The Ministry of the Towel: Service in the Vein of Jesus

Towels play such a humble role in our lives. We use towels (whether regular or disposable) for a variety of reasons—drying off, cleaning up messes, laying on at the beach, etc. To be honest, I never really think of towels that often, yet they are so ingrained into the rhythms of my everyday life.

This past Sunday I asked the question, “What if towels (regular or disposable) ceased to exist?” How would their absence affect our lives? Not to be overdramatic here, but we would be dirtier, filthier, nastier, and messier. Could you imagine having to drip dry every day after exiting the shower? Could you imagine not having anything to clean the toilet with—especially the one where your 11-year-old has a tough time aiming 🙂

Thus, when thinking about the ministry of the towel, I’m sure we would all agree it makes us go WOW! Towels do so much to enhance our lives for the better.

Jesus, in John 13, takes upon Himself the ministry of the towel. Before sharing the Passover meal, Jesus disrobes his outer garments and wraps a towel around his waist, and after filling a basin full of water begins washing the disciples stinky, nasty, bunion-infested, feet. In doing so, Jesus assumes one of the lowliest positions and postures of the day—a Gentile servant/slave.

But why on earth would he serve like this?

Before answering this question, I think it’s important to understand why other philosophies, religions, and people serve today, which will show the distinction between their service and Jesus’ service (and the kind of service His followers should embrace).

  1. Atheists serve for self-fulfillment and exaltation. Given that Atheists have no over-arching purpose in life other than self-glory and satisfaction, their service—if they do serve others—is for their own benefit and fulfillment.
  2. Most religions who advocate service, do so for the purposes of gaining God’s favor, blessing, and even salvation. They serve not to [ultimately] give, but to [ultimately] receive. They give their time, talents, and treasures—their lives—as payment and penance to satisfy God.
  3. Some serve out of moral compassion. It’s embedded within human nature to have moral compassion since we are created in God’s image. Usually service out of moral compassion is demonstrated in parents, family, friends, or a tragedy—whether natural disaster, terrorists attack, death, etc.—that grips our heart.
  4. Some serve because they are forced or compensated. Some may call this the service industry. We pay people to serve us—massage our feet, clean our hotel rooms, give us manis and pedis, collect our trash, clean our house, wash our car, or cut our grass.
  5. Some serve out of pride. We call these people “posers.” They are trying to be someone they are not. They give the impression that they are a servant, serving at the pleasure of other people, but what they are really doing is serving themselves.
  6. Some serve out of insecurity. We call these people “people-pleasers.” People-pleasers constantly serve others through either their humble acts or their conciliatory attitude. Their motives for doing so is to build up their security (or self-esteem) in the eyes of what other people—whether their boss, friends, spouse, etc.—think of them.
  7. Some serve to get a return. We call these people “shark-investors.” They see others as investments. Thus, they serve others only to the degree of their return, or what they will get back. A phrase that corresponds with this kind of service is, “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine.” Many politicians would fit into the category. They serve people and promise to do such and such in exchange for their support and vote.
  8. Some serve to elevate their position and notoriety. We call these people “brown-nosers.” Brown-nosers constantly serve people in an attempt to be noticed to the degree that something good might happen to them—get a promotion, a raise, or an invitation to be in the “cool” crowd.

These are some of the many reasons why people serve others today. Yet, this is not why Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist and served His disciples by washing their feet. And these are not the reasons why we should serve and love people today. In observing Jesus’ service and love in John 13, there are at least three reasons why Jesus radically and humbly served and loved others. And these become the reasons why we should radically and humbly serve and love others today.

First, our love and service should be in the vein of Jesus’ love and service on the cross. When we serve, we should be demonstrating the way Jesus loved and served people when He went to the cross to die for the sins of the world. As such, our service and love should be sacrificial, selfless, and costly. Our service and love should strive to make Christ known among both our neighbors and the nations.

In addition, our love and service should be done from a place of need not convenience. We live in a culture of convenience; thus, we serve, love, and give if it’s convenient. Yet, this is not the way of the towel ministry of the Jesus. Jesus served from a place of need—seeing that we were sheep without a shepherd, seeing that we were broken in need of healing, seeing that we were separated from a holy God in need of a bridge—and willingly and humbly lowered himself in the most inconvenient way to meet our need!

When it comes to serving and loving our family, friends, church, community, city, and world, we must realize that it will be an inconvenience.

If we wait to radically serve and love people when it is convenient, we will be waiting a lifetime.

