Brian Stiller



Global Ambassador @ WEA

Brian Stiller



Global Ambassador @ WEA

Post Articles

Remember the Towel

April 20, 1995 Articles

Religious symbols are important. They link people’s beliefs to concrete reality and serve as reminders of them. For Christians, there are many: fish, bread, the cup, a dove, the cross, a pillar of fire, a rainbow. All produced in many styles and shapes, adorning an ear, a neck, the spire of a cathedral, a car bumper, a letterhead. My favorite is the Huguenot cross; a dove hanging from a Byzantine cross.

The cross, the most famous of all Christian symbols, is a symbol of beauty today, but at the time of Christ it was the worst of all realities. It told of unbelievable torture at the hands of the Romans. It would be like a South African today wearing the symbol of a tire on a gold chain as piece of jewelry.

But the symbol Jesus gave as a reminder of his life in us has been studiously ignored. It began this way.

As the disciples and Jesus gathered, the sun was quickly dropping over the western hills. They walked up the steps to a borrowed room for what would be their final supper together. Thousands of Jews from surrounding villages and countries were gathered in Jerusalem. Memories of the first Passover filled their thoughts. It was 1524 years earlier, on this very night, that the fathers of Jewish families living in Egypt carefully sprinkled blood on the door posts of their homes. For that night the Angel of Death would take the eldest boy from every family not protected by the mark of the blood. It was remembered as the Passover.

The twelve plus Jesus walked into the prepared room. Before them was a table spread with the feast, surrounded by cushions and brightly colored decorations. The rich aroma of freshly baked bread blended with the sweet fragrance of roast lamb.

Hungrily, each broke off crisp pieces of unleavened bread and dipped them in steaming dishes of bitter herbs. The roast lamb quickly disappeared, washed down with great gulps of delicious wine sparkling in the flickering lamplight.

The dinner was festive. They joked and bantered back and forth. Then Peter noticed Judas.

“Hey Judas, what’s bothering you?” The mood changed.

“Did you notice how nervous the Roman soldiers are tonight,” asked Simon the Zealot? “The underground movement is getting ready to kick these Romans out once and for all.”

That spark lit a fuse. Soon angry words bounced off the walls. Conversation came around to the most contentious issue of all: Who would get the prime assignments in the new kingdom? Like a shadow cabinet of an opposition party, anticipating the day they’ll be in power, the disciples were positioning themselves for their day of power.

Jesus said nothing. His body language showed no ridicule or contempt. In their animosity and greed, the disciples had forgotten about him. Without a word he dropped his tunic and mantle, wrapped a towel around his waist, picked up a bowl of water from the wash stand, and started at the end of the table to wash the feet of each one in turn.

It took a moment for the disciples to notice. Conversation stopped. Intrigue turned to silent embarrassment. The contrast of the disciples’ self-interest to Jesus’ servant role cut the atmosphere like a knife.

But Jesus knew what he was doing. These feet would carry the gospel to the outposts of the world… Rome, Africa, Asia Minor, India, Europe….

A hush filled the room. Discomfort cooled hot heads. Jesus had said, “The first shall be last…” and some remembered, too late, his words. All eyes looked for some vacant spot, none wanted to look at another, or be seen by another.

It was more than Peter could take. “Never…”

“If I do not wash you, you have no part of me.”

First flushed with anger, then humiliated, excited and now rebuked, Peter blustered, “not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.”

The washing finished, Jesus slipped into his clothes and laid back on the cushions. A pensive mood hung over the room. No one dared speak. Like children caught smoking behind the barn, they waited. Finally, Jesus asked, “Do you know what I’ve done to you?”

He had shocked their sense of calling and task. They were about to take over the world, the kingdom was about to be launched. David’s throne was finally, once and for all to be established and they would be at the very center of power. So thought the disciples.

In that moment, Jesus gave the symbol rejected then and today. A symbol that would topple the mighty power of Rome and break the resistance of cultures and hearts: the towel. What was seen as the weakest of all was made into the most powerful.

Jesus didn’t provide us with a symbol that impresses the powerful or mighty. He didn’t put into our hands the same weapons of warfare used by the armies of culture, government or ideologies. Instead of a sword he gave us a towel.

There is no mistaking his intention: “If I then, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.”

When has your church celebrated the calling of Christ by washing each other’s feet. Repulsive? Yes. But no less so than in Jesus’ time.

Of all the symbols we accumulate, hang around our necks or emboss on our Bibles, maybe it’s time we remembered the towel.

Brian C Stiller