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Course: Leading Healthy Church Culture
Lecture 7: Leading with a Towel – John 13:1-17
A. The Passover
After having the good news of remembering our leaders, we talked about the belly of the beast. Let’s look at how it could be. This session is titled ‘Leading with a Towel’; John chapter 13 verses 1 1- 17 is fairly familiar. The background on this passage includes the time of Passover; it was right at the end of Jesus’ life. This most sacred of Jewish feasts would have been observed by upward to three million people and these people had descended upon Jerusalem for that celebration week. Word spread that Jesus of Nazareth was going to show up. He was on his way to the feast. It was no wonder that thousands lined the road as Jesus made his way into Jerusalem. As he passed by, they chanted hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. It is important to remember what the crowd was affirming that day by their words and actions. Places palm branches on the road was reminiscent of the time forty years before that day when this very same welcome was given to the son of Maccabee on the eve of his conquest of the Syrian forces. On this day, the crowds were saying in effect do it again Lord, do it again Jesus as you did in Simon’s day. God save the king. God, give him strength that he may purge unrighteous rulers and destroy wicked nations with the Word of his mouth. He is the king that has come to shatter and smash and to make right what is so wrong; hosanna, come Lord. But we know from hindsight that Jesus wasn’t the kind of king they wanted and expected. They expected a conquering king and he disappointed those Passover celebrates, those pilgrims that week. He disappointed his own disciples in fact. But in so doing his fulfilled their most profound need and our need as well. Jesus knew the time had come to leave this world and go back to the Father.
‘Now before the Passover Festival, Jesus realized that his hour had come to leave this world and return to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. By supper time, the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray him. Because Jesus knew that the Father had given everything into his control, that he had come from God, and that he was returning to God, therefore he got up from the table, removed his outer robe, and took a towel and fastened it around his waist. Then he poured some water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel that was tied around his waist. Then he came to Simon Peter, who asked him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later on you will understand.” Peter told him, “You must never wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you cannot be involved with me.” Simon Peter told him, “Lord, not just my feet, but my hands and my head as well!. Jesus told him, “Whoever has bathed is entirely clean. He doesn’t need to wash himself further, except for his feet. And you men are clean, though not all of you.” He knew who was going to betray him. That’s why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” When Jesus had washed their feet and put on his outer robe, he sat down again and told them, “Do you realize what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right because that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you must also wash one another’s feet. I have set an example for you, so that you may do as I have done to you. Truly, I tell all of you emphatically, a servant is not greater than his master, and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him. If you understand these things, how blessed you are if you put them into practice!’
B. Washing of Feet
It was just before the Passover festival; Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave the world and return to the Father. Having loved his own in the world, he loved them to the end. This truth is made graphically clear a few days later where Jesus and his friends who had gathered for a meal. The streets and roads of Palestine were simply dirt and in dry weather, they were deep in dust where in wet weather, it would become mud with cows and animals roaming the streets, you can imagine that it wasn’t just dirty mud, but it was stinky mud. The shoes a person wore in that day were mostly sandals with flat soles. So, every walk in the street soiled the feet and that is why that just inside the door way of homes sat a basin of water with a towel. The custom was for a servant to greet visitors and wash their feet. But on this night, Jesus gathers his disciples for the meal, but the wash basin sat unemployed. Where was the servant? Of course the disciples had their minds on more noble thoughts. The talk of the week had ignited their imagination, the kingdom of God with dreams of thrones and power and glory. In fact Luke tells us that they were conflicted about which one of them would be the greatest in this kingdom. The wash basin sat a new; everybody in the house had dirty feet and dirty hearts. So, Jesus got up from the table and prepared himself and commenced to wash the feet of his followers. Here is Jesus, the King of Kings washing filthy feet and drying them with a towel. Here is the king whose leadership, whose symbol of authority is a towel. The use of the towel reveals to three enduring principles. Jesus let us see a secure sense of self. The towel dramatizes Jesus’ whole life and ministry. Washing his disciple’s feet was no isolated event. On the contrary what he did that night in the upper room vividly portrays the whole ministry he made from the Father and the journey he made into the world and back to the Father. He knew where he had come from, where he was going and who he belonged to, and this made all the difference.
