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, NRSV).
Simon Peter’s response to Jesus’ action makes a lot of sense to me.
Peter is one of the closest disciples to Jesus. I imaginine his shock as Jesus striped off, 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 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 systematically taking each sweaty, dust-caked foot in his hands and making it clean. The one called ‘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 is something of a necessity in a dry, hot climate. To travel meant getting covered in Palestinian dust. An inconvenience dealt with by slaves whose services 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 is simply not the job of a would be King.
I wonder if, for some of these disciples, this was the act that planted a seed of doubt among their hopes that Jesus would enter Jerusalem as her next king. This odd behaviour is just not expected. Perhaps this act opened them – slightly – to reconsidering his reason coming to the holy city.
At the very least the disciples were surprised. Perhaps because he is not the first washed, Peter, by the time Jesus is found kneeling before him, seems incapable of holding their silence: ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’
It is a genuine question putting voice to corporate shock. He 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: ‘You will never wash my feet.’ A desperate, last ditch effort to avoid facing so personally, so intimately, the 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 and 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, opens this passage by going out of his way to ensure 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 and generously precisely because he loves so much.
Such a confronting last act demands explanation: an ‘example’. It is to become our pattern, our invitation to embrace the unexpected freedom of living for others.
Indeed it is more, much more, that even this. What Jesus gave was a blessing – a repeatable, re-liveable blessing. As Jesus said: ‘If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.’ (John 13:17).
Where will you find the courage to embrace such an extraordinary invitation?