READ : John 13:1-17
The story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in the Upper Room on the night before he
died is more than just an interesting incident. It is both highly instructive and greatly
challenging to those of us who claim to be his followers.
This is the story of one of Jesus' last acts on earth. It's told in the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John. During supper, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with a towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not 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, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash except for his feet but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him.
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me teacher and Lord, and you're right, for so I am. If I then your Lord and teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet, for I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
It was a Thursday evening just before Jesus' death on the cross, in fact, his last night on earth. Jesus had gathered with his disciples in a room in the upper story of a friend's house in Jerusalem to share the Passover meal. We have a very full account in all four of the Gospels of what happened that evening, the things that Jesus said and did, the most significant of which, of course, was the Last Supper, which became the Lord's Supper. But then there was this striking incident that only John relates of Jesus washing his disciples' feet.
During the supper, John says, Jesus rose from the table, took a towel and a basin full of water, and one by one went round the room washing the feet of his disciples. I want to suggest three things about this act of service that are significant for us if we are followers of Jesus.
A Deliberate Act
Here's the first: Jesus' footwashing was a deliberately humble act. It was self-humbling, in fact. Washing the street-dirty feet of each guest was an expected part of hospitality in Jesus' day. After all, everybody wore sandals. Most of the traffic was on foot, on dusty roads. So naturally, when someone came to dinner, you were expected to provide this service for them. But footwashing was a demeaning job, one that was usually performed by the lowest servant. Well, apparently, there were no servants in the Upper Room, and certainly none of the disciples volunteered to undertake this task. It was just too humiliating. So in the middle of the meal, Jesus took it upon himself. You know, I wonder if the disciples were embarrassed when they got there and realized there was no servant to wash their feet. Maybe they even talked among themselves wondering if one of them ought to volunteer, but none of them did. It was too far beneath them. So how must they have felt then when to their amazement they saw Jesus, their master, get up and pick up the towel and basin himself. He, the Lord, the rabbi, the respected teacher, whose place it was to be served, was going to wait on them and do the slaves' work.
I never can hear this or think about this without being reminded of that wonderful passage in Philippians where Paul describes in sort of cosmic terms Jesus' self humbling, how he gave up his place at the right hand of God. He didn't hold on to his divine prerogatives there, but he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant, says Paul, and became obedient even to death on a cross. That's exactly what Jesus does here in the Upper Room. He takes the form and place of a servant and does that servant's work. So it's a humble act first and foremost.
A Symbolic Act
But then, secondly, Jesus' footwashing was also a symbolic act. And what it symbolizes is our spiritual cleansing through the work of Jesus on the cross. I think that's what Jesus is getting at in that interchange he has in the middle of the story with Peter. It's an often puzzling exchange that Jesus and Peter have. Impulsive Peter, you know, true to form, objects when Jesus gets to him with the basin and the towel. “You can't wash my feet, Lord, this isn't right. This isn't worthy of you. I'm not going to let you do that!”
And then Jesus responds with this strange statement: “Unless I wash your feet, you have no part of me.” Actually, literally he says, “Unless I wash you, you have no part of me.” So then Peter says, “Then wash all of me, the whole thing, head to foot.” And Jesus says, “No, you don't need that. If someone has bathed, they don't need to wash entirely. They just need their feet to be washed.” What could that possibly mean?
Well, I think, clearly, that Jesus is thinking of his death, which is only a few hours away. As we say as Christians, Jesus “washes” us with his blood. That's an image that we often use, meaning that when we put our faith in him, when we trust in his death on the cross for our forgiveness, his sacrifice takes care of our sin problem. It cleanses us. It purges us of the guilt and the stain of sin. So if you believe in Jesus, if your life is joined to his through faith, in spiritual terms, you become a new person. You are forgiven. You are washed clean, and God justifies you by his grace through faith in Christ, just as if you and I never sinned.
So because we are in union with Christ, the benefits of his death apply to us all. That's what he means, I think, by the washing image. What then of his insistence, that he still wash Peter's feet? Well, I think he's getting at the fact that though we're cleansed once and for all when we believe in Christ and we come to him and are accepted and united to him, nevertheless he also cleanses us again and again whenever we sin and then repent and turn to him again and ask for forgiveness.
So this is the symbolism of the washing. Its deep meaning, deepest meaning really, is to point to Jesus' work on the cross and our ongoing need to come to him again and again when we've fallen or stumbled and turn in repentance and faith to receive his forgiveness.
An Exemplary Act
Finally, Jesus' act of washing his disciples' feet was an exemplary act. And now we come, I think, to maybe the most important point of all; at least it's the point that Jesus himself draws attention to. “I have given you an example,” he said. “`Do you understand what I have done for you?' he asked them. `You call me “Teacher” and “Lord.” You are right. That is what I am. I am your Lord and your Teacher and so I have given you an example to follow. You should do as I have done for you. . . . Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.'”
Well of course they didn't fully understand everything about what Jesus had just done for them. They couldn't have grasped, obviously, the meaning of the cross just then because it hadn't happened yet. Jesus had not yet died for them and in fact it would take years for that meaning to finally sink in and to emerge again in the writings of the New Testament as the apostles reflecting on the Old Testament scriptures that pointed to Christ and on Jesus' own teaching as it was brought back to them through the ministry of the Spirit began to put down in writing just what the cross accomplished, what Christ's death and resurrection did for us and our problem of sin.
But what they could understand then and there was the power of this humble servanthood that Jesus was demonstrating to them. They could see and grasp how important his example was, an example of humble, self-effacing service to others. That's what we're called to do. They could grasp the fact that if Jesus, their Lord and Master, could lower himself to do this for them, then none of them was too important to do anything for anyone else. They could feel the force of the towel and the basin, the slaves' implements. They could realize that the Lord was now placing these servants' things in their hands. From now on this kind of service would be the distinctive mark of the Christian, both individually and as a community. “I . . . have washed your feet. So you also should wash one another's feet.”
Sometimes Christians have taken that literally and have made a sort of sacramental act out of footwashing. But I think what he really means for us to do is not to literally wash each other's feet. Footwashing stands for any humble, loving service that you do that meets the needs of people, whatever those might be. I think when Jesus tells us to wash one another's feet, he's calling us to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, house the homeless, help the poor and destitute. He's calling us to remember the prisoner, to visit the lonely, to comfort the grieving, to befriend the stranger. He's calling us to share the good news of the gospel with everyone. And when we do that, and share his love as well in practical ways, then we're following his example. No act is beneath us as followers of Jesus Christ.
If you are not a Christian, then this probably doesn't make any sense to you. In fact, it's probably a big turn off. But maybe you need to put your faith in him. Maybe you need to believe in him and allow him to wash your sins away. If you are a Christian, then you need to get to work on foot washing. You and I don't really have any choice! We must serve others as Christ has served us.
I have a friend who likes to say this: Discipleship means following Jesus, not just observing. Isn't that true? Now that we know these things, we will be blessed if we do them! It's not enough just to observe.