For almost 40 days, we’ve been following Jesus. We’ve seen how he prayed, healed, taught, forgave, and went – and we’ve worked to follow that example in our everyday lives.
Today, we follow Jesus into Jerusalem… which means joining a parade.
This particular parade was fit for a king. Literally. In the first-century Roman world, it was typical for a conqueror or king to come into a city with a big procession. When Jesus organizes his own parade into Jerusalem, he’s making a statement: I am your king!
And the people agree with Jesus; we know by the way they respond. They wave palm branches – “symbols of national triumph and victory” (according to Bible scholar Gail O’Day). Waving them was a way to say, “You’re the man!” Then, in their cheers they name explicitly what kind of man they thought Jesus was: “Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 12:13).
On Palm Sunday we join in this parade. We wave palm branches. We sing “hosanna” (a kind of religious “hurrah” that originally meant something like, “Save us!”). As we follow behind Jesus, it looks like we’re following a big celebrity – the kind of guy who rolls out his own red carpet and then struts down it, smiling and waving for the crowds.
But look closer, followers of Christ. There’s more going on here; Jesus doesn’t completely act the part.
Check out Jesus’ mode of transportation. When first-century kings rode into their cities on an animal, they typically chose an impressive warhorse. What did Jesus pick for himself?
A young donkey.
It’s laughable. It’s like a big celebrity stepping out onto the red carpet… from a 1972 Dodge Dart. So yes, Jesus is throwing a grand arrival that announces himself as king; but no, he’s not strutting. Instead, he’s intentionally lowering himself.
“His disciples did not understand this at first,” John tells us (12:16). And we, John’s readers, might not understand at first, either.
Not until we read John 13, that is.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke put Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on the Passover, the feast-meal that remembers when God saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. John, however, says it was the night before the Passover. The disciples and Jesus were gathered together for a supper just by themselves. These men were constantly followed by crowds of people looking for Jesus to heal them or teach them, so I imagine this time-apart was special. It was time together – and time together with Jesus, the reason that they were a group in the first place. Jesus is their rabbi, their teacher, their leader. He’s the one who called them. He’s the guest of honor. He should be the guy with the best seat, the guy who gets served first.
But again, Jesus doesn’t completely act the part.
Instead of expecting to be served first, Jesus gets up from the table and does something incredible: he washes the disciples’ feet.
This is strange, although not as random as it might sound to our 21st-century ears. In Jesus’ day and time people walked on dusty dirt roads as their primary mode of transportation. People wore sandals, so their feet got dirty. When they sat down to a meal they sat on the floor, in front of a low table. Dirty feet would come in close proximity to the food. Therefore, feet needed to be washed. It was a practical thing, a sanitary thing, like how we always wash our hands (we hope) before a meal.
In a home with a little wealth, there’d be a servant for this job – because no one wants to wash dirty feet. In a home without a servant, the responsibility would fall to the lowest person on the social totem pole – because no one wants to wash dirty feet. This means that one of two things happened at the last supper with the disciples:
- A servant was there to wash feet, but Jesus stopped him or her and took the job on himself, or;
- The disciples were waiting each other out, each one hoping they wouldn’t have to be the foot-washer… when Jesus stepped up and willingly did it himself.
Either way, this is a radical act of servanthood.
This is the Jesus that we follow. Not a guy who rolled out his own red carpet and expected to be adored… but a king who ditched the warhorse for a donkey. Not an honored guest who waited to be served… but the one who got up and washed everyone else’s feet. When Jesus finished, Jesus made it clear that this was the example we’re to follow:
“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-14).
So: are you a follower of Christ?
Are you really?
Because if you are, it means following Jesus into this role of a humble servant. It means no more waiting for someone else to step up and do the dirty job – you do it. It means taking on the least-favorite chore in your house without complaining. It means letting the homeless-looking guy go in front of you at McDonald’s. It means giving away some of your hard-earned money so that someone else can keep their electricity on. It means getting down on your knees to help a child tie their shoes or an elderly person get a sip of water. It means picking up trash, cleaning toilets, sweeping floors…
That is how we follow Christ into Jerusalem and through the last supper.
And that is how we follow Christ in our everyday lives.
Today, in church, we connected with this example by washing hands – the thing we do before every meal. We knelt around the altar and took towel and basin and washed. If you weren’t there with us, you can connect with this example by going and washing your hands. As the water runs over you, imagine Jesus gently taking your dirty hands – or feet! – and rubbing them clean. Imagine Jesus serving you in that way.
And then: go and do likewise.