On the night before He was crucified, Jesus met in an “upper room” with the twelve men who had been His closest associates during three years of ministry. They had gathered there to eat what would be their final Passover meal together. According to John’s Gospel, early in the evening, after the meal had barely begun, Jesus got up from the table, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured some water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. In that simple, awkward, intimate, and embarrassing act, Jesus, the Master Teacher, provided an object lesson to illustrate the essence of what He had been trying to teach them about kingdom living for the past three years.
He had already done that with words. That is, He had already reduced the heart of the “kingdom ethic” to a short, pithy, memorable declaration. Here’s the way Matthew records it in chapter 22 of his Gospel—
One of the Pharisees, an expert in the law, tested Jesus with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
There you have it. The essence of the “kingdom ethic” is the law of love. And Jesus made sure that we wouldn’t interpret that to mean a nebulous, spiritualized love of God by expanding the concept of love to include the love of people, which, when you think about it, is the practical proof that we really love God.
Jesus was saying that, if I am a citizen of the kingdom of God, I will want to love you as much as I love me. And if you are a kingdom citizen, you will want to love me as much as you love you.
But beyond that, the ethic of the kingdom requires that we extend love to people outside of our families, outside of our circle of friends, even outside the community of faith—to dirty people, hostile people, thoughtless people, ungrateful people—people who will lie to us, hurt us, take advantage of us, and laugh while they are doing it.
“Neighbor love” / “kingdom love” means that I care about you with the same intensity I care about myself; I work as hard to help you meet your noble goals as I work to meet my own; I elevate your need to the level of my own.
And that’s difficult to do when we are both applying for the same job, or when my physical or emotional or financial situation is so severe that I can barely see beyond it.
Still, this is the law of love on which the ethic of the kingdom is based. And it can be inconvenient, unrealistic, uncomfortable. For those reasons, it is easy to rationalize our way out of compliance and regard the whole thing as laudable theory but impractical, if not impossible, to implement.
I think that Jesus knew we would say that, and that’s why the Master Teacher, on the night before His crucifixion, took a towel and a bowl and washed His disciples’ feet.
Make no mistake; this was not mere symbolism. These men had been walking dusty streets and trails all day wearing sandals. Their feet were dirty. When they assembled in the upper room to eat the Passover meal with Jesus, they reclined around a low table just a few inches off the floor. A courteous host would have provided a servant to care for the thankless task of washing the feet of his guests before they reclined to eat. But there was no host here. Jesus was a guest in this room the same as His disciples. Besides that, He was their Rabbi, their teacher, their Lord. No reasonable person would have assumed that it was the teacher’s job to wash the feet of his students.
But that’s exactly what Jesus did. The master became a servant, and in so doing He showed us what He meant when He established the law of love as the ethic of the kingdom of God. A citizen of the kingdom is, first and foremost, a servant.
For three years, Jesus had been telling His disciples that following Him might require them to give up their lives for the sake of the Gospel. That’s what He meant when He said, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, He must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” It’s important to know how to die. All of Jesus’ faithful disciples, with the exception of John, died as a martyr for the faith.
But when Jesus took the towel and basin and washed His disciples’ feet, He made it clear that it is important to know how to live as well. Most of us will not be called upon to surrender our lives for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus calls all of us, however, to experience the unspeakable joy that comes from service motivated by love.
In his really excellent book called Celebration of Discipline, the Quaker author Richard Foster wrote, in this regard—
In some ways we would rather hear Jesus’ call to deny father, mother, houses and lands for the sake of the Kingdom than His (emphasis on servanthood). Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure. If we forsake all, we even have the chance of glorious martyrdom. But in service, we are banished to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.
Every Sunday morning, immediately following the sermon, we Anglicans stand and confess our faith using the words of the historical Nicene Creed. This, in part, is what we affirm concerning Jesus: He is God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God… of one being with the Father; through Him all things were made.
When we think about Jesus eating a last Passover meal with His disciples in that “upper room” on the night before He died, we probably first recall that, on that occasion, Jesus established the pattern for the communion meal which we share together every Sunday morning. And indeed we should think in those terms since the prayer book reminds us that “on the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread… (and) after supper He took the cup of wine.”
But before the bread and before the wine, Luke tells us that Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves.” Then John reminds us that Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made, “got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around him,… poured water into a basin and began to wash” the feet of men whom He had created.
The ethic of the kingdom is simply love put to work through caring, compassionate service. By selecting servanthood as the model of the kingdom ethic, Jesus made it clear that the pathway of the king might be costly… to our pride, our security, and maybe a whole lot more. But if you and I are serious about being disciples of Jesus in the twenty-first century, then amid all the clamor and noise of our technological culture, we’ll hear the voice of Jesus say, “Get a towel and a bowl, and follow me.”