"Jesus ... laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself; ... and began to wash the disciples' feet." (John 13:3-5)
J. McGraw: We hear much these days about following Christ. From the pulpit come frequent challenges, from the hymnal many reminders, and from the New Testament numerous examples. Each of them presents the ideal of thinking and feeling, living and loving, like the Lord Jesus.
It thrills us when we think of following Him as He speaks to friendly multitudes who seem eager to hear Him preach. It appeals to our desire for aggression when we think how we may follow Him as He drives money-changers from the Temple. It would gladden our hearts to stand among the cheering throng who welcome Him into the Holy City, where they hope to crown Him as their King.
But more than all of this, and in keeping with our desire to share the suffering and reproach He endured on the way to the Cross, we need to follow our Lord's example as He takes a towel and girds Himself, that he may wash the disciples' feet. Behold Christ as the Man with the towel! In the average church today the furnishings most needed may be towels and basins for the washing of others' feet. Oh, not literally, as some have supposed, but in a deeper and far more meaningful way, the way of the Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. To be a Christian means to be like the Christ of the towel.
A good, long look at the Master as John portrays Him here should help us to see wherein we need to follow in His footsteps today. From His example let us see first of all-
1. The Dignity of Service
Christ with His towel shows the dignity of service. Washing one another's feet! What could bring out more dramatically the spirit of Christian service? It does not ask, "What can I get out of this or that?" Rather it pleads, "Here, let me help."
Jesus saw dusty feet. The Christlike follower of the Nazarene is quick to see the needs of his brothers, one by one, and to sense their inner feelings. Like those disciples in the Upper Room, however, we may become so busy with thinking about our own little burdens that we may feel no concern about the needs of others. Our minds may be so filled with our own selfish thoughts that we do not notice the weariness and hurt of the man with whom we have been rubbing shoulders for months or years.
So our own grimy feet feel tired! Does this mean that we should devote our strength and energy to pitying, even pampering ourselves, while we close our eyes to the needs of others? Do we forget that there may be someone next door, or across the street, who bears a load heavier than we have ever known? No, not if we follow the Christ of the towel. He never became so preoccupied with His own weariness that He failed to see the tired, dusty feet of His friends. Such service as the Master rendered in the Upper Room calls for willingness to look around us and see what our neighbors need, whether they live across the street, or beyond the seven seas.
However menial and lowly the task appeared, Jesus found no hesitancy in undertaking any work that needed to be done. He did not shrink or recoil from any task that might have seemed humiliating. Washing another person's feet may call for bending the knee, lowering one's position, and if you please, deflating the ego. Even so, all of this shows a spirit like that of Christ with His towel. The Christlike follower is eager to perform any task that is lowly, more than when it carries prestige. Whatever the human need, he willingly accepts any humiliation that accompanies service in meeting that need.
When Jesus dignified the giving of service by washing the disciples' feet, He demonstrated how such usefulness demands the giving of oneself. With His hands, His time, His energy, and His skill, He gave Himself to the performance of this menial task. You see, it is not Christlike to toss another person a quarter, with a friendly word, "Go and get yourself a shoeshine." That may be a courteous gesture, but often a gesture is not enough. Jesus gave Himself. He did not merely "help" a good cause. He did the kind act, and He did it directly for the persons in need.
A certain father known to me learned this truth too late. To his son the father had given all the things he thought the son wanted. These gifts included sums of money, a first-class education, good clothes, and a sports car. But that father never had given his boy what the lad wished most of all, a father. With his other gifts the father had not given himself. That son's life ended in tragedy. Too late the father learned how he had failed in rearing his only son.
Would that many Christians might learn this lesson about their relationship to Christ, as well as their loved ones! They readily make "the same subscription to the budget as last year." Perhaps they increase the amount to help finance the new organ. They may feel that they are doing nobly to support God's work so generously, if not sacrificially. But have they learned from the Christ of the towel what it means to give themselves for Him in service?
Behold the only begotten Son of God with a towel! He took that towel and used it because He had come from God to act as the Servant of men. According to our text, the Incarnate Son of God, "knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God," took the towel to perform a menial task. Thus He has revealed God as truly as when He later died on the Cross. By His dramatic deed in washing grimy feet He has forever removed any stigma that men associate with service. His example helps us understand that to see the needs of others, and then to give ourselves in service, means to be like Him, and like God His Father.
2. The Greatness of Humility
Contrast the Man with the towel in His hand, stooping to serve, with the disciples, who have been quarreling about which of them would become greatest in His Kingdom. Remember that He had come from God, and that He would soon return to the Father in glory. On the night before the Lord Jesus was to die, how it must have grieved His heart to hear the disciples disputing about their prospective rank in the service of the One who recognizes no rank, encourages no promotion, permits no jockeying for position, and sees no equality of spirit greater than the desire to meet the needs of others by engaging in lowly service.
And yet those dearest earthly friends of our Lord refused to render each other a needed service. To what extent are we like them today? In many a local church there is seeking for honor, thirst for praise, lust for power, contentious demanding to have one's own way, and worst of all, adolescent pouting when one fails to get it. What a shame and a tragedy among those who profess to love and to follow the Christ of the towel!
How would we have arranged for such a washing of feet, or any corresponding deed of usefulness? How would a representative committee approach the problem? "No one must ask Peter, James, and John to do this menial task, because seniority exempts them. Judas cannot serve, because he already has a much more important post as the treasurer of the apostolic band." And so on with Matthew, Andrew, and the others. "Why not hire a Gentile to come in and render this service for us? It is beneath our dignity, and we have in the treasury money enough to pay someone else." [This is exactly what occurred in the Temple! They hired Canaanites to do the dirty work (Zech. 14:21).]
