The Love Language of Acts of Service

Scripture: John 13:3-17
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
March 13, 2016

Today, we come to our fifth and final love language.  Acts of service.  Cooking a meal, setting a table, washing dishes, cleaning the bathrooms, taking out the garbage, changing the baby’s diaper, painting a bedroom, washing a car, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, changing the water in the goldfish bowl are all acts of service.  They require thought, planning, time, effort and energy.  If done with a joyful spirit, they are indeed expressions of love.

In today’s scripture passage, Jesus shares a simple, but profound illustration of love through an act of service.  Let me set the scene for you:  It is the last night of Jesus’ earthly life.  Jesus and the 12 disciples are gathered in the Upper Room to share a final meal.  There sat at the entrance of the door to the upper room a basin, a water pitcher, and a towel.  The basin, water pitcher and towel were all used for washing guests feet after they traveled the dusty, muddy Jerusalem roads.  There sat at the entrance of the room a basin, a water pitcher, and a towel.  And the basin, water pitcher and towel were reserved for those of the lowest status, position in the culture.  Of all the tasks that a servant could perform, washing guests’ feet was considered the most demeaning.  The basin, water pitcher and towel were reserved for those with no dignity, worth or value in the culture.   A slave, by law, could even refuse to wash his Master’s feet because it was such a demeaning task.

People did most of their travel by foot.  People’s feet were caked with mud and dirt and animal dung when they arrived at people’s homes.  It was common courtesy for the host to have his servant wash the guest’s feet as they entered the house.  But as the disciples entered one by one they did not see anyone to handle the basin, water pitcher, and towel.  There were no servants in their midst to wash their feet or so they thought and so they each passed the basin, the water pitcher and the towel.  It was not their task; it was not their responsibility; it was not their duty.  Only lowly servants handled the basin, water pitcher and the towel and they were not servants.  They were more interested in being served.  So, there sat at the entrance of the door – a basin, a water pitcher and a towel.

None of the servants were willing to take on the role of the lowly servant who washes the feet.  For if one of them did, where would that put him in the pecking order?  At the bottom of the heap.  Remember these are the same disciples who argued over who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.  These disciples wanted to be on top, be the best, be number one.  They wanted to move from the background to the foreground, from the backstage to center stage, from the back table to the head table, from obscurity to prominence.  It did not occur to the disciples as they walked into the Upper Room to pick up the basin, the water pitcher or the towel.

Jesus walked into that room and through the corner of his eye he saw the basin, the water pitcher and the towel.  Scripture says, “Jesus tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet” (John 13: 3-5).  Jesus is the leader. We would expect Jesus to give orders – Peter and James, you wash the feet – you are the ones who were suppose to make all the preparations for this room or Matthew, you haven’t done anything in a while – go pick up the basin and towel.  No, instead of giving a lecture, he gives an example…a silent sermon about how to love.  

The One who the disciples called the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords takes on the role of the lowliest of servants and unlaces the sandal and gently lifts the feet of each of his disciples.  Yes, the One whom we kneel in prayer is the very one who now kneels before his disciples.  Jesus washes the soiled, sweaty, hard, callused feet of the disciples.  The hands that will be pierced the next day are the same hands that scrub the grime away that night.  Jesus washes the feet of the disciples who will abandon him in his time of greatest need, including Peter who will deny him and Judas who will betray him.  Yes, within hours the feet of Judas would guide 300 Roman soldiers to Jesus, but at that moment they were being tenderly caressed by Jesus.

When Jesus began to wash Peter’s feet, his jaw dropped – “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?  You will never wash my feet.”  Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  Then Peter said, “Wash not only my feet, but all of me.”  I imagine Peter started to take off his robe.   Jesus said, “No, no Peter put your clothes back on. If I wash your feet you are clean from head to toe.”

When it came time for Jesus to show the full extent of his love he picked up the basin, the water pitcher and the towel.

A wealthy American traveler tells the story of how he was visiting a hospital in Southeast Asia.  He entered the hospital just as a young missionary nurse was cleaning the sores of a sick, dirty, elderly man who had been lying in a gutter.  The wealthy man said to the nurse, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.”  She answered quietly and firmly, “Neither would I.”

It is the love of Christ that makes us foot washers.  We may not always feel like serving – serving others can be very inconvenient, serving can be messy, we may get our hands dirty in the process, but we serve anyway because God has called us to be servants. I remember on one TJ homebuilding trip, I wanted to stay in my nice warm bed and sleep in; I did not want to step out into the cold, dreary day to build a house for someone else.  I didn’t want to be inconvenienced – but then I reflected on how inconvenienced those are who have no home and I got out of bed and went to TJ with 30 others who probably preferred to stay in bed too.  Yes, sometimes serving others can be inconvenient, but we serve anyway.

Karen is the co-founder and vice president of a non-profit homeless organization in San Diego called “Dignity Delivery”.  On the fourth Saturday of every month we go down to Market and 16th Street in San Diego and give out much needed hygiene items to those living on the streets.  We serve over 100 people each time.  I remember one volunteer came with a pair of brand new expensive tennis shoes she had just bought earlier that week.  A homeless person looked at her shoes and said, “Wow!  Those are nice shoes.”  The volunteer looked down at the homeless person’s feet — this person was in desperate need of a good pair of shoes.  So, without a thought, the volunteer took off her shoes and gave them to the homeless person.  It stopped me in my tracks.  Like Jesus, this volunteer cared about others’ feet.

Sometimes we miss the basin, water pitcher and towel.  If you missed the basin, water pitcher, and towel when you walked into church this day, I hope that you will see them when you leave.  When we come to be served rather than to serve we miss the basin, water pitcher and towel.  When we come to have our needs met, rather than to meet the needs of others, we miss the basin, water pitcher and towel.  There sits at the door of every entrance a basin, water pitcher and towel.  God calls us to be a servant church.  

This morning, our worship here will end 15 minutes early.  Our hope that we will take that extra 15 minutes for the service to begin.  We encourage you to participate in one of the service projects today, if you are able.  Here are some options:

  • Deliver Dignity Delivery Blessing Bags to the homeless in Redlands and surrounding areas.  Bags are available in the narthex.  
  • Bake cookies for Redlands Family Service. The Family Shepherd Group (with children and youth) are invited to meet in the kitchen with Heather King Shamp for baking.
  • Create origami peace cranes for the Riverside Metropolitan Museum.  The goal is to make one peace crane for each Japanese-American who was placed in an internment camp in California.  Rosemary Tuohy will lead this project in Covenant Hall.
  • Write letters to US Service Members.  This is a project of Women of Faith.  Rosemary Tuohy will lead this project in Covenant Hall.
  • Make cards for kids at Loma Linda University Medical Center.  This, too, is a project of Women of Faith.  Rosemary Tuohy will lead this project in Covenant Hall.
  • Clean up the “Sankee”, Zanjia by Sylvan Park. Meet Loring Fiske-Phillips, coordinator of this project, outside the doors of covenant hall by the parking lot.
  • Deliver gifts to a nursing home. Meet Barbie Fiske-Phillips, coordinator of this project, in the sanctuary.

I believe that this is a basin, water pitcher and towel kinda church.  One of the greatest expressions of our love is to serve to one another.  May God continue to open our eyes to dirty feet and give us a heart to wash them.  For at the door of every entrance lies a basin, a water pitcher and a towel.


*Thank you to Dr. Frank Thomas who inspired this sermon with his sermon entitled, “A Basin, A Water Pitcher, and A Towel”.