Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” (John 13:3-10)
Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ humiliation is quite similar to what my own would have been. No, Lord, you can’t do this; you can’t lower yourself that much. How could the one we all understand to be the King of Israel act as if he were a servant? Please, stand up. Frankly, you’re embarrassing us.
And yet we can all clearly see (with enough hindsight, of course) that every step Jesus took expressed his humility. Every time he faced a group of religious leaders who ridiculed him or escaped from an angry crowd, Jesus was “lowering” himself. The one who created everything was forced to live as a man; the prince had become a pauper.
Here, Jesus is doing exactly what Paul described in Philippians 2:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
At this time of year, it is easy for us to think about Jesus is purely individualistic terms. This season is about Jesus dying for us, for our sins. And yet on this day we are forced to consider another aspect of our Lord’s ministry. Following his example, we “lower” ourselves, doing things many may consider beneath us. We feed the hungry and minister to the poor. We take the Gospel to places others refuse to even think about. We become servants to all, putting others ahead of our own needs. Just like Jesus did.