Darrell Johnson pointed out the symbolism in Jesus’ act. John records that Jesus rose from supper just as he had risen from his eternal throne. He laid aside his garments in verse 4 just as he had laid aside his glory in heaven, just as he had laid aside his privileges as the Son of God. Then he washed mortal men’s feet, performing the most menial act of service just like his death on the Cross as a common criminal. When Jesus had finished washing their feet, in verse 12 John says that he took up garments and returned to his place of honor, just as he was taken up from the grave and seated again with God the Father. Jesus used the towel that night to illustrate what the early church later would sing about in the hymn in Philippians 2; who being in the very nature of God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant being made in human likeness and being found in appearance of a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a Cross. Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him a name that is above every name, the name of Jesus where every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord. So, he let know the secure sense of exactly who he was; secondly, Jesus met the deepest needs of those he led. Jesus said in verse 12, do you understand what I have done for you? This wasn’t just a rhetorical question; obviously, they had not understood what he had done for them. Peter didn’t understand according to verse 6 where he questions Jesus about washing his feet. Are you going to wash my feet, Peter asked? Jesus tells him that unless he washes his feet, he will have no part of me and Peter replied; then wash all of me.
This is not just a leadership lesson in humility; Peter could have understood that. The need of these disciples was far beyond their dirty feet. They had a spiritual need; a profound deep need. Who was going to sit where, was the question on their minds and hearts? He had got on his knees; this really humbles me, for if my only view of God is that of a supreme king in the top run of a latter, then I am always wondering how I am going to get to him and worrying how I am doing! Am I making progress toward him; what can I do to make my way up to him? But when the king of kings is kneeling before me in self-emptying love; the kind of love that knocks me off the latter and out of the center. Jesus was helping Peter and the disciples to understand that we meet the Living God at the bottom run of the latter. Jesus was revealing the king’s own idea about what it means to be a king. And finally, Jesus calls us to pay it forward; what a powerful principle! After washing their feet, Jesus said to his disciples you call me teacher and Lord and rightly so for that is what I am. Now that I am your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you should wash one another’s feet. Some Christian traditions have foot washing services; I like those services and I’ve taken part in them and have enjoyed them very much. They take this command from Jesus to mean that we are to literally wash each other’s feet. But when Jesus washed his disciple’s feet, Jesus’ focus didn’t seem to be on the ritual itself. When Jesus washed their feet, he was saying I lay down my life for you. His ultimate intent in washing another person’s feet can only be fulfilled after the worship service has ended. Listen again, ‘if I your Lord wash your feet, you should also wash my feet.’ Is that what he said? No, but that is what I would have expected Jesus to say; if he had said, ‘now that I washed your feet, you wash my feet; we would be standing in line for the privilege to be first with the towel. But he said, now that I have washed your feet, you wash one another’s feet.
C. Standing Under
You see that I am a debtor to Jesus the king for the price he has paid for me. If I understand Jesus’ instructions here, my neighbor is now the appointed agent authorized to receive what I owe the master. Now the point that Paul makes in his Letter to the Ephesians makes sense. In chapter 5:18 Paul exhorts us to be filled with the Spirit. Then he develops the signs of Spirit’s filling; the last sign in verse 21 is being subject to one another in the fear of Christ. The Greek word for subject literally means standing under. Paul is telling us that the mark of a life filled with the Spirit of King Jesus is a standing under. It is placing my life at the disposal of other people; Paul then works out this submitting, this standing under in three spheres of our common life: in marriage, in family, and between employer and employee. In these three spheres, both parties, according to verse 21, are to stand under. So, what does this mean for leaders? It means that my wife is the appointed agent authorized to receive what I owe Jesus Christ. I wash Jesus’ feet as I wash her feet. My two children are the appointed agents that are authorized to receive what I owe Jesus. I wash Jesus’ feet as I wash their feet; my colleagues are free to lead and our partners are the appointed agents authorized to receive what I owe Jesus. I wash Jesus’ feet as I wash their feet. Washing the feet of those I lead means believing in them enough to empower them with the authority and resources and information as well the accountability they need to be the best they can possibly be. Washing the feet of those I lead, means creating an environment like Jesus did that is safe enough for them to risk and sometimes fail in their risks and encouraging them to risk again. Washing the feet of those I lead means that I don’t have to be the source of every good idea, but we discover the dream together. Washing the feet of the people I lead means creating an atmosphere where they are free to tell me the truth, especially when the truth isn’t very good news for me. It also means allowing people to express their passion and who don’t compromise principle for profit. It means treating each person with a scared understanding that they are uniquely crafted in the image of God, their creator and not in mine. It means enabling them to make decisions and pursue their God given visions; washing their feet means celebrating their accomplishments and serving them, not to serve me but so that they will pay it forward.
