Reflections on John 13:12-17; 34-35
You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet…If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
John 13:13-14, 17
He rose. He took back His garments and sat at table.
Up to now, His motion down had been the perfect picture of His story. He’d come down from His eternal glory to become man. Soon enough, He’d go down into the depths of unfathomable down as He endures the fires of Calvary.
But His story doesn’t stay down.
When He’d finished His work on the cross to the full, having taken captive and destroyed the powers of evil, sin and death – the Father exalted His Son “and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.” 1
He rose. That’s His story.
This motion up is the motion of His eternal triumph!
And in rising, He’d soon ascend to His Father and take again His garments of glory which He had with Him “before the world was.” 2 But for now, in the upper room, the perfect picture was still only a perfect picture. The garments He took were still His earthly garments. The work, the real work, still had to be done.
But the picture says it all. If we are to rise with Him, we must go down with Him. The way up is never up. That’s the kingdom of this world. The devil has infused this fallen creation with the lust for up without telling anyone the real story: His up always comes down. No matter how high, how powerful, how rich and famous, how noble and rememberable, we all come crashing down.
Down into the dust of death.
But it’s different now. If we let Him wash us, if we’re made clean by Him, then His story becomes our story. If we want up, if we want to be “part” of His eternal triumph, we must go down. Like Him. Always down.
“If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also…”
We are to do as He has done to us. Yes, in washing feet. But that too is only a picture. He’s talking more – much more. He’s talking about every aspect of how we treat each other. In the little things. In the big things. In all things.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
He said it at table that night but they didn’t get it. Not yet. But soon, the Helper would come and bring to their remembrance all that Jesus had said to them. He’d even fill them with His power to do it. But they’d have to have ears to hear.
A simple message. An eternal, unchanging message.
“It’s your turn now.”
* * *
A few years later, I met John in a hotel lobby in Pittsburgh on a rainy Sunday afternoon in April. We talked for hours, as old friends do. 3
By that time, peace had come to Rwanda’s northwest and John was doing everything he could to bring healing and reconciliation to his country. This included his recent election as chairman of Prison Fellowship in Rwanda.
“What’s that like for you?” I ask him.
“It isn’t easy.”
The frown between his eyes deepens. He looks at me like he’s trying to decide whether he wants to talk about it or not.
“There is sin in my heart,” he tells me.
I look at him in surprise. I don’t understand.
As John often does, he paints pictures with his words. He describes a field on a hillside overlooking one of the prisons of Rwanda. In the distance, there are volcanic mountains rising to meet the clouds in the air. Around him are lakes, lush green hills, and workers tilling the land for as far as the eye can see.
The prison below, with soldiers standing at the entrance, marks a sharp contrast to all the beauty around it. He tells me there are more than 110,000 prisoners filling the Rwandan jails since the genocide. He has been inside. He has listened to story after story.
“They still hear the screaming voices of those they killed,” he reports. “The scenes replay in their mind. It torments them in the day. It wakes them at night. The guilt is fresh, like an open wound still bleeding. They feel the presence of evil haunting them. The pain presses down on them. It’s too much for anyone to bear.”
I watch as tears fill his eyes.
He tells me his first time at the prison was the hardest. He went by invitation. He was asked to preach the gospel in front of a large gathering of prisoners.
“I knew they needed Jesus.”
He stops to wipe his eyes with his handkerchief.
“These murderers are guilty of a great sin. They will never be able to pay for what they did. Only Jesus can save them. They need to know that. They need to know what He did for them at the cross. So I tell them plainly, they must run to Jesus, repent of their sin, and beg for His mercy.”
I nod, trying to take it all in.
“And they start to do it,” he says, his face twists in dismay. He tells me he’s a son of the East African Revival. He knows when the Holy Spirit starts to convict people of sin and move them to saving faith in Jesus Christ. “When I saw that, I reacted. I stopped preaching. They didn’t want me to stop. But I couldn’t do it.”
He tells me he ran out of the prison and didn’t stop.
“Not until I got to the hillside. Tears were streaming down my face. Pain was gripping my heart. I couldn’t believe the depth of anger I felt against them. It shocked me. It overwhelmed me. But these people are the same kind of people who killed my family. They killed my niece, Madu. They tortured and raped her.”
He looks away, his fists clenched.
“What was I doing preaching to her killers? I tell you the pain was too great for me. I fell on my knees and wept. I thought I wanted those men to know Jesus but it’s not true. Why would He want to save those men? How could He forgive them for what they did to me, my family and my country?”
He looks at me like I’m supposed to answer.
“Can you see the sin in my heart?” he asks. “If anybody needed to run to Jesus and repent, it was me. The desire for revenge was choking me. I was no different than those prisoners. I was locked behind the bars of my own unforgiveness. So I prayed, Lord Jesus Christ, help me. I must forgive the killers of my family and I can’t do it. The pain is too great. The hurt is too deep.”
He reaches over and grabs my hand. He’s still grieving.
“I couldn’t stop the crying,” he says. “But in my tears, the Lord reminded me of what He did on the cross. Did He turn away from His killers? No, He faced them. He looked them straight in the eyes and cried out from the midst of His pain, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’
“How could He do that? How could He forgive them while He was in pain?” he asks me.
I shake my head. I don’t know.
He lets go of my hand. His face is still wet from tears and marked by pain as he says, “When Jesus Christ was hanging on the tree, stripped, beaten, mocked, despised, nails tearing through His flesh, nails in His feet, and a crown of thorns on His head, from within that pain He cried, ‘Forgive! Forgive!’
“And I knew the Lord was telling me, ‘Now it’s your turn.’ If He didn’t wait until the pain was gone, we can’t wait. We must forgive while we’re in pain. This is what Christians do, and He gives us the power to do it.”
He leans back in his chair. He tells me he how he got up, went back down that hillside, back into the prison, back into the room filled with prisoners, and loved them with the love of Jesus.
“To this day, I go to the prison in tears. It isn’t easy for me.”
He reaches for my hand again and looks at me. He’s wondering if I understand, and if I do, if I realize the same is true for me – it’s true for all Christians.
It’s our turn now.
1 Philippians 2:9-11
2 John 17:5
3 Barnum, Never Silent. This story can be found on pages 257, 273-276
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