Reflections on John 13:4-5
He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet…
He poured. He began to wash. And in between, He moved.
First, moving toward them. Then moving down, carefully setting the basin on the floor. Then getting down Himself. Perhaps on His knees. He readies the towel. He crouches down and touches the first disciple’s feet.
When slaves do it, who notices? Does it even interrupt the conversation?
But what happens when God does it?
This motion – the motion down -- is His story. Every bit of it. It is the priceless jewel of the “good news” of the gospel. Our Lord moves down.
Down from His eternal Glory and into the womb of a virgin.
Down from the Royal Majesty due Him as the promised Son of King David – whose “kingdom will have no end.” Down into a common life as a child in Nazareth and into poverty where all his mother and father could afford at His birth was a sacrificial offering of turtledoves and pigeons.
“He took the form of a servant.” 1
And now, at the last Passover Meal, He steps down again. He becomes a slave. He willingly takes the lowest of all positions. But this isn’t it. He’s not done. It’s only a foreshadowing – a physical picture – of what He will do the next day. Soon enough, the cross beam will stretch across His back. He will be crucified where only the worst, the least, and the most wicked die. And He will go down again.
Down into death. Down into the fiery baptism of God’s judgment against all sin, for all time. Down to depths infinite and inconceivable.
This motion down. It’s His story. This is our God.
He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
It’s not the Devil’s story. From his beginnings, this angelic creature lusted for up. He said in his heart, “I will ascend to heaven…I will make myself like the Most High.” 2 In his reign over the fallen human race, this motion remains his motion.
His kingdom is the up kingdom. Everybody wants up. Greater position and title. Greater recognition, praise, honor, adoration, and a name that lasts forever.
No one wants down. No one chooses down.
The Devil’s lust for up is insatiable. When faced with Jesus, he wanted more than his feet washed. He wanted the Son of God to worship him. For him, nothing is greater or higher than that – to be exalted and worshipped by God Himself. 3
This is the devil’s heart. This is the engine that drives his kingdom.
Everything is up. Always up.
But it is not the kingdom of God. Nor the heart of God. And when our Lord came to us, He taught us this: The way up is the way down. If we want to be great, we serve. If we want to be first, be last. For the exalted are humbled and the humbled exalted. And He didn’t just teach it. He did it. He chose down.
It’s how He moves. It’s how those who love Him move too.
* * *
When John came to the States in September 1994, he was a different man.
A month prior, he’d entered his native country of Rwanda for the first time in thirty-five years. He’d been exiled, with his family, in 1959 at age fourteen. The Hutu ethnic group had come into power and waged war against the Tutsi ethnic group. The violence was extreme in the northwest where John was born and raised. His family was Tutsi. They had no choice but to leave the country.
By April 1994, the Hutu government enforced the complete genocide of the Tutsi people. For the next 100 days, nearly a million people were slaughtered.
“There are no devils left in Hell,” a missionary told reporters a few weeks into the bloodshed. “They are all in Rwanda.” 4
Within a few weeks after the war was over, John led an expedition of nine clergymen to tour the remains of his country.
“It was beyond the scope of what the human mind can take in,” John told us that fall. “We thought – no human being could do this to another human being. We saw mass graves containing more than twenty-five thousand dead bodies… It was a terrible shock – real trauma. We were all in tears.”
He interviewed people in their homes, churches, and medical clinics.
“We had to see the brokenness of our country… In my heart, I knew God was calling me to be part of the healing and reconciliation of my people… I knew beyond any doubt that the Lord was bigger than their brokenness. He is the only One who can bring about real and lasting transformation.”
And so, John spent the next few years traveling back and forth from Uganda to Rwanda. In the spring of 1997, he was elected to the office of Anglican bishop in the northwest. Nothing could have scared me more.
The northwest of Rwanda was not stable.
John’s friend told us, “There are retribution killings going on day and night. Rebel forces are crossings Zaire’s border into Rwanda.” Tutsi’s were still being killed. And then he said an ambush had been set against John’s life.
I wrote John, concerned and anxious.
He wrote back saying, “The ambush which we survived was not intended to hurt me in particular. It was a general ambush which took place before my election.” Then he spoke of an attack on a girl’s high school. The killers tried to separate the Hutu girls from the Tutsi – but the students refused. They bound themselves together as one. The killers shot randomly, killing eighteen.
“I am telling you,” John wrote. “We shall never forget these brave girls.”
I feared for John’s life.
The capital city of Kigali was an hour and a half drive. Kigali was secure. The northwest – for a Tutsi, and a prominent Tutsi bishop – was not. And so I did what I thought was right. I wrote. I called. I begged for John not to live in the northwest. “Live in Kigali and commute until the killings subside,” I pleaded.
John responded by sending a fax on May 12, 1997 saying: “We are hoping to have a hired house in Ruhengeri town (in the northwest). Pray continually for our protection. We are bound to serve Jesus in all places.”
But on the phone, I could tell he was upset with me. “Why would we do that? Are we supposed to protect ourselves first – then serve? No! If they are suffering, we suffer too.”
I tried to argue, “But you won’t be able to serve if the rebels kill you?”
He didn’t budge. He kept saying, “You should know these things. Did Jesus avoid the cross to keep Himself safe? Why should we?” He said it again and again, “God is clear in His call to us. We are moving to Ruhengeri.”
Meanwhile, back in the States, we kept hearing of more rebel activity in the northwest. More ambushes, fighting, killings.
Over the next year, it got worse. John sent continual reports.
Yesterday, many people were killed on one of the university campuses in Mudende: 144 perished at the hand of infiltrators…many other people died… Hence, we have over 200 refugees at one of our churches in the area. We are in crisis. We need you to pray because we are faced with the practical problem of feeding these people and giving them shelter…
We lost five people at the hands of infiltrators…killing the principal of our high school, a lady who worked for the school and her two teenagers (who are related to me)…
We lost one of our pastors, who left a widow and seven orphans…
By mid-summer 1998, John lamented, “Three of my clergy and many lay pastors were killed along with their families. Many of our dear Christians also died in the violent attacks of my first year.”
And for John, there were too many close calls:
I could see…infiltrators. I told the priest driving the car to speed up. We were able to drive past them before they got settled. The van behind us got intercepted. Five people were killed.
But that’s the difference between John and me.
I would’ve lived in Kigali, protected my family, and commuted to work. Not John. He knew the way of Jesus. For Jesus doesn’t move up. He moves down. Not just by being with His people in their suffering. But serving them there.
I saw this principle alive in John and Harriet. Even at the risk of their own lives. And I knew then what I know now.
I have so much to learn.
1 See Luke 1:33; 2:22-24; and Philippians 2:7
2 See Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:14-17
3 See Matthew 4:8-10
4 This story is recorded by Thaddeus Barnum, Never Silent (Colorado Springs, Eleison, 2008), 48-69.
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