We Are Still Bad at Taking Up the Towel

It had been quite a week.

A few days earlier, Jesus had entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey to the adulation of the crowds who welcomed him there. The next day, Jesus performed one of His stranger miracles, cursing a fig tree and then driving out the profiteers from the temple grounds.

He came back to those same grounds and engaged the religious leaders head on, and then predicted His own death and resurrection. The city, meanwhile, was swelling with Passover pilgrims and visitors, and those same religious leaders began to put their assassination plot into motion.

And now, in the midst of this whirlwind of activity, controversy, and anxious nerves about what was to come, Jesus came into the Upper Room. Once there, He did something that astounded His friends, though at this point, it might not should have: He washed their feet:

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him (John 13:2-5).

This was, of course, not a job befitting Jesus. Or at least it wasn’t in the eyes of His disciples. It was a dirty job; it was a role reserved for the servants of the house. But there He was, the One they had followed, doing that which was so clearly beneath Him. 

At least one disciple was indignant about it – Peter objected that Jesus should not be doing such a menial task. There might have been others – nervous looks; coughs; sideways glances – all feeling at least a little uncomfortable at what was unfolding.

But despite the uncomfortable feelings and outright objections, there was yet one, simple thing no one in the room ever thought to do:

Not a single person volunteered to take up the towel himself.

No, they were not comfortable with Jesus serving like this. Yes, they wholeheartedly believed Him to be above such an act. And yet the basin and the towel was there. So were the dirty feet. Someone had to actually do the job, but not one disciple volunteered. Nobody walked to Jesus and took the towel out of His hands; nobody put up their hand and simply stated, “I will do that.” They might have tried to stop Him, but no one took up the towel. They were, you might say, very adept at criticizing or critiquing or strategizing or analyzing – but they were very, very low on initiative.

Perhaps not much has changed.

We are at a point in history when it has never been easier to armchair quarterback just about anything. Church? Politics? Science? Football? It’s all the same – all there to be commented on, analyzed, and judged. We are pretty good at all that – we are pretty bad at actually doing something about it.

What a simple thing it would have been in that room – just to ask Jesus if you could have the towel instead of Him and start doing the thing that no one else wanted to do. This is not just saying that serving is a good idea; it’s actually doing it. 

And perhaps, in the midst of all the potential solutions for all that plagues our culture today, here is one small step we can all take. That is, to not comment on what should be done; to not pontificate on what should be done; to not bemoan what should be done; to cease the analysis, the strategizing, and the second-guessing and to simply do what needs to be done.

Perhaps now is the time when we can cease to be the disciples who stare aghast at what’s happening before them, and to start being the disciples who take small, but significant, actions of service. For while it’s true that talking and planning and strategizing and analyzing has much value, what is also important is for people to just take action. Or at least it’s true when it comes to jobs like foot-washing which offer no notoriety or adulation; jobs that comes with a willing acceptance of dishonor. But jobs that nevertheless need to be done.

This is what taking up the towel – as opposed to talking about taking up the towel – means. Maybe the day has finally come for blue-collar Christians who are willing to do the job.

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