Religion is focused on what I’ve done, what I do, and what I have the capacity to do in the future. When that’s the case, every action I make is judged on the basis of what it does for me. Even my works of mercy and compassion will be attempts to balance my ledger sheet. The motivation stems from my desire to be a better person or my hope to remain in God’s favor.
Jesus shows us a different approach. We are not the focus; in order to love and serve others selflessly, we need to look beyond our own lives. What he does, that Confucius or Ghandi cannot, goes beyond teaching what we should do and how we should live and actually gives us the power to live differently.
Religion says, “Look inside yourself, and you will find the strength to live a life of service to others.”
Jesus says, “Look to me. I will show you the path to serving others, and I will give you the strength to live selflessly.”
The Gospel of John calls us to follow Jesus. Following him is not a path to human greatness or man’s acclaim. Following Jesus means we will put down the respect and riches of this world and pick up a wet, dirt-stained towel and use it to clean someone’s muddy feet. The way to follow Jesus is to serve others humbly.
These verses (John 13:1-17) are reported in shockingly simple language. It’s almost like reading a newspaper report about last week’s weather. But this isn’t an average peasant from the streets of Jerusalem who’s washing the dirty, smelly feet of these uneducated and illiterate fishermen. This is the Lord of all Creation; he simply speaks and universes are created from nothing. One word from his mouth and Saturn with all of its rings bursts forth. What is he doing scrubbing these guys’ toes?
NO ONE IS ABOVE SERVING
This act of service demonstrates his love for these men, but it goes beyond that. In this example Jesus teaches us no one is above serving. Jesus doesn’t deny his character by serving these men. His character makes this act of service even more profound. What follower of Jesus has the right ever to refuse serving? If our Master will humbly serve others, we are not exempt (v. 16). We have no standing to say, “I’m too good to do that.” We need to beware the excuses we make for not serving others. We need to trace them back to their source. Is this excuse I’m making a legitimate reason, or is it a conscience-soothing way of saying, “I’m too good to serve them” or “I’m too important to serve in that way”? The service Jesus desires springs from humility. Nothing kills selfless service like pride.
NO ONE IS BELOW BEING SERVED
We also learn another vital lesson: No one is below being served. In this chapter we’re reminded repeatedly about the upcoming betrayal by Judas. How many pairs of feet did Jesus wash? Twelve. Jesus even washed the feet of Judas, knowing full well what he was going to do (v.2). Judas is in league with Satan at this point, but Jesus still stoops before him as a humble servant and slowly washes the caked dirt and grime off his feet. Would you have washed Judas’s feet? I’ve decided I would have cleaned his feet with some paint thinner and a match. Not Jesus. He carefully washes the feet of a traitor, just as he washed the feet of Peter and James and John. Is anyone going to do worse things to you than Judas did to Jesus? No.
Jesus does not call us to a life of leisure but of labor. He doesn’t call us to follow him down paths sprinkled with gumdrops and lined with lollipops but down dirt-covered, sweat-stained paths—paths that stink, paths that are not simple or clean or neat. The cost of discipleship is high, but it’s worth it. God’s blessing comes to the genuine disciple—the one who follows Jesus into a life of humble service. Of all the marks of discipleship Jesus could have highlighted, he highlighted a willingness to pick up a towel and get our hands dirty. Few things we do make the gospel more beautiful and compelling than when someone sees Christians with dirty towels and clean feet. Dirty towels and clean feet make the gospel clear—everyday people doing everyday things to serve others. That’s what humble service looks like. That’s what following Jesus looks like.