Where Does Real Courage Come From?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Dressed in Towel


                                                         Reflections on John 13:3-5


Jesus…got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin…
                                                                                                John 13:3-5


He did what should never be done.

He broke our rules. We have fixed social order. We have class distinctions. Those below us work to be like us. Those above us never stoop to come down to us. There are rules. There are ancient boundaries society demands to be honored.

Every society. And that night was no different.

Jewish men never touch that towel. Not even Jewish men who are slaves. Women can. Children can. But it is generally reserved for the lowest class of people. Gentile slaves. Mere property. Society’s worst. Barely recognized as human. 1

Nobody who’s anybody touches that towel.

And yet, He did.

Did the Twelve stop eating, stop talking? Were their eyes fixed on Him? Why didn’t one of them stop Him? Or, help Him? Or tell Him he’d do it instead? But no one moved. They watched Him take the towel and open it up. They knew exactly what He was doing now. He was not just looking like a slave.

He was about to do what slaves do.

The servant towel is long. It’s designed first to be worn then, with the extra material out front, to dry the washed feet. 2 And that’s exactly what Jesus does. He wraps the towel around His waist. It’s the first step. Then He reaches for the basin. It was all there. Everything needed for washing. Just no servant. But now, the Servant is here. He reaches for the jug of water.

He pours. It’s the only sound in the upper room.

Why is He doing this? If anything, they should be washing His feet. How many times over the last three and a half years have they seen people fall at His feet? Who can forget the woman who washed His feet with her tears and dried them with her hair? They should be doing this to Him, not the other way around.

It’s never been done before. Not in Jewish custom. Not like this. No one moves. Most likely, no one could, even if they tried.

He puts the jug down, grabs the basin, turns to them and stands there, dressed in a servant’s towel, holding the basin of water with both hands. He decides where to start, takes a step, then another, and quietly moves toward them.

*       *       *

During John’s two years in the States, we worked on projects together. The first, most important, was to bring Harriet, his wife, and their two youngest children, Joy and Andrew, to be with John for his last year of study.

Some calls, a few generous donors, and our prayers were answered.

The second project was more complicated. John and I had many long talks about ways we could benefit the poor in his community. Together, we dreamed of shipping a large container to Uganda full of medical supplies, clothing, fabric, furniture, seed, tools, schoolbooks, toys, art supplies, bicycles, appliances, various household items, and, if possible, a car.

At this point in John’s life, he was an Archdeacon. This meant he traveled great distances from church to church on his bicycle – his only means of transport.

We drafted a budget.

With the Mission Committee at church, I put together a brochure designed to reach suppliers who’d donate goods and benefactors who’d give money.

I showed it to John.

“Here’s the plan,” I suggested. “We know pastors all across the country who’ll invite you to preach in their church. We’ll make sure they pass this brochure out and raise money for the project.”

“No,” John pushed back.

“But John,” I tried to argue, “we have to.”

“No!” he repeated. “I will preach the gospel. I will not raise funds.”

“Fair enough. We can ask the pastors to do it.”

He shook his head. “No mixing. If I hold the Bible in one hand and tell people about Jesus, but in the other hand, I hold my hand out for money, who will believe what I say about Jesus? All they will see is a poor African asking for money. No, I will preach the gospel. Full stop! Nothing more!”

“We’ll never raise the fund that way, John.”

“It’s not true. This project is the Lord’s project. It is for the poor in my country. The Lord will do this for His glory, not ours. You must have faith.”

“So, you won’t even take the brochures with you?” I asked, almost pleading.

Again, he shook his head and it reminded me of the time John was being interviewed at a wealthy church in downtown Pittsburgh. A man stood up, wanting to make a donation, and asked, “What can I do for you?”

John replied quickly, “You can be in relationship with me and my family. You know, when we come to the cross of Jesus, we all stand on level ground.”

The man looked puzzled. I don’t think he understood.

That moment gave me insight into John. He was not first a poor African man. He was not someone to look down on, deserving our pity and begging for our charity. He was first a Christian man, a sinner saved by grace, one for whom Christ died and rose again. This is where it all starts – at the cross.

On level ground.

The rich, the educated, the powerful and influential, the noble and elite, have no stature over the poor, under-educated, so called “primitive” people by some in the First World. Not at the cross. Here, John taught me, we all stand together. Nobody above the other. Nobody under. Each helping each.

So John began his travels, preaching in churches across the country. One weekend, John came back with a $5000 check for the shipment.

“Did you tell them about the project,” I asked, elated.

“No!” he said, with a smirk on his face. “People’s hearts were moved by the Lord, and they gave spontaneously. My brother, I told you this was going to happen. The Lord is taking care of this project. He will do it!” And He did. We actually received more than we needed – both in supplies and donations – weeks ahead of schedule. I’d never seen anything like it before. 3

His strong faith kept strengthening my weak faith.

Eventually, John and Harriet moved back to Uganda.

Each year, we were able to raise enough funds to bring John back to the States. He’d travel the country, preaching Jesus, with more invitations than his time allowed. And every year, I saw a growing burden weighing on his soul.

“It’s the children,” he’d tell me. “AIDS is killing our people. Parents are dying, and where do their kids go?”

He wanted to start an orphanage.

In the early 1990’s, an exploratory team from three U. S. churches flew to Uganda and began gathering facts, assessing costs, and developing strategy. John had already found a rental facility as well as a woman skilled both in nursing and administration to run the home.

Stateside, we wrote grants. We called on pastors who knew John to pray.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Money started pouring in. People who knew John, loved and trusted John, were suddenly on board wanting to sponsor a child. The vision had taken wings and started to fly.

In January 1994, Erilynne and I got to see it firsthand.

It was our first trip to Africa. On our second day there, John and Harriet took us to see the facility. The home – now called “The Blessed Mustard Seed Babies Home” – would not officially open until July 1, 1994. But even in the midst of re-construction, we had babies and Staff already living at the home.

And there stood John. I will never forget that day.

He was holding one of the babies in his arms. The child was orphaned and only a few months old. “You know, when we do this,” John said, his eyes bright, a smile stretched across his face, “we love Jesus! Just like He said, ‘whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me.’”

And somehow, under the African sun, it all made sense.

As Jesus came to love us, we do the same for others. And every time we do, we love Him back – over and over again.

All these years later, the Blessed Mustard Seed Babies Home is still going strong. A new generation of children now live there. And I can still hear John’s voice as he held that beautiful little girl, now in her twenties.

“When we do this, we love Jesus!”


1 George R. Beasley-Murray, John, (Dallas, Tx., Word Publishing, 1987), 233
2 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids. Mi., Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., 1971), 616
3 Barnum, Never Silent, see 32-35. For more information on the Blessed Mustard Seed Babies Home, go to www.mustardseedproject.org.
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