Photo: Krists Luhaers (Unsplash.com)
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘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 also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
John 13:1-17 (NRSVA)
Simon Peter’s response to Jesus’ action makes a lot of sense to me.
Peter is one of the closest disciples to Jesus. I imagine his shock as Jesus stripped off in the middle of their traditional remembering of Passover, filled the servant’s bowl with water, knelt in front of one of his friends, and began bathing and drying his feet.
Perhaps it took a few moments for everyone to realise what was actually going on. I hear conversations stopping; eyes, heads, and whole bodies turning and rising to see; hearts struggling to process the reality unfolding before them.
Jesus is systematically taking each sweaty, dust-caked foot in his hands and making it clean. The one they call ‘Messiah’ is moving – wet, dirty, head bowed, and barely clothed – from one disciple to another.
Of course, this reaction is not because no one has ever washed their feet. On the contrary, foot washing was something of a necessity in this dry, hot climate. To travel meant to get caked in Palestinian dust. Such inconvenience was routinely dealt with by common household slaves. Their service was so common, so day-to-day, that it would almost always go unnoticed.
But when Jesus takes both the slave’s garb and chore, it is simply impossible to ignore. A conversation stopper like no other.
Foot-washing was not the job of a would be King.
It leaves me wondering if, for some of these disciples, this was the act that planted a seed of doubt among their hopes that Jesus has entered Jerusalem to take the throne. Such odd behaviour must have raised questions.
Peter, perhaps because he is not the first to be washed, seems incapable of holding the disciple’s silence. By the time Jesus is kneeling before him he is ready to express his bafflement: ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’
Peter is affronted by the slow-dawning reality that he is to accept such undignified service from his ‘Lord’. It is one thing for Jesus to talk servanthood and humility. It is quite another to see him dressed in a towel, shuffling his bowl and body across the floor.
Peter’s protest piques with his telling the Messiah that this is simply not going to happen: ‘You will never wash my feet.’ It is a desperate, last ditch effort to avoid facing so personally, so intimately, the very humility of God.
Yet even now, Jesus is so compelling that the threat of going without a ‘share’ in him turns Peter’s response on its head. He now wants to bathe, to be immersed, to be baptised, in this extraordinary grace: ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’
It is quite a turn-around!
Our author, John, seems sympathetic to Peter’s plight. In fact, in the middle of our passage he goes out of his way to remind us that Jesus has not forgotten who he is. Jesus embraced the position of a servant, we are told, ‘…knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God…’
This is no memory lapse!
It’s there at the beginning too. Our passage opens with John ensuring that his readers identify this act of service as conscious, intentional, and deliberately timed. The account begins with: ‘Jesus knew that his hour had come’ and ‘the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas…to betray him.’
But sitting between these two sobering statements is a testimony to Jesus’ love for his companions. John wants us to know that Jesus sees this as a final opportunity to express his love for ‘his own’.
Jesus serves so humbly, so generously, because he loves so much.
Such a confronting last act demands explanation. Jesus describes his action simply as an ‘example’. It is a pattern, an invitation to embrace the unexpected freedom of not just living with others, but living for others.
So, what might following such a pattern look like for us in our time? Perhaps it will involve getting to know a lonely neighbour, raising awareness of the plight of another, opening your home to a stranger, loving difficult people, doing tasks no one else wants to do. Perhaps it will involve doing these things while expecting only the recognition afforded an invisible slave.
I have a niggling hunch: it is only after we apply this example that we begin to comprehend it!
And only then can we begin to understand Jesus’ final words: ‘If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.’ (John 13:17). Jesus’ washing of the disciple’s feet is more – so much more – than merely example. It was – is – a final blessing – a repeatable, re-liveable blessing!
But where will we find the courage to embrace such an extraordinary invitation?
For many it has a simple – often symbolic – origin: all over the world, on the night before Good Friday, people wash one another’s feet!
And who knows where such simple obedience might take us?
What is the essence of the scandal of Jesus washing the disciple’s feet? Why is it so shocking?
What do you see as the appropriate response to following one who behaves like this? How can foot-washing become healthy ritual? What will it take for this to go beyond ritual?
Do you see a link between love and service? What does this say about the times you find it hard to serve?