In the weeks before Jesus’ crucifixion, his disciples squabbled over who would be the greatest in his kingdom—the kingdom they expected him to set up at that time, where he would rule as an earthly potentate. John and James’ mother even argued her sons’ case for positions of prominence. Lazarus’ raising, Jesus’ triumphal entry to hearty cheers, the casting out of the money changers, more miracles, the Lord’s wise refuting of the religious leaders—all of these events filled their minds. Surely, it was time!
Meanwhile, with this background chatter in his ears, Jesus’ heart and mind were fixed on teaching as much truth as possible, making his deity and love apparent, and then getting up on that cross. His goal was different than theirs for the present. They were at cross purposes.
The kingdom had to be won first—the cost was his death.
He kept telling them: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 20:18-19 ESV).
After the fact, this seems pretty clear. But his disciples didn’t listen or take heed; they didn’t remember. We often don’t either. Oblivious to the Master’s plan for redemption, they looked forward to an earthly reign, the defeat of the Romans, and their prominent positions.
The day before his death, as Jesus directed the disciples’ preparation of the Passover feast and interacted with people in Jerusalem, his disciples quibbled. I have six children. When they were all small and summer wore long, the quibbling began. Year by year, I moved our homeschooling start date earlier and earlier—idle hands needed something to do. Idle disciples needed work and an example.
Weary and emotional about his coming ordeal and their incomprehension of his mission to die for the sins of mankind, Jesus trudged up the stairs to the upper room and saw that no provision had been made for the number-one rule of first-century hospitality—guests needed to wash. Sandaled feet covered with dust, offal, urine, and excrement needed to be cleansed. Arrayed around the table, the guests would recline, propped on elbows as they ate, their feet near one another’s upper bodies. Feet had to be cleaned.
Since each one sought prestige, the disciples all flopped down, each waiting for the others to do the dirty work. Watching and waiting, Jesus took his place, giving them the chance to serve, ever patient. Six days earlier, Lazarus’ sister Mary had anointed Jesus’ head and feet with nard. The lingering scent of the sweet embalming perfume, whiffs of her adoration and comprehension, probably soothed his heart. She had heeded; she had remembered.
But on this night of his last supper, no one thought of service. No awareness was shown that Jesus’ time had come, even though he had spoken of it often. None remembered.
Of course, he did not react like you or I would. He never does. He has no insecurities. He is God. He knew that the Father had put all things under his power, that he had come from God, and that he was about to return (John 13:3). Our mighty God is a God of love. His love always provokes him to sacrifice rather than to exploit his position (Philippians 2:1-11).
Heart filled with affection, Jesus showed them the full extent of his love (John 13:1). He rose from the table, removed his outer garments, poured the water, and wrapped a towel about his waist. Idle disciples received a lesson: He who would be greatest among you must become the servant of all. The Messiah—Creator of the universe, Son of God—lifted filthy foot after filthy foot into the water, drying them with the towel, dumping and refilling often. He cleaned soles and toes and hearts. He cleanses us still.
As he washed, he spoke gentle lessons. “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8b). He gave a quiet tutorial, his actions speaking louder than his words. “I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15). And then, they ate, and he talked his way through five chapters of the most encouraging words in scripture and a prayer that included even us (John 13-17).
Our lives and actions are to be lived in remembrance of him—this example, these words, this life.
This is why we repeat his final meal regularly, why we break the bread and drink the wine—to remember him, to avoid the lack of awareness that his disciples showed that night, to repent of similar selfishness, to recall how to follow his example. Doing so, we proclaim his death until he returns. His death and resurrection are the hope of mankind.
“This is my body which is for you,” he said. “Do this in remembrance of me…This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24b, 25b ESV).
Lord, we remember you. Let us never forget. We repent of our selfish striving. Enable us to live like you.