Here is a devotional I gave at the Maundy Thursday communion service at Center Church EPC along with Harmony EPC (Harrisville), last week.
13 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.
2 The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
10 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.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
12 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. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”John 13:1–17 (NIV 1984)
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each give us about half-a-chapter’s worth of account of this Supper, mostly focusing on the symbolism of the Passover itself, that Jesus is establishing the New Covenant. And this corresponds to what we read earlier, in Exodus 12. John, on the other hand, gives us five chapters of account of what Jesus did and said taught and prayed at this Last Supper, before leaving to go to the Garden of Gethsemane, and then being picked up by the authorities. So what happened at this Supper clearly had a deep impact on John.
And this scene, which is one of the most poignant in the Scriptures, sets the tone for all that Jesus says and teaches his disciples on this last night before he goes to his death. John tells us that Jesus knew his time was drawing near to give himself, that the devil had already prompted Judas to betray Jesus. Events were already set in motion. There is time for one last act of love and discipling!
Notice in verses 1 and 3, we find a motivation, a rationale, prompting for Jesus to do this act. It says literally, “Knowing that the Father had given all things to him into his hand…he rose from the supper…” and did this thing. Jesus was fully confident in who he was, his position of authority—and he was fully confident in what his Heavenly Father would do through him and for him, as he went to his death. He was not hesitant to serve in this humble way. He was preparing to complete the mission for which he came (“he had come from God the Father”).
And he was preparing to leave these disciples that he had spent so much time with over three years! He loved them; and he loved those in the world that these disciples would testify to about his words, his actions, his death and his resurrection. He’s giving them one last message that would stick with them always, and that they would always recount to others, with amazement.
Rabbi Strips Down to His Shorts
Before we think about symbolism and significance—what does Jesus actually do? Verses 4 and 5 tell us: Jesus takes off his outer garment, strips down to essentially shorts and a towel, and washes the disciples’ feet as they are reclining around the table.
Now, the washing of hands would have been a regular part of the ritual meal. And, back at the end of chapter 11, we see that many people had come up in advance of the Passover, to have time for ceremonial cleansing—which could take a day or a week depending on what kind of impurity it is. But regardless of how ritually clean you’d be: anytime you’d walk somewhere in sandals, your feet would get dirty.
Have you ever had your feet washed by someone else? I actually participated in a footwashing service for the first time last summer, and I can tell you: it’s awkward. It’s a surprisingly intimate act: it’s uncomfortable to have someone of the same status or higher status, touching a dirty part of your body in this way! I’ve never had servants, but I can imagine from watching period dramas and reading literature that you might get reasonably comfortable with dressing or undressing in front of a servant, or having a body slave taking care of washing your body. And that’s what this is: the job of a slave or a servant, a low-status person. To have your mentor, your master, your rabbi, kneeling in front of you, in his underwear, washing your feet—uncomfortable really does don’t begin to describe it!
And, consider: if it was just about getting the job done and having clean feet around the table, Jesus could have hired someone to do this—“Hey guys, I wanted to do this nice thing for you—so here’s Eliezer, he’s going to wash everyone’s feet!” No, Jesus has something much more significant in mind.
The Sign and Symbol
So, what is Jesus really doing? His interaction with Peter, verses 6 to 11, helps us to understand. First, verse 7, Jesus says that they’re not going to understand what he’s doing right now, but they will understand its full significance later. And that just adds to the awkwardness, because now everyone’s wondering about the meaning!
In verse 8, Jesus says that “washing” somehow symbolizes the consecration, the setting apart, to receive something—the word is “part” or a “portion,” meaning that Jesus’s followers have a portion of the inheritance that Jesus will be granted through his death and resurrection.
But, why the feet, Peter asks? Why not wash the whole of me? As I was mulling this over, some examples from the Old Testament came to mind (as they often do for me!)—there are places that describe cleansing one part of the body as symbolic or sufficient for cleansing (or consecrating) the whole person.
First, we have the general idea of anointing: usually a king or a priest. When someone is anointed, another authority figure like a prophet would pour oil on the head of the person—and then the oil, which, in a dry climate, symbolized blessing and purity and health, would run down from the head onto the beard and the neck. So this is the common-sense way of applying something, whether it’s anointing oil, or water, or paint—gravity means you should apply from the top down! (And yet, remember, Jesus is “cleaning” the disciples from the feet upward.)
