It was sometime between 1986 and 1988. The setting was the daily chapel service at Calvary Bible College in Kansas City. The preacher was an area pastor with a speech impediment. From his very first words my eyes were fixed, my mind engaged, and my heart stirred. I don’t know his name. I couldn’t have told you what it was a week after he preached from John 13, but I knew when he walked off the platform I would never be the same. The soup was on the burner. The slow simmer had begun. The Holy Spirit had spoken. My mental portrait of Jesus had just been enlarged from wallet sized to poster.
Another significant stirring took place in the early 1990’s when I was asked to preach a Sunday evening service on what it means to be a servant. The text I chose was the same as the stuttering preacher, though I could not specifically remember anything he said in explanation of the sacred text. All I could remember was his intense passion for God, humility of spirit, and confident yet tender voice. As I spent the prior week meditating on the same text, John 13, my heart was gripped by the leadership example of Christ.
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, rose from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself about. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded (Jn 13:3-5).
God in the flesh, Creator of the universe, heir of the Almighty, cheerfully and contentedly assumed the posture of a household servant in order to wash the filthy feet of men of whom nothing was unknown to Him. Jesus, the leader, stooped down to do the work of a slave. He did not think this dirty work was beneath Him. His humility of mind would not allow Him to entertain such a carnal thought. Neither did He crave applause. Instead He became the supreme example of servant leadership.
To lead like Jesus did is to command a following by the quiet power of example—the example of servanthood. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you (v. 14-15). This is our call—to serve with humility the sheep whom God entrusts to our leadership by keeping them in the pasture of integrity and truth. Either one without the other is not biblical leadership. The pretense of humility without confident leadership of others toward following God’s standard is not humility; it is prideful cowardice and sluggardly neglect. On the other hand, bold leadership without humility is following the way of the Gentiles, the way of the unregenerate world; it is not to be this way among us (Mk 10:42-44).
If we want the people around us to think and act like Christ then we who are the visible leaders, “ministers” in any capacity, must set the pace. We must serve without any desire for fanfare. We must embrace the biblical model of leadership by assuming the posture of a servant. Now, let’s arise, walk to the door, pick up the pitcher of water and the towel, and go wash some stinky feet.