“So he got up from the meal. . .”
On one occasion when I was preaching on this text I went to my knees. The thought of doing this had not occurred to me until I did it. Somehow the “body language” seemed appropriate in the moment to underscore the scene. For a minute or two I stayed on my knees, describing John’s detailed description of Jesus’ deliberate action.
John’s upper room commentary is sketched with brevity. His simple narrative is focused like a laser on what counts. There is no extraneous detail. I might like more color commentary, like a description of the disciples faces and comments as Jesus knelt before them and washed their feet. But most of the disciples in the upper room are not even named and their reactions to Jesus are ignored. John’s poetic description focuses on the meaning of Jesus’ action. The beloved disciple takes us frame by frame, freezing the action sequence with a series of still life pictures.
Seven verbs describe this simple act of foot-washing. Three verbs define the preparation: Jesus got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing and wrapped a towel around his waist. Three verbs describe the action: Jesus poured water into a basin, washed the disciples’ feet, and dried them with a towel. Six verbs, two groups of three, slow the action down and add to the drama of the moment. The missing verb, making it seven, is the obvious one, Jesus knelt. No mention is made specifically of Jesus being on his knees but he could not have done what he did any other way. He got up and laid aside his outer clothing, knelt down and handled dirty feet. No one expected him to do what he did. Even Jewish servants were not subject to this odorous and humiliating task. These seven verbs, got up, took off, wrapped, knelt, poured, washed, and dried, emphasize the intentionality of Jesus’ action. John’s description of Jesus’ detailed actions fixes this object lesson of discipleship in our minds, not as a formula, but as a deliberate act.
Humility is neither an unconscious instinct nor a personality trait. I have heard it said that the moment anyone thinks they’re humble they’re guilty of pride. But humility is not about being naive or unaware. Humility is an intentional commitment of our will to the will of God. It is a spiritual discipline that requires deliberate action. Humility is a chosen and cultivated quality of character that matures and deepens with the experience of Christ. Humility is resolute self-emptying, the surrender of the will to the commands of God and the needs of others.
Many write humility off as a less-than-cool, churchy sounding topic, that takes advantage of people who suffer from low self-esteem. Critics argue, “In this put-down world of ours, we’ve had enough of gloomy piety, doormat theology, and self-demeaning put-downs. Give us hope, not humility!” To empathize with people’s paranoia about false spirituality and empty piety is one thing, but genuine, honest-to-goodness humility is not the problem; it is the solution. Humility before God is the way out of humiliating guilt tactics and manipulation.
Humility is love in action. The action verbs, highlighted in John’s narrative, carry soulful impact. In his epistle, John spells out the practical implications explicitly, “If any one of you has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in you? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue with actions and truth” (1 John 3:17-18).
A friend spent twenty years listening to sermons and attending Sunday morning Bible classes before he began to take Jesus seriously. Although Ray felt he was a sincere believer, he admits in hindsight that following Jesus had virtually no impact on his life and no influence on his business career. For Ray the Bible was a book of idealistic platitudes and pious sayings. It belonged in the church, not the workplace.
A serious car accident and some deep soul-searching proved to be Ray’s wake-up call. He began asking himself what it meant to follow Jesus everywhere. By God’s grace he began to read and study the Bible with a new set of eyes. He internalized the Word of God and began to act on his new found convictions. Ray prayed through the way he did business. He set new priorities and embraced new values. His family became more important to him than his career. Some changes were simple, others were more complicated.
He repented of his long-standing habit of “framing the truth” to make himself and his department look better. For years he sold his corporate clients more technology than they needed, thinking that if they were foolish enough to fall for his sales pitch, too bad for them. Instead of trying to write the most lucrative contracts he could get away with, Ray worked hard to meet the real needs of his customers. The symbols of status that had meant so much to him became less and less important. He befriended the people he had ignored as he climbed the ladder of corporate success. He sought to rectify the work-place injustices that he condoned in the past. In short, he began following Jesus everywhere he went. The compartmentalized mix of secular values and religious piety that he had fostered for many years was no longer possible. He deliberately became more Christ-like, and thus more humble, submissive, relational, loving and truthful. And often when he prayed he knelt.
Upper Room Reflection
What do you make of John’s detailed description of Jesus’ actions?
How have you been taught to think about humility?
What impact does Jesus’ example have on your work life?
How do you counter the world’s bias against humility?