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Are you going to wash my feet?

30th March 2008

The famous story of Jesus washing His disciples' feet is found in John, Chapter 13. It starts with these words:

John 13v1-5
It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped round him.

In those days, the streets were muddy and dusty, and people wore sandals. People's feet got very dirty, and it was customary for a host to instruct his servant to wash his guest's feet or, if he had no servant, to do it himself. This was simply good manners, as today the host would take your coat and hang it up for you. But Jesus and the twelve were going to eat the Passover meal in a room where the host was absent.

None of the disciples was willing to wash the feet of the others. It was, after all, a rather unpleasant task. And we read in Luke's account that they were debating (again) the question of which of them was the greatest disciple. AS we read the gospels, it seems that this occurred quite often. And they each probably felt that to wash another disciple's feet would give the impression of acknowledging his superiority. So they all just sat there.

But Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the King of Kings, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, stripped down to his underwear, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed their feet. It seems clear from the text that Jesus was willing to do this because he " knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God". That is, Jesus was secure enough in who He was and in God's love from Him, that He was able to humble Himself and serve His friends.

Those of us who have an ego problem are often bound by our insecurities or our ambition, so that humbling ourselves seems so hard to do. Either we think that a menial task is below us, or that perform such a task would make us look small. But Jesus humbled Himself. Jesus said "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Mark 10v45). Jesus - God Himself - wants to serve us. And this is not because we deserve it - after all, Jesus washed Judas's feet, too - but because He loves us.

It seems that not a word was spoken as Jesus washes the disciples' feet - they were probably too ashamed to speak. But Peter couldn't understand what was going on, and when Jesus approached him, he couldn't contain himself:

John 13v6-10
He [Jesus]came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?"
Jesus replied, "You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand."
"No," said Peter, "you shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me."
"Then, Lord," Simon Peter replied, "not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!"
Jesus answered, "A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you."

When Jesus said "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me" He wasn't talking about the act of washing Peter's feet, he was speaking of Peter's - and our - need to have our sins washed away through the sacrifice that Jesus was going to make on the cross the following day. Peter just didn't get it. Not yet.

What Jesus said about Judas is very important, but I'm going to leave it aside for this column. The passage continues:

John 13v11-17
For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. "You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

We call Jesus ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and He is. And he has set us an example. He humbled Himself to meet the needs of others, when He could have claimed the right to have them humble themselves for Him. He met their need. Not only their spiritual needs, but their everyday, practical needs. They had dirty feet, so He washed them. And we must have the same attitude. If we see anyone, and particularly if we see our Christian brother or sister, in need, we must be willing to get our hands dirty, to do the menial job that they need us to do.

Later the same evening, Jesus said:

John 13v34-25
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

The church is different from the world. God has shown us forgiveness, and He has shown us His love. We know that He loves us and that He always will. But the world can't see that. What other people can see is the love of God when we express it through love towards each other. When we truly love each other as Christ loves us, then others can see that we're different, that we belong to Christ. And then we see them born again to become our new brothers and sisters.