2 April 2015

John 13:1-20

“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” (vv. 3-5)

Psalm: Psalm 116


The washing of the disciples' feet is one of the iconic depictions of Jesus in the New Testament. The story, found only John, is that Gospel's version of the last supper. In the accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke we hear of Jesus sharing bread and wine with his disciples. In John, however, there is no reference to bread and wine but rather to this washing of feet.

For Methodists, and Methodist deacons in particular, this image has particular resonance. The bowl and towel have long been one of the key symbols of the Methodist Diaconal Order, primarily because they want to remind themselves and others that a diaconal ministry is one of service to others. However a diaconal ministry, properly understood, is not unique to deacons. Methodists have long believed that we are all called, whether lay or ordained, presbyter or deacon, to a ministry of 'diakonia', a ministry shaped by servanthood.

So what is going on in this story, and what does Jesus hope to achieve by washing the feet of his disciples? I want to suggest that this should be seen to be far more than merely an illustration or object lesson. Rather we ought to understand this story as offering insight into how Jesus understood servant leadership; the greater serves the lesser. To use the words of Matthew 20:28 popularised by Graham Kendrick in his song 'The Servant King', Jesus came "not to be served but to serve".

What does this mean for those who seek to be servants of the Servant? It means at least that we model our understanding of ministry and leadership on this one who washed his disciples' feet.

Jesus washing the disciples' feet is not merely a kindly thing to do; rather it is radical and scandalous. We get some impression of this from Peter's protest: How can I allow you to lower yourself so fully to wash my feet? You will never wash my feet.

Yet I am struck that Jesus is able to offer such radical servanthood because he knows who he is. Knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, that he had come form from God and was going back to God Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself and washed his disciples' feet.

True service is possible only when we have a realistic understanding of our identity in Christ. Then we discover the freedom to humble ourselves.

One reading of Philippians 2:6-8 is that because Jesus was in the form of God that he was able to humble himself and take the form of a servant.

To Ponder

  • How far are you able to serve others with humility? Or do you find ways of looking like you are humble without actually becoming so?
  • To what extent do you agree that humility is only possible if you know your true worth?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Calvin T Samuel

The Revd Dr Calvin T Samuel is a Methodist minister, currently stationed as Director of Wesley Study Centre, Durham - a Methodist theological institution which is part of St John's College within the University of Durham. Prior to this he was New Testament Tutor at Spurgeon's College in London and Chaplain to Farringtons School in Kent