Jesus the Servant

A sermon preached at Christchurch URC, Chelmsford.

When I was a pastor of a local church, I tended to preach a series of sermons on a particular theme or on a particular passage of the Bible.
But today I am a visiting preacher and so I was faced with the challenge of what to preach about. Clearly with communion, something which relates to Jesus and his cross would be helpful.
But from what angle?

The matter became settled for me when I realized that I would just have become President of the Rotary Club of Chelmsford Rivermead.
As many of you may know, Rotary clubs are service clubs – the motto of Rotary is ‘service above self’.
In the light of this I thought I would preach on Jesus the Servant – and in particular on the occasion when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.
In the words of John, “he rose from the table, took off his outer garment and tied a towel round his waist. Then he poured some water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel round his waist” (John 13.4,5).

Traditionally most sermons have three points. But this morning, as we examine the story of the foot-washing, my sermon has two main points:
• Jesus the Servant sets an example
• Jesus the Servant acts out a parable


The story is told of three children who were making a dreadful din in the other room – for some reason they were shouting and screaming at one another at the top of their voices.
Their mother went in and asked what they were quarreling about. ‘We’re not quarreling’, said the eldest, ‘we’re just playing Mummy and Daddy’.

John in his Gospel records that Jesus, on the night before he died, said: “I have set you an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you” (13.15).
Or as Peterson puts it: “I’ve laid down a pattern for you” – a pattern that is of serving.

From the other Gospels we know that the disciples of Jesus were often much pre-occupied with questions of status. Indeed, Luke tells us that the Last Supper was one of those occasions.
“An argument broke out among the disciples as to which one of them should be thought of as the greatest” (22.24). Even at this late stage in Jesus’ ministry the disciples were still blinded by visions of thrones and crowns.

It was at this point that Jesus silently “rose from the table, took off his outer garment and tied a towel round his waist. Then he poured some water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel round his waist” (13.4,5).

The washing of feet was a servant task.
In an age when streets were not paved, feet could get very dirty. “The roads were often inches deep in dry weather, and turned to liquid mud in wet weather” (Bridger)
The custom in those days was that when guests arrived, they had their feet washed by a slave. This task of washing feet was regarded as particularly menial. In a Jewish household it was a task reserved for Gentile slaves – Jewish slaves were exempted from washing feet.
But Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.

In washing their feet, he did what no other Jewish man would ever have done.
But then Jesus was ordinary Jewish man. Jesus was the Son of God.
Indeed, John specifically tells us that “Jesus knew that he had come from God” (13.3) – he knew that “the Father had given him complete power” (13.3).
And yet he washed his disciples feet. What amazing action! What amazing humility!

What’s more, prior to washing their feet, “he took off his outer garment and tied a towel round himself” (13.4). A Jewish commentary on Gen 21.14 states that when Abraham sent Hagar away, he gave her a divorce note and took her shawl and wrapped it around her hips “that people should know that she was a slave”.
I.e. Jesus, in removing his coat and tying a towel around himself, was adopting the uniform of a servant.

These simple actions must have spoken volumes
The disciples must have felt intensely embarrassed, let alone deeply rebuked.
It scarcely needed Jesus to say when he got back to his seat: “Do you understand what I have just done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and it is right that you do so, because that is what I am. I your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. You then should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example for you, so that you will do what I have done for you” (13.12b-15). Jesus set before them an example of service, and in so doing began a revolution – a revolution of service.

We have to remember that in Jesus’ day service toward others was not a commonly admired virtue. The culture of the ancient world was very different from ours: leadership was never viewed in terms of service.
The reason for this difference is that our culture has been ‘Christianised’ – even although we now live in a post-Christian society, our language still reflects Christian values.
We speak, for instance, of ‘civil servants’ – our most prominent politicians are called ‘ministers’ i.e. ‘servants’ – indeed, the most powerful man in the land is called the ‘prime minister’, i.e., the ‘first servant’.

