The Towel: John 13:3, 4

Sunday Evening, July 23, 1939

by Erik Hawkinson

There is never a day so long, but there comes at last the time for evensong. As part of my evensong, I wish to thank you for these beautiful days we have spent together. I said in Mission Springs, and I can say here, that I never begin a conference like this without a great fear and I never end it without a great regret.

I can say that I have never begun a conference with greater fear than I began this one because I was tired and I felt unprepared. And I can truthfully say I have never closed a conference with more regret than this one.

You have been doing a lot of praying. I haven't heard people pray like you have prayed for a long time and I must truthfully thank you and say to you that my own spirit has been refreshed. I leave you renewed and thankful to God for the privilege of being here. May God bless you!

I am not going to preach to you tonight. I am just going to talk to you a very short while out of my heart about a Word of God that — since I discovered it a few years ago — stirs me deeply every time I read it. We find this word in the third and fourth verses of the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John. "Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girdeth himself."

That is the picture I want to leave with you as we prepare to say farewell and go back to our working-day world. I am more amazed when I read it than if it had said, "Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He took a star from the sky." I would have said that those two things belonged together.

If I had read that "Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He took the Mount of Olives and threw it into the Mediterranean Sea," I would have said, "He could do it; it is proper."

If I had read, "Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He jumped from the pinnacle of the temple and jumped down hundreds of feet without hurting himself," I would have said, "Of course, that is in keeping with such power."

But notice, my friend, "Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He took a towel. . . " That breaks my heart and it almost broke Peter's heart, who rose up a little pretentiously and said, "No, let me do that," The Lord said, "No, I must do it."

That towel to me tonight is a symbol of the lordship of Jesus. I am glad I have a Lord who takes the towel. I might have been asked to worship a Lord who takes a sword or who rolls the cannon up, but I am inviting you to the Lord who took a towel. And I am glad that my Lord is such a wonderful Lord, for that towel is one with his tears. It is one with the cross he took. It is one with his silence when they spat upon him. It is one with his meekness when they came to the garden of Gethsemane, He didn't resist though he might have called twelve legions of angels. It is one with his spirit when he prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

The towel is the symbol of the lordship of Christ. My friends, sometimes, perhaps, I am speaking to an unconverted person who gets the idea that Jesus is one of these autocrats — from some of these autocratic Christians. I want you to notice that the Lord of life, the Son of God, is the kind of Lord who took a towel.

We hear a lot about living up to Jesus but, my friends, there is such a thing as living down to Jesus. Have you ever thought of that? You study your gospels carefully and you will find a great need, if you know yourself deeply, not only to live up to him but to live down to him. And someone has truthfully said that the rungs in the ladder of success go downward. Yes, the towel is a symbol of his lordship.

But the towel is also a symbol of the friendship he demands among his followers. It wasn't a pleasant thing for Jesus to minister to that group, That group had reached a crisis in its development, Jesus couldn't leave them that way. But, they had omitted the ordinary courtesies of social life because they couldn't decide who should do the menial task of washing each other's feet as they entered the upper room. And so Jesus did it for them.

We never get anywhere without friendship — have you discovered that? Dear old Mission Friends, if we are going to have any tomorrows, we must have friends. We don't have to agree about everything, but we have got to be friendly. Oh, there is a deep cry from my soul to Mission Friends from coast to coast, "Let us be friends." Jesus took a towel to keep his friends.

He still is carrying the towel. My heart bleeds because of all the controversy. I have decided, as far as I am concerned, I don't want to have a controversial ministry. I want to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want to recognize all who preach the gospel and I want to live peaceably with all men. Friendship!

I have come to the place where I can't even preach if I see someone down in the audience who hates me and I have anything to do with that attitude. If I try to make friends with him and he won't, I can laugh. I had such a brother in a church I served. We were like the Jews and the Samaritans. We had no dealings with each other. One day I had to take the road through Samaria.

