Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. And during supper, had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know 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 part in me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “You are not all clean.”
When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are 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 as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
(John 13:1-17, 31b=35)
Our gospel writer told us of a wonderful scene in this witness. It is unique in the Bible. His description is found nowhere else in Holy Scripture. In the account our Lord Jesus was revealed as teaching a standard of behavior to be met by the whole Church. The place where the action occurred was in the upper room of a Jerusalem home, the site of what is often called the “Last Supper”. The disciples gathered there with Jesus, and as they ate Jesus told of the miraculous nature of the food which he was providing. As soon as they finished the meal, Jesus got up from the reclining position at the low table and began preparing for another very special event. The Lord of lords, Jesus… their teacher… performed a task commonly performed by house servants when a dinner guest came in from the dirty streets and first entered the door. Jesus took on that lowly role. He rose and washed the feet of his disciples. If we pay respectful attention, we see great depth of meaning that was given to the early Church.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, the scene also carries great importance for the modern Church as we go through a challenging time. I say that the message is meant primarily for the Church because evidence seems in scripture that only the disciples were present at the Passover dinner. Consequently, we may rightly conclude that the event was meant predominantly for them and their descendants who follow in the faith.
We need to remember the flow here as God had appointed Jesus’ arrest and death. We should not lessen the importance of the deed.
Too often we liturgically ignore the Maunday Thursday worship tradition by skipping this foot washing experience… and more gladly move directly to a more comfortable Good Friday worship…, claiming that not enough people show up for the Thursday service. Maybe as congregation members, we toss observing this night as a worship experience simply because we don’t want to hear the heaviness of the command. We also might feel a little uncomfortable washing another person’s feet, or having our feet washed in public.
I’ve also wondered, because of sparse attendance… how many church leaders figure that not enough offering is collected to pay the church light bill, so they skip the whole thing. This I note as a Lutheran pastor, but I see that this gross error is evidenced in many denominations, by pastors and churches. Many in ignorance do not observe a Maunday Thursday worship experience. Therefore I argue, as said previously by Martin Luther... “when love and mercy prompted the Lord to action, his deeds cannot have been insignificant.” I tell you now that we RIGHTLY should ALWAYS mark this burden that Jesus laid upon the Church… this heavy but wonderful command.
In the foot washing we immediately find that our Lord reversed the order of human status and priority. Instead of Jesus leading the occasion as the rabbi, he rose and served them as servants. as guests… by washing their feet. This action we can see as one of divine self denial. This washing thus laid the basis for our own ministry into the future.
To understand the importance we must dispel thoughts that the description merely illustrated an ancient Judaic custom, It called the church of John and we ourselves to think more deeply about the true meaning of being a Christian... and knowing that we are called to serve.
We need to read the account with great caution. For Luther, as with many in the Reformation era, believed that in their imitation of the washing act during the liturgy, the Church often loses the true meaning. If a worship leader washes a participant’s feet to make a phony display of self-righteousness, being a humble servant is then tossed aside in favor of undue glory before the world. Great corruption has historically happened within the Church because of the selfishness and pride of such clergy, who prefer ostentatious show. We are continuously in danger of this outward display, acting more like the apostle Judas. Consequently, we can take the event far too lightly and ignore the calling of God.
We need to be aware that our own agenda may cause misunderstanding.
For example, Peter missed the meaning of our Lord’s humility. He was described by John as balking at participation. He refused to accept that Jesus was born upon the earth to serve in such manner.
When Peter refused to be washed, Jesus answered, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”
Simon Peter then said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
Peter’s reaction to the offer of washing is taken by most interpreters as acceptance of the gift. However, I offer the possibility that this may not be wholly so. The words may reveal an attitude of "going along with-ness", kind of like a church member who will suffer the foot washing just to appease the nutty pastor. We need to remember that Peter’s agenda was that Jesus was to be the triumphant Messiah who was to take over governance of Israel and toss the Romans from the land.
Jesus accomplished not only the external washing of
the disciple’s feet, but some biblical authorities believe this was the actual
Baptism of his disciples. In this way our Lord gave hint of what was to
come by the power of the Holy Spirit. Martin Luther believed he further accomplished the
head-to-toe washing for his people by his blood shed upon the cross, which is
still in effect for us by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Holy
Baptism. When water is used and the
Baptism is accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit, the one who bore
the sins of the world accomplishes a great sacramental task for us. Whether partial or full immersion of
the sinful subject occurs is absolutely irrelevant and also is the age of the
recipient of grace. No… a baby can’t understand what is happening, but neither
Finally, Jesus delivers the command that we in the Church love one another... and calls us to do to others what our Lord has done for us. According to John, we are told to love one another just as our Lord loved us. We are first to be united in the tasks of radical servitude, and then work in unity toward the baptizing others in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This mandate remains for all of us in the modern Church ministering to persons of any age, whether they are adults like Peter or infants sitting in their pew.
Remember… our human understanding is not what makes Holy Baptism effective unto salvation! By doing this Sacrament as commanded even though not understanding, we as his followers are brought to more fully comprehend the grace that our Lord has shown. Thanks be to God.