It’s not quite time for passover. We’re at something like the night before the day before the day of preparation for passover…but it’s getting close. Kind of like Christmas Eve-Eve.
And beyond the calendar, Jesus knows what is coming. And not just in that fully God omniscient kind of way. The fully human Jesus knows that when he raised Lazarus from the dead, the events leading to his death had been set in motion.
The end of chapter 12 tells us that many of the Jews who had come to Bethsaida to mourn alongside Mary saw and heard what Jesus did, and they believed. But others of them went to the Pharisees and told them what happened. This led to a council among the the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked what they should do in light of all the signs Jesus was performing.
“If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said, basically “here is the reality… it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
John tells us that from that day on, they planned to put Jesus to death. They only half-expected him to come to Jerusalem for the passover festival. But they gave orders anyway… that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.
You might imagine then, that there was a strange tension around the temple this passover season. That people might have been on edge.
Certainly, those who had come to believe Jesus was the Messiah would have been worried for him. And the leaders in the temple were so concerned about the numbers of people turning to follow Jesus that they even plotted to kill Lazarus.
But Jesus came to Jerusalem anyway. And he and the twelve found a place to stay, to eat and rest. And so here we are…
John 13:1 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then 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.
6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
10 Jesus 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.” 11 For 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? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
They were together, eating, enjoying one another’s company…And right smack in the middle of the meal, out of nowhere it seems, Jesus stood up. Then he did one of the most baffling things one could imagine.
That’s saying something when you consider what Jesus has been doing and teaching and saying… But what John describes here is way outside of normal customs.
Generally speaking, people would wash their own feet as they entered a home. The host would put out a basin of water as a mark of hospitality, kind of a liquid welcome mat… So that travelers would be refreshed as they enjoyed a meal or drink.
One mention of the custom in scriptures comes in Genesis 18, when Abraham offers his divine guests a basin to wash in while he and Sarah gather up something to eat.
Offering the basin in the middle of a meal might have been awkward, but the timing here really isn’t the issue. See if a household was large and had means, they might bring in a slave to wash a visitor’s feet. And most often this would be a female slave.
But a free person – like Jesus – would almost never wash the feet of another free person – like the disciples.
With one exception… someone might voluntarily offer. And this act of service would be understood as an act of devotion, of humility. Because the person washing was taking on the role of a slave.
And right there, in the middle of the meal… that is what Jesus did.
Trust me when I say this action is no less a sign than any of the healings or feedings or other wonders the disciples had witnessed.
This is their rabbi
Their teacher and leader
They have heard and thought and even said aloud that he is their Lord.
That he is the Son of Man, the One Sent From God.
And, as Paul would capture so beautifully in these hymnic words to the church in Philippi…
Jesus – though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave…
Describing this particular night, John captured it this way…
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. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet
Taking on the form of a slave.
But why? John says it was all for love… Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end.
It’s hard to render Greek verb tenses well in English, But John is saying that – Jesus’ love for his own – these men and all who truly believe in this earthly realm – Jesus’ love for his own was there from the very, very beginning and will remain until the very end.
On this particular night, Jesus embodies the extraordinary love of God by laying aside his robe and taking up his towel.
It is no wonder that Peter is aghast.
How can he allow this?
How could he possibly be worthy of this kind of honor?
How could any of them be worthy of this kind of love?
How could any of us?
I mean, there’s grace… of course.
But even with that, my human heart can only stretch so far…
Surely there are limits. Right?
Aren’t there some sins that are just too big?
Some evil that is too, well, EVIL for grace and forgiveness?
And here’s where things in this story start to feel complicated for me.
When Peter tries to stop Jesus, we get into another one of those 3-D conversations that happen on 2 different planes. If we stick to the social level, Peter is mostly right. It’s much more appropriate for the pupil to offer this kind of devotion to the teacher, not vice versa.
If one of them ought to be washing the other’s feet, it should be Peter kneeling down. But Jesus, as usual, isn’t concerned with custom.
He is thinking and acting on a more spiritual plane. He is talking about cleansing in a way that goes far beyond dusty sandals. When he says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” John has Jesus using a unique verb- not the one Peter uses.
