Reflections on John 13:1-4
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments…
God often speaks His story in simple earthly pictures.
A rainbow in the sky. The circumcising of an infant boy on his eighth day. A mark of blood on a doorpost. A heap of twelve stones taken from the dry river bed of the Jordan. A loaf of bread in the hands of our Savior lifted to His Father for blessing. Then He breaks it and gives it. A simple act. A common act.
And by it, He tells His story. He says, “I am the bread of life.” He says, “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”
Again, “Take, eat; this is My body.” 1
For as He breaks the bread, we glimpse His own breaking on the cross. And as He gives the bread, we see His invitation to freely receive His gift of eternal life.
So it was, on the night before He died, He did it again. He spoke. Not, at first, with words. But in a simple act. A common act. And by doing it, He’d explain the heart of God. He’d explain why He was about to suffer. And, with utmost simplicity, He’d tell us to do what He was about to do with each other. With everyone.
It was time.
Soon enough, He’d be back with His Father. He’d come from Him. He’d go back to Him. No matter how it appeared to others, He knew His Father had given “all things” into His hands. Did the devil know that? Or did he think he was stronger, more powerful than Jesus? He’d already made his first move. He’d won the heart of Judas. In a few hours, he’d muster all the powers of darkness against the Lord.
One simple act. To show His love.
Why hadn’t it been done yet? It should’ve happened the moment they arrived. At the very latest, before they’d reclined at table for the Passover meal. Why was no servant around? Who’d failed to make proper preparations? Did anyone notice or say something? Why didn’t one of the Twelve offer to do it?
Our Lord stopped eating His supper.
He got up from the table and began to disrobe. One garment. Then the next. Until He stood in front of the Twelve wearing only a loin cloth.
Dressed as a poor, common slave. 2
An apostle would later capture this image in words: “He took the form of a servant.” He “made Himself of no reputation.” 3
For the most part, the apostle was speaking about our Lord’s incarnation. Before time began, He decided with His Father, and with the Holy Spirit, to disrobe Himself of His glory and become man. This is the news of Bethlehem: A child is born – fully God, fully man – who willingly took “the form of a servant.”
But the apostle also spoke of this moment. This is the news of the final Passover: Our Lord has come to serve and not be served. And if He did this, we are to do the same. “Have this attitude in yourselves,” urged the apostle. 4
For there He stands, God the Son, dressed in a loin cloth.
A poor, common slave.
* * *
I first met John in the fall of 1988.
Erilynne and I were pastoring a church just outside Pittsburgh. It was a young church, only a few years old. By late October, we’d finished our first building project, moved out of our rented space and into our new church home.
John first visited on a Sunday morning in September. Soon after, he was there every week. I knew three things about him. He was an Anglican priest from Africa. He’d been granted a two-year scholarship to study at a local seminary. And he was alone. “There were no extra monies to bring my wife and five children to America,” he told me and I could see the pain on his face.
“We need to get together soon,” I promised him.
But I never followed through. I was too busy with the building project and the daily care of the church. Finally, in early December, I asked if he’d help out at the Sunday service and then have lunch afterward. He readily agreed.
But to be honest, I had no idea what I was doing.
I actually thought we’d go out to lunch and he’d tell us how we could help him. He was a poor African clergyman, alone in America, without his family. No doubt, he had a long list of needs. Surely we could do something to help.
What’s wrong with that?
It never occurred to me I was the one in need. Not him.
“What part of Africa do you come from?” I asked before the Sunday service.
“Rwanda,” he said, his accent thick. “But since the civil war of 1959, we’ve been exiled to Uganda.” 5
I immediately asked him about Idi Amin, the infamous President of Uganda in the 1970’s who brutally terrorized the country.
“I have seen that evil man face to face as he danced in our streets as a madman, his machine guns on either hip. I was no more than two feet from him.” He paused, looking straight at me. “I also know his soldiers. They have had their guns at my head, jammed against my temple.”
“They came looking for my bishop. I was the vicar of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Hoima town. I was sitting in my office when the soldiers banged on the door and told me at gunpoint that I was going to die because my bishop had escaped the country. I told them straightaway that my bishop was sitting in his office that very moment. When they heard this, they told me that if he was there, I would live. If not, I would die. They dragged me to his office with their guns pressing into my head.”
“By God’s grace, he was sitting at his desk, just as I told them.”
But the stories only got worse. He told me government soldiers would randomly kill people. As he, and other clergy, tried to care for the dead bodies – to give them proper burial – the soldiers would shoot at them too.
“It was a very scary time,” he said. “We never knew what they would do next. Nobody was safe. Everybody lost somebody they loved. The number of widows and orphans was just too much. Even now, the country hasn’t recovered.”
It was almost time for the service.
I asked John if he’d mind sharing some of his story with the congregation. “Tell us what it was like to be a Christian under Idi Amin’s rule.”
He kindly agreed.
Some in the congregation didn’t understand him because of his accent. But many of us did. He described how he came to saving faith in Jesus Christ as a young man and how he entered His service. “The Lord told me people need to hear about Jesus. They need to have their names in the book of life.”
He told us he was no stranger to poverty, life without a constant flow of electricity, clean water, access to health care professionals, let alone medicines, transportation to town, or a solid metal roof overhead to protect his family from seasonal rains.
And then he talked about the killings – the military oppression – the sleepless nights when gunfire would shatter the quiet of night and screams would echo through mountains and valleys. He talked about facing death, more than once, simply for confessing Jesus as his Lord to his extremist Muslim captors.
There was no heroism in his voice.
“We give all glory to God,” he exclaimed. “He alone gives us the strength we need to face the evil powers.”
He prayed for us and then sat down.
I tried to take it all in. Here I am, a clergyman from an affluent and peaceful land where being a Christian requires little risk, low cost, and no sacrifice. And there he is, with a tested faith towering over mine. He knows the sufferings in this world – and for Christ – like I’ve never known.
Who was I to think I could help him?
At lunch, he surprised me. At one point during the meal, he got this big smile on his face. “I’ve been asking the Lord,” he said, his words filled with a gentle, humble attitude.
“What’s that?” I asked back.
“How I can help you while I’m here?”
I wanted to say, “I’m supposed to ask you that!” But I didn’t. He was right. Our roles had reversed. He had far more to give me than I had to give him.
1 John 6:35; 6:51; Matthew 26:26
2 Leon Morris writes, “Jesus stripped to a loin cloth, just like a slave.” The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 615, note 15.
3 Philippians 2:7 (KJV)
4 Mark 10:45; Philippians 2:5
5 This story is recorded by Thaddeus Barnum, Never Silent (Colorado Springs, Eleison, 2008), 25-29.