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. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.
5Then 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. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
10Jesus 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.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12After 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? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
18I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ 19I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. 20Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”
21After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. 23One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; 24Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” 26Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.”
So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. 27After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
You could write a book about how many times the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about. They’ve followed him for three years. They’ve listened to him along the way. They’ve even gone out on their own at his instruction to share the message of God’s kingdom. They get some of it, but some of the big things, they still don’t understand.
For example, they don’t understand that Jesus is going to the cross. Now, for sure, they know his ministry is risky. They know the religious leaders are angry with Jesus. In the past they’ve recognized that the conflict with the leaders is a life or death matter, but they really don’t expect the cross.
Each time Jesus has talked to them about his death, talked to them about the cross, the disciples show that they don’t get it. Not only do they not understand that Jesus is going to be crucified, they also don’t understand what that means in terms of power. Instead, they argue over which one of them is the greatest. They argue over the best seats in God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom isn’t about who gets the best seats. Jesus goes to the cross because God is love and love rules by giving, not taking.
Since the disciples don’t get it, Jesus tries another way of saying the same thing. During supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. I imagine many of the disciples were confused and uncomfortable. Peter is at least honest enough to express his shock. Here was his teacher, his Lord, kneeling at the feet of the disciples. It didn’t make sense, and Peter wanted no part of it. Probably other disciples felt the same way, but were afraid to say anything.
On his knees at the table Jesus is saying something important to the disciples, the disciples in that upper room and the disciples in this upper room. The disciples, the community of men and women who define themselves by following Jesus, the church, is supposed to be a fundamentally different kind of community than the world.
In the world and in most of our communities, whether we say it out loud or not, who you are matters. It matters what you wear, how much money you make, and what kind of car you drive. Some people are in charge and other people follow. Some people are more valuable than others. People with power tell everyone else how it’s going to be, and how it’s going to be benefits the folks in charge.
The church is supposed to be different. There are leaders in the church, but the leaders are servants. They are servants of God and servants of the members of the community. Jesus says, I am you teacher and your Lord, and I wash your feet, so you should wash each other’s feet too.
Washing feet isn’t glamorous, but it’s intimate. It is hard to feel powerful when you’re washing someone’s feet; it’s also kind of hard to feel in control when someone else is washing your feet. More than that, it’s hard to take each other too seriously. Feet are funny looking. Having someone wash and massage your feet tickles. And it’s relaxing. The warm water on your feet at the end of a long day is soothing. The tension drains out, the pressure to be perfect evaporates. We can’t hide our flaws if someone is holding our feet in their hand.
And when we’ve got someone’s foot in our hand we have to handle it gently. We need to scrub enough to get the dirt off, but we need to be delicate and caring as well. It’s not time to talk about what the other person has done to hurt us. It’s not time to complain about someone else’s clothes or attitude. It’s not time to fret about bills and budgets. When we wash each other’s feet we are in a moment together. The leader is not the boss; the follower is not a minion. We are a loving community shaped by humble, caring service for each other and for the world.
No wonder we shy away from washing feet. In the protestant tradition we believe that Jesus gave us two sacraments, baptism and communion. We believe they are special ways of experiencing God’s grace because Jesus experienced them and commanded us to do them in his name. We can do those, no problem. Jesus also clearly tells the disciples to wash each other’s feet, but most churches just quietly ignore that one. Maybe it’s too weird for the church to take it seriously. Maybe that level of intimacy just isn’t comfortable. Maybe we want to keep a layer of distance, even a layer of hierarchy between us.