The fragrance of roasted lamb, fresh unleavened bread and bitter herbs hangs heavily in the air. Oil lamps bathe the room in a warm glow and cast specter-like shadows upon the walls. These wraithlike spectators seem to hover, bearing silent witness to the drama that is unfolding. It is an ancient drama, but one being infused with fresh life and meaning.
Thirteen men recline at the table, enjoying a meal. Embedded in the meal’s elements are antediluvian reminders, residues of an age-old story. In that moment, time and space collapse, plunging these men in a river of antiquity that once again spills over history’s banks to flood the present with reviving water. God is alive and faithful to his covenant. As he once delivered, he will do so again.
Then the unthinkable! The storyteller sheds his robe and dons a servant’s apron and towel. Filling a basin, he begins to wipe the day’s grime and filth from their feet. Suddenly the atmosphere grows tense with instinctive recoils and embarrassed glances.
But a new chapter of God’s ancient story is being etched upon their hearts. God’s delivering presence, his awesome pillar of cloud and fire, is manifesting once again, yet, in a startling unexpected way – a towel and basin. God’s rescuing and restoring presence tangibly fills the room as it did Israel’s camp through the intimate, cleansing, even embarrassing touch of a friend’s serving hand.
In that moment, one can almost hear the pursuing army crest the hill in hot pursuit as it did millennia prior. But this army is neither Egyptian nor Roman. No, those empires were only puppets in the hands of the true enemy, an enemy that God now comprehensively engages. This time the enemy charges at us from within. Pride. Arrogance. Anger. Contempt. “You shall never wash my feet!” The worst sins are often cloaked in the noblest rationalizations and intentions.
Once again, as in ages past, the pillar of cloud and fire sweeps between God’s people and their foe. “If I don’t wash your feet, you can’t be a part of me.” Sin is exposed and routed, yielding to clarity and invitation.
Jesus’ words are not a threat, simply a statement of fact. He is enacting a new climactic movement in the divine drama and invites his friends to join the inspired improvisation. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
The cloud and fire – now the towel and basin – not only rescue and restore, but also commission, foreshadowing a forthcoming charge, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
Like Jesus, we too must embody the rescuing and restoring presence of God. We must wield the towel and basin. We must disrobe, kneel, touch and restore.
So Jesus’ chastisement of Peter’s swagger makes sense. In order to improvise authentically Christ’s pattern, one must first abide comfortably in that reality. One cannot participate in Christ’s restorative work unless he or she has been the humiliated recipient of Christ’s love. Otherwise, our attempts to serve and love others easily dwindle to our own pride and superiority cloaked with false sentiment. And this, by far, is more insidious than any conquering army.