I sat on the platform. As usual, I was going to call on someone to pray. The Lord said to me, "Call on Mr. So-andSo." I said,"Lord, no. If I do that, my wife will think I am playing politics. She will tell me so when I get home." "You call on him or I will take my spirit away from you." "No, if I call on him, he will think I am afraid of him." Just one more warning and I called on him. And, a queer hush fell over the assembly. But glory flooded my soul and I preached that morning out of a full heart. We have to be friends.

I preached about this to Mission Friends in a big city, and a certain editor wrote: "It is a dangerous thing to love," Of course, it is. It took Jesus to Calvary. I answered him in another service when he was present: "There is only one thing that is more dangerous and that is to hate, because there is an end of destruction to the road of hatred."

You can disagree with a man, but you can't have fundamental ill will against him and be a Christian. Jesus took the towel in order that his followers might be friends. And, that stream of friends is the stream which makes the city of God glad. You have read that, haven't you, in the Psalms?

But the towel is also a symbol of service. I am glad it is a towel and not some impossible symbol to which I could not measure up. Oh, Christians, let us not be ashamed of simple service.

I was slipping out the door of my church one night. The young people had had a social and the few faithful had been left in the kitchen to wash the dishes. They poked their heads out of the door and they said, "Pastor, will you help us wash the dishes?" And I said, "Sure, why not?" Then I said, "Where are the rest of them?" They said, "You know there are some people who only sing and do the pretty things in church and do the shining, and the rest of them shine coffee cups and plates." So I started to go into the kitchen, and they said, "Pastor, we didn't mean that." But, you know, sometimes we do overlook the humble things that we might do.

A great Chicago preacher tells the story of an assistant whom he had — a very fine preacher. The senior pastor was going on his vacation. He was called away suddenly and had to have his laundry. So, he left a note on his assistant's desk, "Will you please have my laundry ready for me?" The assistant said, "I wasn't called here to get your laundry. I was called here to preach the Gospel." The great preacher said later, "It is interesting that that man is having an awful hard time preaching the Gospel."

Perhaps the assistant never learned to take the towel. Perhaps some of us will be everlastingly unhappy because we never learned to take the towel — the humble service.

You know that night Samuel heard God speak to him three times. What would you do if God spoke to you three times? But we read that after that night, in the morning, Samuel opened the doors of the temple just as he had always done before. That is beautiful. Sometimes we go away to conferences and we become so blessed that,w hen we get home, we become impossible, Isn't that right? I hope that we have had the kind of conference here that,w hen God has spoken, you go home and you are even willing to perform the janitor service — the little things that make life good and wholesome.

There is one more truth that I want to bring you. This towel is a symbol of our unworthiness. Peter saw it. He was ashamed of himself. And we are unworthy after all, aren't we, to be members of the church of Christ? Oh, I used to feel that the church of Christ ought to be pretty thankful that I am a member of it; but I have come to say this, "Lord Jesus, I am so thankful that I may be a member of the church."

Bishop Hughes tells a most remarkable story of an experience he had in the south. He had gone down to ordain some Negro deacons in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Some of them had just graduated from the seminary, He was told of one candidate who was to be ordained who had been in the seminary seven years as a student. Each year they had flunked him, but still he kept on.

This bright morning the stage was set. Everything was beautiful in the church. The candidates knelt in a circle. The Bishop noticed that the old candidate for a deacon was last on the far side. He said he started to ordain the first ones and put his hands on their heads.

He noticed, as he came down the row, that this man way down on the end was having a hard time of it. He was shivering as if he were cold. When he came to the candidate just before him, he could hear that the man was muttering. And then he heard the last candidate say, "Oh, Lord, I am not worthy. I am not worthy." The Bishop said, "If I have ever put my hands on any head and felt that the blessing of God went through my hands, it was when I put my hands on that man." We aren't worthy.

We aren't worthy to take the towel. I invite you tonight to this Lord whose symbols of lordship are a towel, tears, and a cross. I invite you to the friendship he would bring you in the church. I invite you to the humble service you may bring, and I invite you to the sense of unworthiness which brings the presence of God into your life.

Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel and girdeth himself.

Erik G. Hawkinson is the former Dean of North Park Seminary. Dean Hawkinson was beloved by many. He died May 15, 1984.

See all articles by Erik Hawkinson