Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Pick Up the Basin and the Towel

I have always liked the song "The Basin and the Towel," by Michael Card.  It is based on the account found in John13 after Christ institutes the Lord's Supper, and is preparing to go to the cross.  After the meal, he gathers his disciples and he does the unthinkable:  he washes their feet.  He removes his outer garments, dons the garb of a slave, and he washes their feet.  This is shocking to the disciples.

D.A. Carson comments:
Doubtless the disciples would have been happy to wash his feet; they could not conceive of washing one another's feet, since this was a task normally reserved for the lowliest of menial servants.  Peers did not wash one another's feet, except very rarely and as a mark of great love.  Some Jews insisted that Jewish slaves should not be required to wash the feet of others; this job would be reserved for Gentile slaves, or for women and children and pupils.  In one well-known story, when  Rabbi Ishmael returned home from synagogue one day and his mother wanted to wash his feet, he refused on the ground that the task was too demeaning. She took the matter to the rabbinic court on the ground that she viewed the task, in his case, as an honour.  The reluctance of Jesus' disciples to volunteer for such a task is, to say the least, culturally understandable; their shock at his volunteering is not merely the result of being shamefaced, it is their response to finding their sense of the fitness of things shattered.  But here Jesus reverses normal roles.
In John 13:12-14, Jesus tells them why he is doing this.  He tells them that he is giving them an example to follow.  Of course, he does not mean that all they will do now is wash people's feet.  He is painting a picture; a picture of what service looks like.  He tells them, "If your Lord washes your feet, then you ought to wash each other's feet."  The distinctions are gone; service isn't about rank or privilege, it's about humility. The one who was about to hang on the cross, suffer, and die, was serving them, despite He being the one who is worthy to be served.  As Christ's disciples, this is our example, too.

Service and sacrifice are related.  We read in Romans 12:1 that we are to present our bodies a living sacrifice, which is what Paul calls our "spiritual worship."  Service is an outflow of our worship.  We want to serve the one we worship.  The recipients of our service to God are the ones around us, whether in the Body of Christ, or outside the Body of Christ, but the motivation behind what we do is to worship our God.  The passage in John demonstrates that service is to be motivated by humility.

It may be subtle, but often, our service can be less about the object of our worship and more about ourselves.  It is a temptation at times for me to serve for myself instead of of the Lord.  It becomes evident when I begin to do things like grumble because I am not being recognized for my service,  continually compare my service to others', or get insulted when I don't get words of praise.  When service is done for the accolades or the pat on the back, it has stopped being an act of worship.  Sometimes, we are motivated more by a desire to make a name for ourselves than exalt the name of God.  That is not the picture Jesus gives us here.  The picture is lowering ourselves.  He must increase and I must decrease.  Of course, sincere servants of God may attract attention simply because their service is a blessing to many; that is not wrong.  The problems begin when our motive for serving is the recognition, or worse, we stop serving because we're not getting it.

In her book  The Afternoon of Life, Elyse Fitzpatrick, in the context of service opportunities, discusses the relationship between service and a title.  I like how she puts this:
 Any woman who wants to pick up the basin and the towel may do so whether she's got a title or not.
We love titles:  manager, co-ordinator, deacon, chairperson, vice-president; whatever.  Sometimes, titles are necessary, but they don't make the service more legitimate.  What makes it legitimate is the object of our worship, and the willingness to pick up the basin and the towel, no matter what the task.   We need not bemoan the lack of service opportunities.  They are everywhere.  Perhaps what is needful is a reminder of what true service looks like.  We need look no further than Christ Himself.


  1. This reminds me of Mrs. Watts, the lady who cleaned the church my dad pastored when I was a child. Every Saturday for many years she'd be there to clean the whole building in preparation for Sunday. She was very poor, and lived with her mentally ill grown son and unbelieving (and rather eccentrically mean) husband, so this service was all she could give.

    She's the example my dad would use whenever he talked about humility.

  2. This reminds me of Sunday's sermon on service in the church flowing out of the gospel. It also brings to mind the nursery workers who gladly rock the babies and change the messy diapers so the moms and dads can hear the ministry of the word.

  3. As a wife of one and a mother of five, the opportunities for service certainly abound, but I don't always want to serve in the less-than-glamorous situations. Thanks for this reminder.

  4. Kim, this is such an important message and one that's been close to my heart lately. In fact, you mentioned the basin & towel awhile ago on your blog and we have been quoting it around here. Sometimes I think God deliberating puts us down to test our true motives. Thanks for a gem.

  5. Great article. It reminds me of the adage, "Everyone wants to lead, but no one wants to do the dishes" (or something like that).
    You guys are also putting more books on my wish list. I want to read "The Afternoon of Life" now too!

  6. Aimee, Fitzpatrick wouldn't include you in her particular definition of the "afternoon," but you should start reading early. It can sneak up on you. It's a quick read, too.