The towel before the tomb

Mar 24, 2016 by

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[Jesus] got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. — John 13:4

To invite people to look at, to wash, to care for our feet is to invite them to accept us as we are. — Wes Howard-Brook, John’s Gospel & The Renewal of the Church (1997)

In each of the four canonical Gospels, Jesus is portrayed in terms of kenosis, or self-emptying. In none of the canonical Gospels is the scandal of the cross removed in favor of the divine glory. — Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (1996)

For those just now tuning in, Western Christianity is in the midst of a massive intramural contest over what it means to follow Jesus. Fortunately and strategically, Holy Week re-calibrates us toward a creative and constructive imitation of Jesus’ life of service. If the various brands of Christianity (from evangelical to ecumenical, from Catholic to Charismatic, from fundamentalist to free-thinking) can come together on Maundy Thursday and focus our respective energies and resources on acting out the Gospel script (washing one another’s wretched feet), we can realistically hope for a more compelling witness to our audacious claim that a redemptive Something pervades our existence.

According to biblical scholar and RadicalDiscipleship.Net contributor Wes Howard-Brook, the meaning of Jesus’ footwashing is deep and layered, but two key implications emerge:

  1. Followers of Jesus are exhorted to vulnerability and intimacy within their community. It starts with a personal and communal focus on the dirty work of washing others and the uncomfortable work of being washed by others.
  2. The command for priests to wash their feet before they meet God (Exodus 30:19) is extended to all would-be followers of the Way. Everyone has access to the Divine (no longer limited to male professional religionists working in a “sacred” building).

Jesus’ scandalous act of foot-washing, the day before his torturous murder, infuses his followers with a different kind of mentality altogether. This Christ-consciousness, what biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson calls the “messianic pattern,” is the glue that holds together the diversity of the four Gospels, not to mention the rest of the New Testament documents. If Christianity means anything at all, it surely must entail a rugged commitment to a self-donating love of friends, family and, yes, even those who betray us.

On the night of his arrest and torture, Jesus stripped down and washed the feet of every one of his followers, providing an example of humility and service for the ages. After all, first-century Palestinian society was enmeshed in a hierarchical and patriarchal ordering of social, political and economic relationships. All clearly knew their places in society, with Caesar at the very top (children and slaves at the bottom). Conventional wisdom would have had the disciples (or hired servants) extending the hospitality to Jesus, being the elderly male, the master and teacher in the room. But Jesus flipped the script and set the standard for what ought to be emulated after his death.

Ironically, Jesus’ downward mobility is “good news” in a gratuitously inequitable North American culture obsessed with status, power and image. The key to faithful appropriation of Jesus’ example, though, is an understanding of social power, and who has it in any given context. According to Elaine Enns & Ched Myers, in Ambassadors of Reconciliation: Volume II (2009), it starts with

our willingness and ability to apprehend critically how power is distributed in our own households and communities, in the specific political scenarios we wish to engage, and in the broader society in which we live and work.

As a white heterosexual male, I have inherited massive doses of power and privilege. Let’s just say I’ve got a bit of a messiah complex. Jesus’ water basin calls me to recognize this in every context and to stand down, so that the voices, talents and gifts of others may be offered toward the beautification and redemption of the world. This journey of critical analysis will take intentionality, time, effort and energy. It doesn’t just happen. It is messy. It calls me to daily examine my own motivation and maneuvering and calls me to downgrade the degrees I’ve “earned” and the propped-up identities I cherish. It challenges me to expose and confront the ways that systems discriminate based on gender, race, class and sexual orientation.

Before Jesus sat down and offered the symbols of his body and blood poured out in love for the sake of the world, he erased the unwritten power rules of his day. He downshifted to slave status. We must not forget that the filthy water came before the wafer and the wine. We are called to walk the path of Holy Week in proper succession. Before the triumph of the tomb, our lives must bear witness, in word and deed, to the towel and the torture.

Tom Airey is the co-editor of radicaldiscipleship.net, where this post first appeared. He and his wife, Lindsay, live in Detroit, where they are serving with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and the Jeanie Wylie Christian Community.


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