The night before Jesus was crucified, he taught his disciples an important lesson. He gathered with his closest friends to celebrate the Passover meal. But before the meal began, he took off his outer garments, wrapped a towel around his waist and washed their feet. It was an act that astonished and bemused those first disciples. Here was the King of Kings taking the form of a lowly servant. Here was the Mighty and Majestic One stopping down to serve. Here was the one who deserved all honour and glory seeking to honour others.
Jesus takes this amazing act of humble service and uses it to illustrate the life of a disciple. Anyone who claims to follow Jesus must follow this example. To belong to Jesus is to serve others. Since he came not to be served, but to serve, we will do the same. The life of a disciple of Christ is one of life-giving service and love for others. The church’s calendar remembers that meal as ‘Maundy’ Thursday, from the Latin for ‘command’, honouring Jesus’ command to his disciples to love one another.
Despite the powerful picture of service that Jesus acts out, there is a lesson we need to learn before that. As Jesus takes the position of a slave and washes his disciples’ feet, each are speechless by this act of humility. All of them, that is, until Peter. Peter cannot believe what he is seeing and his disbelief spills out of his mouth:
”Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” John 13:6
In fact, Peter refuses to be served by Jesus. I am sure this is out of a desire to honour and respect his Lord and Master. How can Jesus, the Messiah, go about washing the feet of his disciples? Surely it should be the other way around?
Peter doesn’t think Jesus should serve him; he thinks he should be serving Jesus. And so Jesus gently rebukes Peter, saying:
“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” John 13:8
Here is a lesson we need to learn along with Peter. Before it is a picture of service, Jesus’ actions are a picture of being washed. It is a powerful illustration of what Jesus would go on to do the next day. As his body is broken and his blood poured out, he dies to wash us clean. As he rises to new life on Easter Sunday, he enables us to stand as new people, renewed through Jesus’ work.
This work of being made clean comes first. Peter wants to serve and Jesus will commission him to serve (after a few bumps in the road on the way). But before action comes cleansing. Before service comes being served. Before working for Jesus we need to be washed by Jesus. This is the order of the kingdom. We cannot swap things around. We need the grace of God given through the cross before we can serve others and love as Jesus loved.