Simon Peter’s response to Jesus’ action makes a lot of sense to me.
Peter is one of the closest disciples to Jesus. I find myself imagining 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, 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 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 this Palestinian dust. Such inconvenience was routinely dealt with by common household slaves. Their service would almost always go unnoticed.
But when Jesus takes both the slave’s garb and chore it is simply impossible to ignore. This is a conversation stopper like no other. Foot-washing was simply 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. It is not the behaviour of a king.
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 this 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, 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 can serve so humbly, so generously, because he loves so much.
Such a confronting last act demands explanation. Jesus describes his action as an ‘example’. It is a pattern, an invitation to embrace the unexpected freedom of not just living with others, but living for others.
I wonder what following such a pattern might 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 the tasks that no one else wants to do without seeking recognition.
Perhaps it is only after we apply this example to our lives that we are able to truly discover the truth of 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, much more, than merely example. It was, it is, a final blessing – a repeatable, re-liveable blessing:
But where will we find the courage to embrace such an extraordinary invitation?
Tonight invites a simple start: we will embrace Jesus’ symbolic act as our own and wash one another’s feet.
Who knows where God might take us through this simple act of obedience.