Scripture: John 13:1-17, 31-35
“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.” ~ John 13:3-4
For all that we talk about servanthood being at the centre of the Christian life, the path that we are all called to follow, we can be mighty squeamish when it comes to foot-washing. From a friend’s church in the deep south of the United States that was so uncomfortable with foot-washing that they turned it into shoe-shining, to the surprise many people had at Pope Francis’ decision to wash the feet of prisoners three years ago, to the uncomfortable looks many give when they are invited to have their feet washed during our liturgy it is clear we struggle with this yearly act, that comes at the beginning of the Paschal Triduum, setting the tone for the days to come.
There are perhaps many reasons that we struggle with the act of foot-washing: there is an intimacy that foot-washing entails that makes us uncomfortable, there is the public act of revealing our feet in front of strangers or mere acquaintances when we spend most of our lives covering them up with socks and shoes, there is the chance we are ticklish or sensitive, there is our worry over how are feet look, smell or both.
It does make some sense that we are uncomfortable with foot-washing, after all, it isn’t exactly common to practise in our day and age – it isn’t something that we expect when we go out to a restaurant or a fancy dinner party. We would probably be rather put off if at our next meal one of the wait staff came up to the table with a basin and jug of water. Not so in Jesus’ day, however. While it might not have been common practice for all the disciples of Jesus’ day, foot-washing was certainly practiced in the upper echelons of society. Typically, a servant or house slave would wash the feet of all the guests who arrived for dinner, a necessity considering many would have dusty or muddy feet from the road.
While foot-washing was a common practice, the disciples certainly wouldn’t have expected Jesus – the host, special guest and their teacher, their leader, their Lord – to be the one to strip off his outer clothes, tie a towel around his waist and bring out the basin to wash his disciples’ feet.
There is distinct poetry to the way John painted the scene before us in our Gospel lesson. In verse three John wrote, “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 it around himself.” John had described Jesus at beginning of his Gospel as the one through whom all things were made, the one whose hands had created humanity and the whole of the cosmos. And nowhere in our Gospel story were those very same hands were washing the dirty dusty feet of the disciples, those same hands were caressing and cleansing the feet of his closest friends, wiping away the stains of the world.
On some level, Peter’s reaction to Jesus is understandable – perhaps out of embarrassment that he hadn’t offered to be the one to wash Jesus’ feet, or out of his shame to see Jesus assume the role of a common slave, or perhaps recognizing who Jesus was as God’s Son and feeling unworthy of this act – Peter refused to let Jesus anywhere near his feet. Or perhaps Peter knew full well what Jesus was doing, what Jesus was asking of him, what he was demonstrating to his disciples as an example and he wanted none of it.
Jesus’ response to Peter cuts straight to the point: unless I wash you, you have no share in me. He then went on to talk about the ones who were clean, highlighting that not all of them were, referencing Judas who was about to betray him. But remarkable in this is that although Jesus knows Judas will betray him, even though he will go into length about this in the coming verses finally telling Judas “What you are about to do, do quickly”, Jesus still washes Judas’ feet, he still breaks bread with him, he still offers him the cup of salvation that is a sign of the new and eternal covenant.
Jesus still loves Judas – despite all he has done and all he will do; Jesus still loves Judas. Still pours out his grace like the water of the basin upon him, shares his very life with him right up to the end.
The grace of God knows no bounds – even we who wander away from God and follow our own devices and desires, even the disciples who abandon Jesus even God’s enemies, even the betrayer, even the ones who will shout ‘Crucify him!’ in the crowd on Good Friday, even the soldiers who will mock and beat him and nail him to the Cross, even they can have a share in him, even they can be washed clean of the stains of the world.
However, it is not the water in the basin that will cleanse, but rather Jesus’ very own blood poured out for them, poured out for the world, poured out for us that will accomplish this cleansing, that will allow us to have a share in the life of Christ, that will allow us to have a share in the very life of God.
Jesus doesn’t just stop there, however; he turns the ball over to his disciples – Jesus tells them “For I have set an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than the master.” Jesus invites his disciples into this world-altering, topsy-turvy vision, this Kingdom where servanthood and caring for others are the markers of membership. Jesus concludes by telling his disciples that it is through their love for one another, just as Jesus loved them.
But here’s the catch – the love that we show isn’t limited to our friends, it isn’t limited to the people we like, the people who make us feel better about ourselves, the people who look and think like us – Jesus tells us that we should do as he has done for us. We too are called to pour out our love for the ones who oppose us, the people we can’t get along with, the people who speak and think differently than us, the people closest to us that betray us; in short we too are called to pour out or love for our enemies.
This is perhaps another reason for our collective squeamishness at Jesus’ command for us to do likewise and wash each other’s feet because it is a sign of something far larger than merely washing the dirt off our toes – it is a sign of reverence and care, a sign of service and intimacy – even for people we don’t like, people we hate.
That is God’s way – a way we will be reminded of more clearly tomorrow on a hill outside Jerusalem. Tonight Jesus invites you to follow him on the path which is set before him, a path that is shrouded in darkness, a path that is stalked by death and sin, but it is the path of life. May you have eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts ready to follow Jesus where he must go, today and forevermore. Amen.