Careful, men! We are forgetting one of the most important lessons that Christ has taught us. We are behaving like the Pharisees, who were not content to pray in private lest someone fail to see how "holy" they were. They gave alms and other contributions with so much fanfare that no one could overlook their so-called generosity. The Master told them that they had done good to be seen of men (Matt. 23:5), and that they had already received the reward they sought. Then He told the disciples, as He now tells us, "Whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all" (Mark 10:44).
The importance of rank? Position? Honor? In the Kingdom of the One who teaches that true greatness consists in the desire to serve the needs of others, such aspirations have no place. In the eyes of our Lord the least of all persons is worthy of His love, His time, and His help. In the Upper Room He taught this truth more dramatically by action than anyone else could have done with a thousand words.
After Saul of Tarsus became a Christian he must have learned this lesson well, for he wrote to the Romans that the Christian way means "in honor preferring one another" (Romans 12:10), and to the Philippians, "In lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves" (Philip. 2:3b).
To follow the example of Christ with the towel in His hand means to rejoice in the success of others. It calls for freedom from the unholy passion for praise from men, and leads to a holy aim to be worthy of praise in the sight of God. To attain such Christlikeness today, we need the infilling and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. So did those early disciples. Before the Day of Pentecost they thought in terms of rank, position, and protocol. But after the Holy Spirit descended upon them with power, they witnessed to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and "great grace was upon them all" (Acts 4:33b). And so when our hearts are ready for God to dwell in us, and when the Spirit comes to empower us for Christlike living, "great grace" may be upon us. Then there will be in our hearts no place for the petty pride that makes the people of the world want to seem bigger and stand taller than their neighbors.
From the example of Christ with His towel we learn the dignity of service and the true greatness of humility. Let us also observe
3. The Beauty of Love in Action
In the midst of human need, love never stands idle. Immediately it goes into action. When the Lord Jesus saw those grimy feet of young men who had walked with Him through busy city streets and over rough old country trails, He wished to help them feel refreshed and comfortable. Throughout three years of public ministry He had loved them with a love like that of heaven. And now in face of what must have seemed like secondary need, once again He translated divine love into human action. Christlike love always works this way. Not only does it lead us to see the needs of those nearby. Love also impels us to meet those needs at once, and gladly.
Do you wish to see the meaning of Christlike love in action?
Listen while the Master describes the Samaritan who kneels in the dusty ditch to wipe the blood and dirt from the face of a Jew who has been beaten, robbed, and left to die. One by one, others have seen the poor fellow, and then "passed by on the other side" (Luke 10:31). They may have pitied him, shuddered a little, and even wiped from their cheeks a tear or two. But they did not have the sort of love that leads at once to action. The Samaritan had such love, and he did everything in his power to show that love by deeds. He gladly gave up time, energy, money, and credit. He may even have risked his life, and all for the sake of an unconscious stranger who belonged to a "hated race."
James, the brother of our Lord, has caught the spirit of love in action. In his epistle he shows how ridiculous and hypocritical it seems "If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, 'Depart in peace; be ye warmed and fed'" (James 2:15,16). Christlike love, says the Apostle, cannot be so empty and hollow as to mouth meaningless words, while never stretching out a hand to meet the need of a person in distress. Love goes into action immediately. You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving. This axiom of the Christian life applies not only to the giving of money, but also to the giving of understanding, affection, and sympathy. It likewise results in practical service.
Alas, for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun.
The Christ with a towel in His hand! Take a long and loving look at Him as He serves others, as He humbles Himself, and as He shows the meaning of love in action. Not only look at Him. Dare to follow Him, in "loving deeds of service free." Follow this Christ of Galilee as John Wesley began to follow Him, immediately after his heart had been "strangely warmed" at the meeting in Aldersgate street. To the day of his death at the age of eighty-eight, Wesley's fruitful ministry brought him endless opportunities to be served, to be praised, and to become wealthy. But he insisted on remaining humble, immune to flattery, and free from greed. After the probate of his will the executor reported that all the possessions Wesley left behind were "a silver spoon, a frock, and the Methodist Church."
The same principle holds true of men who never have become famous. For example, take one of the missionary heroes among Nazarenes. In Germany, at an old "Peniel" [revival], Harmon Schmelzenbach once caught a vision of "the smoke of a thousand villages" where native people in South Africa never had heard the name of Jesus Christ. Because of tears that burned his cheeks whenever he thought of those dark folk who never had heard the preaching of the Cross, he could not keep on at home with his books. So he burned out his life while proclaiming the drama of redemption in Swaziland. For twenty-nine years as a missionary pioneer, with never a furlough to go home for rest, who can wonder that he led to Christ five thousand Swazis?
Our world today needs many more men and women to follow the example of Christ with the towel in His hand. Eager for every opportunity to serve, faithful in performing every task that comes to hand, however lowly the work may be, remember that in the service of Christ there can be no premium on prestige, no yearning for applause, no seeking after preferment.
May your love for Christ, and your Christlike love for others, find expression in deeds as well as words. In the name of our God, while you speak much about the Lord Jesus, by His grace become more and more like Him, the Christ with His towel.
Sermon preached by Prof. James McGraw, Nazarene Seminary, Kansas City, Mo., ca. 1955
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