John 13: 1-17 23rd September 2018 9:45 and 11:30am
By porthkerryandrhoose, Oct 29 2018 12:50PM
I have an admission to make: I can’t abide anyone touching my feet! They’re extremely sensitive to touch. As a child, I would wriggle so much when having my toenails cut that Mum would have to clamp my foot firmly in one hand to hold it still before she could start using the scissors. I’m no better as an adult either. Some people think it the height of luxury to visit a salon for a foot massage or pedicure, or even to put their feet into a tank full of little fish to have the dead skin cells nibbled away. In any of those cases, I can think of nothing worse! And so, as I prepared to speak to you this morning, I found myself wondering how I would have reacted to Jesus touching my feet and washing them. Would I have wriggled? Probably. Would our Lord have to have taken my foot firmly rather than gently? Almost certainly. Would I have wanted to miss out on his gesture of love and service? Definitely not.
We’re over halfway through our study of John’s gospel now. Today’s passage marks a turning point in John’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry and his purpose in coming to live among us. Everything that he has narrated so far has occurred in the public sphere: the miracles, the teaching, the celebration of religious festivals, were all part of Jesus’ public ministry. From this passage until his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus is only in the company of his disciples and he will teach them in greater detail about why he must suffer and die and rise again. In our passage today, we see three reasons why Jesus washed his disciples’ feet: to show them the full extent of his love for them; to demonstrate the deepest level of willing and voluntary humility and service as an example that he commands them to follow; and to explain the act as significant of spiritual washing.
Firstly, Jesus wanted to demonstrate his love for his disciples. At the end of v1, John tells us: ‘Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ This is sometimes written as ‘he showed them the full extent of his love’. The disciples, as Jesus’ immediate followers, were ‘his own’ in the world. He had called them into fellowship with him, taught them, loved them. Now, in washing their feet, Jesus is showing his disciples the full extent of his love. Some scholars call it an acted parable. Jesus taught in parables to explain God’s kingdom and this acted parable of humble, even humiliating, service directs us to the humble, humiliating nature of what is to follow – Jesus’ crucifixion. Indeed, in the chapters that follow, as Jesus teaches his disciples, he tells them in 15:13: ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ That is the full extent of Jesus’ love for his disciples and for the whole world – that he was willing to suffer and die on the cross to save us.
Secondly, in washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus demonstrated the deepest level of willing and voluntary humility and service. Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, took on the humblest task. V3 tells us the full extent of Jesus’ power: ‘Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God’. Jesus’ divine nature means that he has power over all things, that he rules over heaven and earth. He was with God in the beginning and God sent him into the world as the Chosen one, the Messiah. Now, after his death and resurrection, he would be returning to God. He willingly cast that glory aside to come to earth, fully human, to lie among us. Jesus demonstrated true humility and selflessness in washing his disciples’ feet. In the social circles of that time, it was the job of the lowest servant or slave in the household to wash the feet of his master’s guests on arrival after they’d walked the dusty roads. Here, we see Jesus taking on this role for his dinner guests. He dresses like a servant or slave in order to complete his task, as we see in v4: ‘so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.’ How surprised would you be if your host stripped down to his or her vest and offered to wash your feet? We know that the disciples were surprised. In v6, Peter, as he often does in the gospel accounts, voices how he (and no doubt others) are feeling: ‘Lord are you going to wash my feet?’ This is society turned on its head! Masters don’t serve their servants, teachers don’t serve their disciples.
Once he has finished his task, Jesus then goes on to instruct the disciples. In v14 and 15 he says: ‘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.’ Jesus has demonstrated completely selfless love, humbling himself from his position as Teacher and Lord to serve his disciples. He now tells them that they should do the same. Like Jesus, we should not allow our position in society, or our pride, stand in the way of us serving others in love.
Finally, we see in his conversation with Peter, how Jesus explains his washing of feet as a spiritual washing. We’ve already heard Peter’s surprise at Jesus washing feet. Indeed, as we see in v8, at first, Peter refuses to have his feet washed: ‘No, said Peter, you shall never wash my feet.’ He can’t understand what Jesus is doing, or why he’s doing it. Jesus is insistent though: ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’ Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is symbolic of the spiritual washing we receive from Jesus – washing away our sins. If Peter wants, if we want to be a part of Jesus, then we have to let him wash us clean. So Peter says: ‘not just my feet but my hands and my head as well.’ If Jesus is saying that Peter needs to be washed clean, then Peter wants more than his feet washed. Jesus says that this isn’t necessary. In v10 he says: ‘Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean.’
Jesus washes us clean when we come to faith in him – when we believe that his death and resurrection takes away our sin. This washing is symbolised at our baptism, when our sins are washed away. At that point, we are clean. But it is in our nature that we keep doing things that mar our relationship with God and each other. And this is what the washing of feet symbolises. We need to regularly turn to God and seek forgiveness of our daily sins. We have had our bath – been washed wholly clean, we just need to symbolically wash away the dirt of the day from our feet by seeking God’s forgiveness.
So, in this passage of John’s gospel, we have seen Jesus reveal the full extent of his love for his disciples and the world. Not only does he demonstrate the deepest and humblest level of service, which surprises his disciples, but this action is a form of parable that points to his humble and humiliating death. Moreover, as with many of Jesus’ actions, he uses this act of foot washing to set an example, which he commands his disciples to follow. As Jesus humbly served his disciples, so are we to serve others. We also see the symbolism behind the washing of feet. If we want to be a part of Jesus then we have to let him wash us clean. Baptism makes us wholly clean but we need to keep ourselves clean by asking God for forgiveness for our everyday sins. If we follow our Lord’s example of service and heed his teaching about our spiritual washing, then as Jesus says in v17: ’Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.’