Serving the High Plains

Christ's basin overturns all the kings

They didn’t understand what he was up to. When I say “they,” I mean all of them. The Pharisees and Sadducees (conservatives and liberals). The Herodians, politically loyal to King Herod, who suspected that Jesus might lead an armed insurrection. The revolutionary Zealots, who would’ve loved that. The 12 closest disciples of Jesus.

Whatever it was that he was up to, it didn’t involve acting like a normal king. They knew kings. They were familiar. This Nazarene was not that.

Many hope that when he returns, he’ll finally act like a normal king, wiping out armies with great violence. He’ll be totally different than he ever was. We’ll see.

This all came to a head in the “upper room” on the night that Jesus was betrayed. Celebrating the Passover meal with his disciples, it would prove to be a meal with malcontents; a table with traitors; a dinner with deserters.

Jesus knew this before they sat down. Still, he rose from the table and dressed himself like a household slave. Taking a basin of water and a towel, he went to them, one by one, and performed the most menial act of servitude. He washed their feet.

Peter, characteristically, opens his mouth. “Lord,” he says, “do you wash my feet?”

It’s important that he calls him Lord, and not some other title like rabbi. A Lord has the authority to boss people around. Calling him the Lord here is a powerful way of reminding Jesus of his status, implying certain rules of order and propriety.

Do you wash my feet? Shouldn’t I wash yours instead?

Indeed, since Genesis, that is the way it’s been. The great ones use their authority to boss around the lesser ones. Masters get served. Slaves do the serving. The authorities exercise dominion. It’s only natural.

When he had completed the duty of a slave toward them, he said, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

Jesus had the right to point at one of his disciples and order him to wash everyone’s feet. Nobody would’ve objected, although the one he chose might well have wondered why the Lord had singled him out for such humiliation. Why’s he mad at me?

At the risk of insulting the reader’s intelligence by emphasizing the obvious, let’s go ahead and put a neon sign over it: Jesus used a basin full of water to overturn the whole history of kings, masters, and coercive power. Greatness is now characterized, not by power, but by service and lowliness.

Christians have not been called to revolutionary overthrow of governments. We don’t win by violence or coercion. But we do win, as Christ wins. Our goal is not to take over seats of executive power; or to see better rulers take the place of bad ones.

Our goal is to live in a way that renders all the rulers redundant and obsolete. As we follow the example of the upper room, God bestows authority, but not the controlling kind. The way to kingdom greatness is a path that winds downward, where a basin of water waits for a servant’s hand.

Gordan Runyan is the pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Tucumcari. Contact him at:

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