John 13:3-17 | Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet
3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then 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. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ 9Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10Jesus 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.’ 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’ 12 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? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servantsare not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
The end was near. The walls were weak, the windows were gone. The roof was waiting for the next bout of wind and rain to bring it crashing down into the house. They were saddened and experiencing shock – some not feeling much of anything anymore. There were so many memories saturating the walls of this home: Christmas mornings; Thanksgiving dinners; arguments and slammed doors followed by I’m sorry’s and I forgive you’s and I love you’s and I love you, too’s. There was a place in the hallway with pencil marks and scribbled dates marking the growth spurts of children.
The end was near, and they struggled to feel and to even see the damage. However, the family suddenly felt a swelling of energy. They returned to the home, got in, packed away what they could to store and, not long after that, part of the roof caved in and a crew arrived to demolish the house.
When we sense that “the end is near” for a person, place, or thing in our lives we often receive such a swell of energy. I remember when I ran cross-country for my high school’s team. There were certain points in the race that my coach (and more often, my mother!) would call out to me how much distance remained and how many runners were still ahead of me. There were times I would receive these reports and feel like I had absolutely nothing left to give to the race. However, when I knew I was nearing the end and the finish line was within my grasp, I would get a swell of energy and sprint my way to the finish line, passing as many competitors as I could before I crossed.
Many with terminal illnesses often receive a swell of energy before their death, setting affairs in order and hugging and kissing the ones they love. Teachers, too, knowing that their professional career is coming to a close, will bring forth to their students their final lectures with a swell of energy, leaving the students with what they feel are the most important things they can offer in their last lectures.
In the text above, Jesus finds himself nearing the end. However, there are countless examples in Scripture that point people to the same truth: the end is never really the end! There is a new beginning to come. For followers of a religion that place life, death, and resurrection at the forefront of their creeds are inherently a people who do not see the endings without seeing new beginnings. This is a phenomenon that Jürgen Moltmann would call the mini-eschaton, the eternal and ever-present ending of the old and beginning of the new. I am reminded of the wonderful Hymn of Promise that has been sung on so many Sunday mornings and at so many funerals:
In the bulb there is a flower | In the seed an apple tree
In cocoons a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see
In our end is our beginning | In our time infinity
In our doubt there is believing | In our life eternity
In our death a resurrection | At the last a victory
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see
Certainly it was God alone through Jesus who could see the end was near in the text. Jesus, the great teacher, begins from this point leaving his final, powerful object lessons for the disciples to take with them in soon becoming apostles. Jesus removes his outer robe, wraps a towel around his waist, and begins washing the feet of his disciples. When he gets to Peter, Peter reacts as his energetic and, at times, overzealous self: “You will never wash my feet.” This is the same reaction we see in a different story involving Jesus and water: his baptism in the Jordan by John. John reacts similarly in Matthew 3: “I need to be baptized by you, but you come to me?” However, Jesus responds to both John and Peter in the same way: it must be this way, or the journey cannot continue. John baptizes Jesus and Peter allows Jesus to wash his feet, but continues in his excitability: “Not just my feet, but my head and my hands as well!”
Here is where the text gets interesting. Jesus says “You are clean, though not all of you.” Next we see what we often see from the writers of the Gospel of John – a running commentary explaining the words and actions of Jesus (He did this to show…he did this to fulfill…he did this to prove…). Here the commentary involves the coming betrayal of Jesus by Judas. However the phrase “you are clean, though not all of you” is deceiving when seen in English. In English, it appears that Jesus is talking directly to Peter. The first “you” in the phrase in Greek, however, is plural. In English, it might be more appropriate to see written “All of you are clean, though not all of you are clean.”
This seems paradoxical, but what about our ideas of a Chalcedonian Christology and a Trinitarian theology don’t seem that way? Jesus’ statement “all of you are clean, though not all of you are clean” points the modern reader to our seemingly paradoxical lives as followers of Christ: as being both saints and sinners. We are at once persons in a process of continual salvation through the love that God has for us through Jesus and persons in a process of rebelling against that love by what we say and do.
It is good that Jesus, sensing the end, offered one of his last great lessons on humbling service. These are the disciples who have argued time and time again about who is the greatest among them and who will sit at the right and left of Jesus in a new kingdom and who has authority to heal, exorcise, and even call fire down from heaven to consume a village that did not receive Jesus. Jesus, as usual, knocks our egos down to the floor: “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.” Peter and the others were caught as those in this humorous take on foot washing were caught:
It is hard to see any end or any new beginning when we are trapped by our own convictions. Peter’s words “You will not wash my feet” are different today. “I will not wash your feet.” There is always a group or an individual we feel “higher” or “better” than – people we would never stoop below, humble ourselves for. Kris Kristofferson rightly sang
“‘Cause everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on, prove that they are better than at any time they choose.”
When my wife and I got married, we had a foot washing service during our wedding
We did this to symbolize that there would probably come a time or two in our married life that we would feel better than, more right than, or too stubborn to stoop down and serve our partner on the journey. In our short time together as a couple, there has already been better and worse, sickness and health, richer and poorer…but this was our solemn vow. “All of you are clean, though not all of you are clean.” We are all in a constant state of excelling and falling short. However, just as Jesus pointed out as he sensed the end, we must never be in a state where we are unwilling to serve the lowest station, for this is the place of greatness in the kingdom of God. Our baptism and our foot washing serve as covenants much like the marriage vows. We serve Christ for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer. We humbly serve even the least of these or those we don’t feel like serving for better or for worse.
We must remind ourselves of John Wesley’s prayer at the Spitalfields church so long ago, that British and American Methodists have since started reciting as we sense the end of a calendar year is near and point our minds and hearts to a new beginning in the next:
I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering.Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty.Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
As Wesley and those 1800 with him covenanted, and as Jesus conveyed in one of his final teaching sessions, we also ought to be willing wash one another’s feet. Hopefully, the end of our misguided sense of “betterness” can be sensed, and we will receive a swell of energy and a new beginning of love and action for those who need to be served.