Now, perhaps as leaders, there is a tension in us as I say these things. As a leader this way of relating to people is not normal. Such a way of relating to people reverses the order somehow. It is subversive, destabilizing, it upsets and if that is the tension we feel, that is precisely what Jesus intends. We are now feeling, not just understanding but we are feeling the Gospel of the Kingdom. His order turns everything right side up. He changes our whole concept of power and authority and of status. Remember what he said to his disciples when they were arguing about who would be greatest in the kingdom of God. He said you know those who would be recognized as rulers of the gentiles have lorded it over them, but it is not so among you. Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant and whoever wishes to be the first shall be slave to all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve. The King of Kings who leads with a towel inaugurates a kingdom of foot washers. It deletes the image of clamoring for power; people climbing over one another to get to the top. Jesus’ example even puts to rest the notion that I wash your feet so that you wash my feet. Rather, I wash your feet so that in turn you can wash another person’s feet. That which sets apart Christ centered leaders is brought into being by the self-emptying love of Jesus. When leaders belong to King Jesus, we can no longer write on our resume, ‘I don’t do feet.’ That is precisely what leaders do because that is what he does; that liberating leadership. It is a leadership that fulfills the highest priority and the highest potential of the needs of those we lead. Perhaps the best test of a Christ centered leader is to ask; are those who we lead growing as people? Are they becoming healthier? Are they becoming wiser? Are they becoming freer? Are they likely themselves to become Christ centered leaders? And what is the benefit of my leadership on the poor, on the underserved, the least in society, those who cannot serve me in return?
D. Mother Teresa
The 20th century was blessed by a woman who obviously had her feet washed by this King. Some may argue with her theology, but it’s kind of touch to argue with her life. Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born and raised in Albania. For years she washed the feet and the hands and head and bodies of the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India and Manilla, the Philippians and other cities. God also used her to touch those who were not poor and one such person was Malcolm Muggeridge. He was formerly a prominent broadcaster with the BBC in London. Muggeridge was so touched by Mother Teresa; he wrote a book to her honor entitled, ‘Something Beautiful for God.’ He wrote these words, ‘to choose as Mother Teresa did, to live in the slums of Calcutta amidst all the dirt, disease and misery signified a spirit so indomitable, so intractable, a love so abounding that I felt abashed.’ He went on to tell of an experience he had in Calcutta to which he responded by retreating to his comfortable hotel room and complaining about the retched condition of the city. Then he wrote these words, ‘I ran away and stayed away, but Mother Teresa moved in and stayed; that was the difference. She a slightly built nun, a few rupees in her pocket, not particularly clever or gifted in the art of persuasion, came with Christian love shining about her.’ In 1968 Muggeridge conducted a television interview with Mother Teresa. From a technical standpoint, the interview was terrible, but the public response was overwhelming. Reflecting on that interview Muggeridge wrote about discussions that were taking place how to use mass media for the Christian purposes. All manner of devices were tried from learned dialogues to pop versions of the Psalms. Here’s the answer, ‘just get someone shining with overwhelming Christian love, get someone for whom the world has met and the service of Christ is everything. Get someone reborn into servitude to the ego in the flesh and reborn in the glorious liberty of the children of God.’
E. Christ Centered Leadership
Christ centered leadership as liberating as it is; this doesn’t just happen and you and I both know that. Even if we want to be, you and I will not wake up tomorrow morning having become a Mother Teresa, but with the Apostle Paul and with Malcolm Muggeridge, we can pray, Lord, what I do is not the good I want to do and the evil I do and not what I want to do, this is what I keep on doing. Who will rescue me? I am unable to pull it off Lord as least with any consistency. In those times when we are unable or unwilling to take up the towel; when we find ourselves in that place where this kind of leadership just doesn’t make sense, it usually means that it’s time to let the king wash our feet again. To let the king who loved his own to the full extent of his love wash us again. To let this king who knew where he had come from and where he was going, this king who knew that he was in the absolute center of his Father’s will. This king, Jesus, whose heart is over flowing with love for you; it is time to let him wash our feet again. For the degree that you and I allow him to love us and to serve us; to that degree we can wash the feet of those we lead into the glorious liberties in the Kingdom of God. So lift up your gate you ancient doors, so that the King of Glory may come in; and who is the King of Glory? The Lord almighty, girded with a towel, he is the King of Glory.’
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Something Beautiful for God by Malcolm Muggeridge