Scripture: John 13:1-9
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
While much attention in this passage is given to the washing of feet, it’s interesting to note the towel’s contextual significance in the moment and beyond. With His hour rapidly approaching, Jesus knew now was the time to prepare His disciples for life post-resurrection; however, He also knew ‘now’ was not yet the time to commission them for evangelism. Accordingly, Jesus, through the towel, opted to preview the next ~40 days, a stretch during which He wouldn’t evangelize, but strengthen His community as a future colony of heaven (i.e. Kingdom community)12.
Having said that, before we can dive further into “towel theology” (i.e. the towel as a communal template to daily rising with Christ), we must first talk about what Christ sought to model through it.
Consider this: The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most powerful event that this planet has ever witnessed. Yet, as for who actually ‘saw’ the resurrection? Nobody but a couple of awe-struck Roman soldiers who in a matter of hours would go from literally trembling in fear to lying about what they had seen. One would think the lives of these guards would instantaneously change à la Paul’s conversion, but truth is the power of the resurrection didn’t change them at all.
Of course, none of this was a surprise to God given He knew what the soldiers denied would be what many believed as they experienced His transformational love working through human hearts3; still, the takeaway here is while Christ’s resurrection was certainly a powerful moment in history, it wasn’t the greatest demonstration of divine power. Rather, as we’ll soon see, the cross, paved the way for the greatest force of divine power – sustainable agape love.
The application is simple: To be raised with Christ is to build His community as Jesus did after His resurrection.
“If then you have been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead, walk in newness of life and seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” ~ Colossians 2:12, Colossians 3:1, Romans 6:4 (Blended ESV)
Again, we may think the key to being on mission with God is effective evangelism, but when we consider how Paul and early church perceived being raised with Christ, we find the critical priority to be the community of Jesus serving one another in love with evangelism as the overflow. For when a genuine Christ community exists that’s all the Holy Spirit needs to impact the cultural community it exists in.
Therefore, we must be careful we don’t abuse evangelism as a promotional means to add to ‘our’ number, but rather allow the Spirit to awaken eyes to see the love we have for one another. This, I suggest, was the center of Paul’s approach to mission – we don’t build a colony of heaven through forced rhythms of effort, but instead build Christ’s community through unforced rhythms of service laden with love, kindness, and compassion. Doing this, as Paul saw it, was the way a local church could reflect heaven on earth and the way the Spirit could spread this light into new places.
As for the body of Christ, the recipe for cultural transformation is straightforward: To build communities of agape love and to let the Spirit establish them as colonies of heaven. For as we know, in this life we are plagued by worldly structures bent on dominating, manipulating, and controlling through destructive systems of independence yielding cultures of anxiety, fear, hatred, and pride. However, by living confidently in the assurance of our guaranteed future (Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 4:16, Hebrews 11:1), we can be free to accept a Kingdom, ‘crucified and raised in Christ’ structure as the framework by which we love and serve – a structure that proclaims the good news in this way: We are free because we’re helpless, free because we’re confident, free because we’re crucified in Christ, and free because we’ve been raised with Christ, the foundation to being a Jesus community4. Once we accept our helplessness, then we can better depend on the Holy Spirit, rest in our future completion, and serve in present love.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” ~ Galatians 5:13
“If you bear one another’s burdens, if you love by serving each other, you’ll stay in the Spirit and remain in alignment with Christ and so fulfill the law of Christ.” ~ Galatians 6:2 (paraphrased)
With Christ’s resurrection in mind, the core of being a community of Christ is experiencing the law of Christ as loving one another by serving one another…
…which brings us to why Jesus took the towel in John 13.
While many are quick to emphasize Jesus’ humility and modeling of submissive service, what’s often missed is how the washing of His disciples’ feet clinched the founding of His community. Backtrack to v. 3 and we find our first sign of evidence: Jesus knew the Father had given all things into His hands and that He had come from God and was going back to God. This is the real reason why Jesus took the towel5 – to not only achieve a timely metaphor, but to unveil a central commandment (i.e. ‘love one another’) that would soon become the cornerstone of Christianity.
Remember up until their feet were washed, the disciples were followers, but not a following of disciple-makers. When Peter didn’t want Jesus to wash His feet, Jesus said, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part with me‘. Why? Because love through serving was the foundation Jesus was laying. In other words, Jesus knew convicting Peter to helplessness would open him up to radical dependence. We see this instantly when Peter replies, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head‘. Yet, even at the utter of this imperative, little did Peter realize this act of total dependence would result in radical freedom, a newness of life where he could experience life as a new human serving and loving.
As Peter discovered, the implications of this reality, specifically how we do church, is huge. In a world screaming ‘make your life count’, it’s worth noting the early church would not have understood such dogma. To them, one didn’t try to make a difference, but rather let their love through service be the difference. As such, having embraced their identity as a resurrection community – a community who loves and serves in the moment – their operation as the new humanity would ultimately revolutionize arguably the world’s greatest superpower in history.
Bottom line: What Jesus did in John 13 went far beyond washing a few stinky feet.
Rather by exchanging outer garment for towel…
- He revealed what resurrection community would soon look like – a ‘walk in the Spirit’, ‘serve your spouse, forgive your brother, love your enemy’ way of living far contrary to the ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ lifestyle we know today.
- He connected repentance to not only being transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2), but also celebrating our helplessness, dependence, and freedom to be a John 13:35 community so, “by this all people will know that [we are His] disciples, [by our] love for one another.”
- He redefined church as a body of believers becoming the colony of heaven on earth by living in the Spirit (i.e. daily dying and rising with Christ).
- As would soon emerge through the Holy Spirit
- Not to suggest we don’t prioritize evangelism; after all, the Holy Spirit’s coming was so we could be empowered to be Christ’s witnesses.
- Remember after Christ’s resurrection, Jesus not only prepared a community the Holy Spirit would eventually come upon in Acts 2, but also a unified body transformed by Christ’s love as a testament to God’s existence.
- Inspired by Messenger Fellowship’s ‘Being the Community of Jesus’ module.
- Side note: I love how this moment captures Christ’s baptism and brings it full circle (more on this in a future post).
Photo creds: Highland Park United Methodist Church
*Content inspired by Messenger Fellowship’s ordination course*