Second, our love and service should seek to enhance one’s condition. In other words, those that God has placed around us (be it our spouse, children, co-workers, employees, company, community, orphans, widows, widowers, families, etc.) should be better off as a result of our presence and service in their life. That night when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, practically speaking, they were cleaner. Their lives had been enhanced to some degree.

When we serve and love others, one of the goals should be to enhance or elevate their lives in some way.

Enhancement, or flourishing, can be multifaceted; it can be emotional, spiritual, physical, social, financial, vocational, etc.

For instance, James 5:16, 19 states, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. . . . My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” If one follows this verse, they will be serving and loving another brother or sister to the degree that their life is spiritually enhanced.

Another example of serving and loving to the point of enhancing one’s life can take place when a financial savvy person, who manages their money well, teaches another person how to manage their finances and become a good steward. Through their love and service of teaching and mentoring in the area of finance they enhance and elevate that person’s financial acuity.

Third, our love and service should tangibly demonstrate God’s desire as well as our desire to be in relationship with that person. In other words, Jesus doesn’t call our love and service to be done at a distance, but to be done up close and personal. Jesus tells Peter that if he doesn’t let Him clean his feet than Peter has no share, no connection, no relationship with Him. While Jesus is communicating a deeper truth about the need for continual confession and cleansing that allows Jesus, the gospel, to continually renew us, He is also communicating that the ministry of the towel (love and service) is personal and relational.

Jesus served in such a way that He expressed His deep desire to know us—to be personally and intimately connected to us.

Later in the Gospel of John Jesus exclaimed, “Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus served in such a way that it became a tangible and practical invitation for people to become part of the kingdom and family of God. Thus, our service and love today should be a tangible and practical invitation for people to know us, but even more importantly for people to know our great God and King and become part of His family.

While this type of love and service can take on various manifestations, I ran across a story about Eric Liddell—The “Flying Scotsman” and the famous Olympic gold medalists who refused to run on Sundays—that powerfully illustrates this type of love and service.

What some may not know about Eric Liddell is that he became a missionary to China. While in China WWII broke out. After Japan invaded China, Eric and his family traveled back to Canada for a furlough and thought about just staying there to wait out the war. However, God moved so powerfully in their lives that they simply couldn’t stay in the safety and security of Canada. As a result, they returned to China.

After their return it became extremely dangerous for the family, especially since Eric’s wife was pregnant with their third child. After spending time in prayer, they decided that Eric’s wife and children would return to Canada while he stayed back serving in China. That would be the last time he would ever see his family.

Eventually things got worse in China for Eric and all other foreigners. Since Japan considered them enemy nationals they were sent to an imprisonment camp. While there, without his family, he served the people of the camp. He helped clean the communal toilets for hygiene purposes. He taught the camp school, organized various sports for the kids, and even planned worship services. He also looked after 300 orphans who were in the camp.

As time passed in the camp, people started growing weary of the difficult conditions. Many people became unhappy, selfish, and even started stealing food. However, Eric didn’t. He stayed positive and cheerful, teaching others to love their enemies—including the Japanese.

One of the stories that struck me about Eric Liddell while in this imprisonment camp was about a 17-year-old who had completely worn out his shoes. Knowing that this young man had no shoes Eric wrapped up his running shoes as a gift and handed them to this teenager. The historic shoes that once wrapped the feet of a gold medalist, now had been taken off and put on a 17-year-old teenager with dirty feet.

That’s the purpose of the ministry of the towel. It’s to take off our shoes and put them on other people’s feet! It’s about taking what is so meaningful and special to us (time, talents, and treasure), and imparting it to others. It’s about giving and serving from the perceived need not our personal convenience. It’s about serving at the pleasure of and for the glory of the king!

I’m certain that Eric served and loved people because he felt the same way serving as he felt when he ran…”he felt the pleasure of God.”

The prison camp was better off because of Eric’s presence. That young man’s life was enhanced as a result of Eric’s love and service. In fact, because of Eric’s extraordinary love and service, one man promised God if he survived the war he would become a missionary to Japan. Think about it. One man was so moved by Eric’s life of service and love that he was willing to give his life to go to the country that had caused so much hurt and heartache.

In closing, are we serving and loving in such a way that we point back to the love and service of Jesus on the cross? Are we serving and loving in such a way that it enhances the lives of those around us? And are we serving and loving in such a personal way that we are inviting people to join the family of God?

When we serve and love in such ways we take upon ourselves the ministry of the towel which makes people go WOW—not because of who we are, but because of who Christ is in and through us!

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