Such language would have sounded strange in the world of Jesus day.
• As far as the Greeks were concerned, serving others was felt to be undignified and not worthy of any man with real spunk – rather one should simply serve one’s own desires. “How can anyone be happy when he has to serve someone?” asked one Greek philosopher. For the ancient Greeks the goal of all human life was the perfect development of an individual personality.
• In spite of the OT teaching to love one’s neighbour as oneself, the Jews of Jesus’ day were scarcely much more positive about serving others . For them serving others was simply a way of gaining ‘Brownie points’ from God – and even so, it was felt to be wrong to serve one’s inferiors!

It was in this context that Jesus, by washing his disciples’ feet, reversed all human ideas of greatness and rank. “The greatest one among you must be like the youngest, and the leader must be like the servant” (Lk 22.26).
Do note that Jesus was not saying that before one could become a leader one had to prove oneself through faithful service. Rather faithful service was for Jesus the place of true greatness.
In the words of one NT scholar: “In the Kingdom of God service is not a stepping-stone to nobility: it is nobility, the only kind of nobility that is recognised” (T.W. Manson).

Jesus, however, sets an example not just to leaders.
He sets an example to all of us – to all would be disciples.

If we are honest, many of us are like the disciples of old – we prefer to be served than to serve. We like our egos to be stroked. Although we may not want to be set on a pedestal, we do appreciate a certain amount of respect.
As we grow older, perhaps, we feel that certain things are beneath us.
If so, then we need to heed the example of Jesus.
Jesus, who said to his disciples, “I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22.27).
Jesus who said: “I have set an example for you” (13.15).

Incidentally, do note that the example relates not to the action ‘per se’, but to the underlying attitude. Jesus was not saying that we should literally wash one another’s feet.
In today’s society such an action makes little sense.
No, Jesus is concerned for the underlying principle, that his disciples should serve others.
Or rather that they should serve others “just as I have done” (13.15).
Just as we are called to love as Jesus loved us (13.34), so we are serve as Jesus loved us.

In preparing for this sermon I came across this description of the church: “the brotherhood of the towel”. Unfortunately in today’s PC world the term ‘brotherhood’ is sexist – perhaps we should speak of the church as ‘the community of the towel’.
Whatever the term, we are called to serve.
As one commentator put it: “The Gospel is a life to be lived and not just an ideal to be contemplated” (Rodney Whitacre).
Or to quote John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can”.

‘Service above self’ – in adopting this as their motto, Rotary are true to the spirit of Jesus.

But the story of the foot-washing is not just about Jesus setting us an example.
It is also parable with a difference.


Most of the Gospel parables came in story form.
But occasionally Jesus acted out a parable.
• He acted out a parable, for instance, when he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, and through that very action he proclaimed to those with eyes to see that he was the longed-for Prince of Peace.
• When he washed his disciples feet, he acted out another parable, for through that action he proclaimed to those with eyes to see the meaning of the Cross.

Let me explain, Matthew, Mark & Luke record Jesus symbolising his death in the breaking of the bread and the pouring out of wine.
John, however, in his account of the Upper Room says nothing about the meal and of the words Jesus said as he broke bread and poured out wine.
Instead he records Jesus symbolising his death in the washing of his disciples feet.

• This is what underlines the words of Jesus to Peter: “You do not understand now what I am doing, but you will understand later” (13.7). Jesus’ lesson in humility was embarrassingly clear – but the deeper significance of his washing the disciples feet could only be appreciated after the cross and resurrection.

• Similarly, the words John uses to describe Jesus’ action are significant. Literally, John says Jesus ‘laid down’ his clothes, and then, once the washing was over, ‘he took them up again’. These are not the usual verbs for taking off and putting on clothing. They are verbs which Jesus had used of himself as the good shepherd to speak of his death and resurrection: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10.11 NRSV) “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down, and I have power to take it up again” (John 10.18 NRSV). For John the foot-washing pointed to the Cross

• This reference to the Cross is also present in the words of Jesus to Peter: “If I do not wash your feet, you will no longer be my disciples” (13.8). Jesus was not just talking of washing with water. He had in mind a deeper cleansing. He was in effect saying that ‘There is no place in my company for those who have not been cleansed from sin by my death. If you want to be one of my disciples, then you must receive the benefits of my death on the Cross’.

