From Holy Thursday: John 13:1-17, 31-35
It seemed like an ordinary supper, at first. A simple, yet satisfying meal was laid out on the table. It felt good to come in from the heat and have a place to rest tired feet and backs. There was plenty for the disciples to talk about as they settled in for the evening. Hanging out with Jesus always left them with questions and curiosity and stories to tell. Like in recent days, there was the event of Jesus bringing Lazarus out of the tomb. He had been dead! So dead that his body was smelly. That miracle brought great crowds to follow Jesus, and wherever there is a crowd, there are teachings with Jesus. The way Jesus taught and interpreted their scriptures made them come alive somehow! It was like nothing they’d experienced before. One time God’s voice came booming out of the heavens while Jesus was teaching!
“Say, doesn’t Jesus seem different lately?” Andrew wondered aloud to Peter, “You know, more urgent?”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed something different about him. Like last week, that was a strange thing Mary did, pouring that rare perfume all over Jesus’ feet. But even weirder was how Jesus responded. I mean, I was thinking the same thing as Judas, about how expensive that stuff was and how it seemed wasteful to pour it all out at once, but I’m glad I didn’t speak up for once! Jesus really told Judas off for that one. You heard him say he needed to be prepared for burial, right? What do you think he means?”
There was so much to talk about. Maybe the disciples didn’t notice that Jesus hadn’t joined in their conversations. Jesus had a lot on his mind, too. He was thinking it all over quietly, though. He knew that his time finally had come. He knew that soon he would be returning to his Father in heaven. He knew that he had done everything his Father sent him to do. He had loved his people completely, even the ones who didn’t notice, even the ones who didn’t love him back. He thought about all the people he had met and loved: the ones he healed, the ones he taught, the ones who rejected him. He thought of his disciples, the people he would soon call “friends.” He wondered about what more those friends needed to see before he left them. When he thought of it, he got up from the table and showed them what was on his mind.
It seemed like an ordinary meal, at first. Until Jesus left his seat at the table and, without saying a word, knelt to the floor like a slave and took to washing each of the disciple’s dusty, tired feet. That got everyone quiet.
Embarrassed, they look around the table at one another. How did we not notice there was no servant to wash our feet when we came in!? One of us should be doing this, not Jesus—our teacher, our master! Silently they all make faces and gestures, trying to come up with a solution without Jesus’ noticing…
Meanwhile Jesus continues with his head down and his hands busy. He might have gone on washing all their feet without speaking a word. Why use words, when the action says so much on its own? The disciples would always have this image burned on their mind. Words you can forget, or twist into your own message. But washing street grime from their feet? This they will not forget. This will show them that God’s heart is a servant heart. This memory will haunt them if they ever get to thinking that servants in my name should have greatness and glory. No, this is where we belong, down in the dirt and the mess of the world.
Of course the silence breaks with Peter. The others had resigned to simply watch Jesus in wonderment, but when Jesus kneels at Peter’s feet, he can’t take it anymore. Surely Jesus is waiting for one of us to interrupt this humiliating task, and I am the one to do it. “What are you doing, Lord!?”
Jesus responds calmly, “You don’t understand now, but you will later.” He tries to continue his work in silence, but Peter is outraged. He reaches to lift Jesus up from the floor:
“No, Lord! You’ll never wash my feet!”
Earlier this week we thought like Peter. We read from the Psalm: “You are my God. I will lift you up high.” We welcomed Jesus with Palms and celebrations fit for a king. But no matter how we and Peter try to lift Jesus up high, this king keeps getting down into humble places. This king keeps acting like a servant. He keeps kneeling down into the dirt and the mess of the world.
After Jesus is finally allowed to finish washing all their feet, he explains his actions. The disciples are always full of questions after his teachings, but this time Jesus begins with a question for them:
“Do you know what I’ve done for you?”
He doesn’t wait for them to respond—How could they know? Is he referring to tonight, or all three years they’ve known each other, or perhaps something even more than that? It’s like Jesus told Peter: “You don’t understand now, but you will later.” But remember. Remember what I’ve done for you here because I’ve given you an example: What I’ve done, you must also do.
So we must wash each other’s feet? Foot washing is a meaningful practice, but it’s about more than the washing. It’s about more than being clean. It’s about getting down into the dirt and the mess of the world. It’s about humbling oneself to become a servant. And it’s about still more than this. As Jesus said,
“You don’t understand now, but you will later.”
Loving as Jesus loved is about what the disciples don’t know yet. It’s about tomorrow. It’s about the trial and the mockery of Jesus. It’s about the torture and the crucifixion and his death. It’s about taking up the cross: dying to self and living for others. It’s about the one’s you love betraying and rejecting you, and to this, Jesus shows us that he washed Judas’ feet, knowing what he would do upon leaving the table. Jesus washed Peter’s feet, knowing that Peter would soon deny even having met him. Loving as Jesus loved is about all this. It’s about being willing to be humiliated, to lose one’s own life for the sake of sharing God’s love, because you’ve counted the cost, and the kingdom of God is worth all that and more. Loving as Jesus loved is about Jesus’ way of living and Jesus’ way of dying.
But tonight, let’s not do any of that. Tonight and tomorrow and Saturday are about watching and waiting. Let us not interrupt as Peter did, saying, “No, Lord! Don’t get down there and touch my feet! No, Lord! Don’t let those people say and do those humiliating things to you. Show us your glory. Put them in their place. No, Lord! Don’t get up on that cross and die! We need you here.” For we want desperately to say these things. Every time I read the story, I am sad and angry. I wish it would go differently. I wish Jesus would share some wise teaching at the trial or do some miracle that would make everyone believe, and then he could still be alive with us today.
I wish. But I hear Jesus saying, “You don’t understand now, but you will later.” Don’t interrupt me. Just watch. Do you know what I’ve done for you? If you don’t, how could you possibly fulfill my command to do as I’ve done, to love as I’ve loved?”
Tonight and tomorrow and Saturday, let us watch, watch without interrupting, as Jesus does his life’s work, and listen, as Jesus asks,
“Do you know what I’ve done for you?”