Second, we have another example in Isaiah 6:7, when Isaiah is called to be a prophet. Upon seeing God on his heavenly throne, he cries out, “I’m doomed! Because I’m a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” In fact, from Isaiah 1:6, we know that the whole body politic, the whole society, is hopelessly sick, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot. But in response, Isaiah’s unclean lips are cauterized with a hot coal, so that his lips are clean and he can fulfill his vocation as a prophet. In a sense, his whole self is cleaned and set apart, just by his lips being cleansed.
Third, in Leviticus 8:23, when priests are ordained for service: the blood of the sacrifice is applied to the horns of the altar, and then to the priests’ right earlobe, right thumb, right big toe. Maybe the earlobe represents the head more generally; or, their hearing from God. The right thumb represents the work of their hands, preparing sacrifices and lifting the portions up to God. And the big toe represents their ability to stand and walk, in and out of sacred space, going between God and the people. So, maybe this is what Peter means when he says, not just my feet, but my hands and head as well!
Jesus responds: It is only necessary to clean the feet! Is it because they’ve already bathed before walking in the dirty streets to this meal? Perhaps. Is it because the feet are the grossest part of the body? Now we’re onto something, and the symbolism is starting to be apparent! Jesus is intimately familiar with not just Peter’s gross feet, but the grossest, most repellent parts of Peter’s heart and mind—and yet, he loves Peter, and wants to cleanse those parts of him, so that he can be forgiven. And he says he has already done this for all who are present (except for Judas), so they are spiritually “clean.”
Lovely Feet, for Mission
But I think it’s not just that the feet represent the most objectionable, sinful aspects of our character, that Jesus cleanses the disciples of. “The feet” represent the vocation to which Jesus calls all his disciples: humble service, and mission.
In verses 12 to 15, he says: I am your teacher, your master, your rabbi—I have just set an example for you! I haven’t been in it for the attention and the power and to be served—but rather, “the Son of Man came…to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” he says in Mark 10. And as Jesus’s servants, students, messengers: the disciples can do no less than what he has just done in humbling himself. This is a tremendous paradox: that the most powerful ruler in all the world, under whose feet God was about to put all things (1 Cor 15), stripped to his shorts and served those who were under him, because of love!
But, again: why “the feet”? And, why “just the feet”? Jesus’s act transforms the “gross, dirty feet” of his disciples into “lovely feet”! In Isaiah 52:7, we read: “How beautiful [or lovely] upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” The cleaning of the feet is preparation to go forth and proclaim this good news!
And the message, according to Isa 52:7 and Isaiah 61, is that the God of Israel is coming into his rightful kingship! God, in the person of Jesus, has returned to save his people, to rescue us who were in darkness, to set free captives, to heal, to release those in darkness! And this is the message that disciples are sent with, sent out into the world with “clean feet,” lovely feet!
And, this is not just for Peter and for Jesus’s disciples that night—even though it would have been amazing to have been present! The things that Jesus says and does were not just for them, but for all who would come to know Jesus through the testimony of these “apostles,” which means “those who are sent” with a mission and a message. So, what does it mean for us?
It means that: God knows our gross “feet”! He knows the thoughts of our hearts, our words, our actions. Yet he has not stood far off from us, waiting for us to clean our own “feet,” get our own moral “act together” before he will have anything to do with us. He loves to be with us, and so he made himself vulnerable and approached us, to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Second, Jesus’s act of humility is an example for his followers: we should always be looking for ways to serve one another, in vulnerable and difficult situations. We have been given the mission of embodying Jesus’s love in a broken world.
Third, just as Jesus washed the disciples’ feet to send them on the good-news mission: He has set us apart as well, to share the message of the kingdom of God. And with these consecrated “feet,” we shouldn’t be able to sit still! We should be walking, running into the world, into the valleys and up onto the mountains, to proclaim this message! Jesus says, “…no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (vv. 16-17) Now that we know: our vocation as his servants is before us, and the message he sends us out to proclaim, is clear. Amen.
P.S.: Check out this song from The No Longer, the band I played with back in the day, about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet: “Bitter Suite: Face in the Crowd / Washing Your Feet / The Hour Has Come.”
I love the idea of “consecrated feet”!
Take my hands, and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love;
Take my feet and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee,
Swift and beautiful for Thee.