Read the foot-washing in the light of the Cross, and all sorts of facets relating to the death of Jesus appear. The truth is that in washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus was pointing to his Cross, and giving it meaning.

We discover in fact that the Cross is a place of amazing love – a place of extraordinary humility – and a place of deepest cleansing.


John begins the story of the foot-washing by saying: Jesus “had always loved those in the world who were his own, and he loved them to the very end” (13.1) – i.e. he loved them even to the end of his life, even to the point of the Cross.
Immediately John goes on to speak of Judas Iscariot. The implication is that Jesus loved even Judas, he loved even the one whose heart was set to betray him.
Just as Jesus washed the feet of Judas, so too in love he died for Judas.

The NIV has an alternative translation of John 13.1: “He now showed them the full extent of his love”. The love of Jesus extends to all infinity.
As Paul was later to write to the Ephesians, the love of Jesus knows no bounds – the breadth & length, the depth & height of the love of Jesus are beyond comprehension. His love is literally “unfathomable”, “unsearchable”, it “surpasses knowledge” (NRSV) (Eph 3.18,19)


As we have already discovered, washing the feet of others was a demeaning, humbling experience. Slaves of Jewish birth were not bound to perform this meal task.
But Jesus turned the tables. Jesus, the Lord of glory, stooped to perform the task of a slave.

What was true of his washing his disciples’ feet, was true even more of the Cross
In the words of the great Christ-hymn: Jesus, “though he was in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil 2.6-8 NRSV).
In the words of the AV, Jesus “made himself of no reputation”.
Jesus, the Son of God from all eternity, took upon himself the role of the Suffering Servant spoken of in Isaiah 53: “My devoted servant, with whom I am pleased, will bear the punishment of many and for his sake I will forgive them” (53.11).


The purpose of the foot-washing was cleansing.
Likewise the purpose of the Cross was cleansing.

Just as it was impossible to tramp the dusty roads of Palestine without getting grubby
beyond, so it is impossible to live life without picking up all sorts of dirt on life’s journey.
The fact is that none of us are clean – all of our lives are stained by sin.

Jesus once said: “From a person’s heart come the evil ideas which lead him to do immortal thing, to rob, kill, commit adultery, be greedy, and do all sorts of evil things; deceit, indecency, jealousy, slander, pride, & folly – all these evil things …. make a person unclean” (Mark 7.21-23).
We may not have robbed or killed a person, but almost certainly we have been jealous, proud, deceitful…… In the words of Paul: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3.23 NRSV).

Humanly speaking there is no way in which we can get clean again – in which we can get right with God.
But God has provided us with a solution in his Son.
He has provided us with a Lamb, he has provided us with a Saviour.
The good news is that however much we may have messed up our lives, he can make us clean. As John was later to write in his First Letter: “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn 1.7)!

Last Friday I was at a coroners’ dinner in Cambridge: unlike the previous year, I did not wear a white dinner jacket, but a black dinner jacket. For the previous year my wife had messed up my white jacket big-time. She got so excited that she threw a glass of red wine down my beautiful jacket – although she then immediately three a white glass of wine down my jacket – it has never been the same – the dry cleaner did his best, but the stain can still be seen.

But in Jesus we can become truly clean.
In Jesus we can truly begin again
In Jesus there is the deepest cleansing
As a result, whoever we are and whatever we have done, we are welcome at this table.
For in Jesus there is total forgiveness –

In summary: Jesus the Servant washed his disciples’ feet
• in so doing he sets us an example
• and at the same time he points us to the wonder of his love for us on the Cross.

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