Jesus uses the same word for wash that he used in his instructions to the man born blind. To go cleanse himself in the pool of Siloam.
This is the sort of cleansing that allows for new vision.
The sort of cleansing that allows for recognition of Christ’s divinity.
That allows for belief, for becoming a true disciple, a sheep in the fold of the Good Shepherd. This is the kind of cleansing that invites and makes space for one to be in relationship with God,
And the sort that exposes those who hang back, who do not believe, who cannot see Jesus as the Christ.
Jesus is cleansing them… all of 12 of them.
Jesus washed all of their feet, every last man in the room.
Including Peter, who would deny knowing Jesus.
And including Judas, who would betray Jesus to those seeking to kill him.
Jesus loved them so much, God so desires to be in relationship with us, that even knowing that Judas was beyond his reach, Jesus knelt down anyway.
And in the cleansing, he made a way possible.
I imagine, as he came to each of these men, Jesus remembered when and where they became followers. They had shared meals at so many tables, they had slept out under the stars and in the homes of extended families. They now had years of stories and memories and many many miles in common.
And, I suspect that Jesus was the only one who had any idea that Judas was part of the plot against him.
After all, Judas had joined the group with the same interest and passion, with the same hope that this rabbi was a prophet, or perhaps even more. They had all come seeking something that Jesus had to offer.
We like to think we could have spotted Judas, done something to warn or protect Jesus. We tend also to believe that we would have walked on water, if given the invitation that was wasted on Peter.
After all, hindsight gives us a lot of confidence, But I’m not so sure that our vision is so keen in real time.
As I read and reread this passage over the last week, I couldn’t shake the memory of the tragic events at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. I can’t believe it will be three years this summer from that evening that Dylann Roof walked into the church during an evening Prayer Service.
This group of people who loved one another, led by a vibrant young preacher, made space for him. They offered him what they had that evening… a warm welcome, an opportunity for fellowship, prayers…
They may have wondered why a young white man joined them, at this historically black church, but I doubt any of them had an inkling of the evil in his heart. They had no idea that they would betray that trust
And in their willingness to welcome the stranger, Jesus was in the room with them. Right there alongside the evil that made itself painfully visible all too soon. And Jesus was in the courtroom as family members spoke, not in terms of vengeance or hatred, but forgiveness.
I don’t know what to do with this truth…
the truth that Jesus is so willing to be in the presence of evil
And to offer cleansing grace and love to all…
even in the face of danger
even in the face of death
Everything within me moves toward preservation…
Making sure that I am safe, as well as those I love.
In this particular moment in history, I wonder…
How do we love our neighbors openly, beautifully, selflessly?
If I understand Jesus correctly, we are to look to his example.
14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
Loving one another requires us to serve one another. No matter who we are or where we think we stack up in the great pecking order of life. Loving one another requires us to set all that aside.
And, even beyond setting aside our privilege and station, we are to set aside our very lives.
If we go back to what Paul wrote to the Philippians, we are reminded of what that looks like. Jesus emptied himself and took on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
It’s a hard lesson, this one…
I mean, it’s one thing to take up our towels and follow Jesus, but picking up the cross?
That’s whole ‘nother, way bigger ask.
But guys, this goes way beyond our individual human lives. This is about our life together, our calling as the church to be the Body of Christ. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us that Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body. This is true In every time and in every place in the world, and therefore the Church must strive to demonstrate these gifts in its life as a community in the world (1 Cor. 12:27–28):
What does that look like in 21st century America?
Well, in addition to all the polity stuff, our Book of Order lays out a beautiful vision of who we are together. The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.
The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation.
The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
Don’t you want to be part of that church? Living as a community of faith, hope and love? So would an awful lot of other people, which is why it goes on to say
The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.
Why? Because God so loved the world.
Jesus IS God’s unending, ineffable love for you and for me, for all of us.
Love that bent down to wash the feet of his followers
Love that cried at the death of his friend
Love that gave sight to the blind
Love that saw the truth in a woman’s story
Love that offered wine at a wedding
Love that took on flesh and lived among us.
Love that was there in the beginning
Love that will be there when time is no more.
That is the love we have been given.
That is the love we are to give away.
Even if it costs us our lives.
That is the lesson.