origin churches in the UK get rich and receive a level of adoration from their followers that verges on idolatry. The white missionary in some parts of Africa will still be regarded as deserving special honour. In these situations, and in every other, the Christian servant will remember that the root meaning of the word ‘ministry’ is ‘service’. She will not regard her ‘ministry’ as something to be possessed and praised, but simply as obedient service to the Master. She will remember that the heart of Christian service is to bow the knee and meet the needs of those who are most needy.
Christian mission proceeds by listening to its context and by proclaiming Christ in tandem with acts of compassion. The Church is a servant. She is called to lay down her life and give herself away for the sake of those who are without Christ. She lives to become less so that Jesus may become more. Yet as she does this, she hears the words of Jesus: “whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.” It is through receiving His messengers and the message they bring that people come to receive Christ. Just as knowing Him meant knowing His Father, so knowing His people means knowing Him. Christ is made known through relationships with those who know Him, in whom He lives. We have authority as we go in His name, as His representatives. This begins with the eleven men whose feet dripped as He spoke these words. To them Jesus gave a special apostolic authority – to teach and to extend the forgiveness of sins that comes through Christ to new groups of people (John 20:23). We are not apostles of Christ, but we rest on their foundation and we carry on the mission they began as we take the good news of Jesus to a world that needs to know Him. As we go, we go in His name as His representatives and we serve others in His love.
The lesson for mission from John 13 is:
Christian mission is servanthood after Christ’s example – we are called to be servants of Christ, servants of the gospel and servants of those to whom we are sent, motivated by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.