Human cultures have always crafted symbols of power. In the past, we might think of crowns, regalia, or royal scepters. Today, power is often vested in official titles, political influence, financial portfolios, material possessions, technological gadgets, or social media followers. But in the kingdom of Christ, we find a very different symbol that represents a very different kind of ethical accounting: a towel and a water basin.
On the night that he was to be betrayed, the King of kings did not demand that he be served with the adoration that he most assuredly deserves. Instead, he took off his outer garments, girded himself with a towel, and washed his followers’ filthy feet in a basin of water. Here, we see on dramatic display the ethics of the kingdom. The first will be last and the last first (Matt 20:16). The one who would be first must be last of all and servant of all (Mark 9:35).
Peter is at first resistant. He seems to recognize the absurdity of this upside-down ritual: “Lord, do you wash my feet?” It’s not the first time that Peter (as a kind of stand-in for all of us) didn’t understand the radical reversal of the kingdom of Christ. He couldn’t understand how the Christ, the son of the living God, could undergo the disgrace of the cross (Matt 16:21-23). And here at the end, Peter still hasn’t fully arrived; he hasn’t become fully converted to the power dynamics of the kingdom. But Jesus assures him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” To be a Christian is to have the humility to receive. It is to recognize our filthiness and to submit to the Savior’s cleansing condescension. A refusal to receive has the appearance of humility. Shouldn’t we, after all, be washing Jesus’ feet? But in reality it amounts to a thinly veiled mask of pride. We imagine that the Christian life is what we do for Jesus, when all along it was the Son of Man who came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
This day in Holy Week is referred to as Maundy Thursday. Its name is taken from the phrase mandatum novum (“a new commandment”) from the Latin version of John 13:34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” The good news of the kingdom is first a gift and then a calling. We come to Jesus for cleansing: not just the once for all cleansing of our body in conversion (solemnized in our baptism) but the repeated washing of our feet through the ongoing, ordinary means of grace: the Word of God, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper. And then we are commissioned to imitate Christ’s humble service: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).
The symbolism of the towel and water basin stands in stark contrast to the symbols on display in the halls of worldly power. But now more than ever, the world desperately needs the counter-cultural message of the gospel. It needs Christians willing to risk absurdity, to risk the loss of political and social capital, to surrender life and limb and likability to serve the needs of others. “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17).
This post originally appeared in a Holy Week devotional produced by the faculty of Anderson University.