Yesterday morning I found myself wondering what Jesus was doing on the Wednesday of that first Holy Week. We know what he did on Sunday. Tradition says that on Monday he turned over the tables in the Temple. But we don’t get a play-by-play of the rest of the week – until we come to this night, Maundy Thursday, with Good Friday and the cross less than 24 hours away.
None of us knows the exact day we will die. But Jesus did. What would you do if you knew you only had 24 hours to live? Many of us would probably want to spend that day with family and friends, and so did Jesus. He says elsewhere in Scripture how much he longs to celebrate this Passover meal with his disciples. But for the Gospel writer John, it’s not just the meal that is significant, but what happened during it.
Each of the other Gospel writers relates the account of what is traditionally called the Last Supper. John instead shares the account of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17), for to John both events carry the same message. In the conversation during the Last Supper, Jesus tells the disciples that his body will be broken and his blood poured out for them because of his love for them. Here in John’s Gospel, instead of telling them about his love, he shows his love – by picking up a towel, grabbing a basin of water, and washing their feet. What exactly do a bunch of feet have in common with a nice, fresh loaf of bread and a pretty chalice of wine? Feet aren’t always pretty. Some of them are kind of funny looking. Most of them are smelly, especially back then when people walked around on dusty roads with sandals. That’s why this job was reserved for the lowest slave in the household.
But it’s not just the foot washers who are humbled by the task, but also the foot wash-ees. Ever had someone wash your feet? Many of us may resist at first like Peter (John 13:8). “Oh, no, I’m too embarrassed to have you wash my feet.” “I have bad foot odor,” or “I haven’t had a pedicure in a long, long time.” Foot washing can be a humbling, vulnerable experience for both sides. Yet Jesus commands us to do it – because Jesus knows that only in moments of humility and vulnerability can the greatest transformation happen.
A few years ago on a youth mission trip to the Dominican Republic, as part of the evening worship one night I invited our group to wash one another’s feet. We took turns, with each person choosing whose feet they wanted to wash. An older sister washed her younger sister’s feet. A man in his 60’s washed the feet of his wife of 40 years. I choose to wash the feet of someone I’d falsely accused earlier that week. We sat in silence for a long time after worship. The next day we would learn that one of the kids – the so-called “wildest” one, the one people thought was far from faith – came to Christ that night. In watching this act of humility and vulnerability, in being willing to be humble and vulnerable himself, he discovered the truth of Jesus’ words: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
Now, compared to laying down one’s life, washing feet may not sound that bad after all, huh? Washing feet may also sometimes pale in comparison to some of the other commands Jesus gives us, like feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, love your enemies. We don’t always – rarely? ever? – like to humble ourselves and be vulnerable. When I was on Young Life staff, I led a weekly Bible study for a group of sophomore girls. One week we talked about humility. The next week I asked them, “So what’d we talk about last week?” One girl quickly responded, “Humiliation!”
Humility can sometimes feel like humiliation. Maybe that’s why we tend to water down Jesus’ command in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give you: that you like one another.” But when we define love as simply liking each other, tolerating each other, being nice to one another, or – here in the South – blessing someone’s heart, there’s an imbalance to the equation: “Just as I have loved you, you also should like one another”?
Jesus calls us to something more: A love that can’t be defined by just trying to do the right thing or be a good citizen. A love that doesn’t aim for the minimal requirement. A love that goes above and beyond, that does the unexpected, that loves and serves even those who deny us, betray us, and desert us. A love, Jesus says, that makes clear that we are his disciples (John 13:35), for no other explanation is humanly possible.
So what do we need to do to love in that way? The answer is found, not in what we do, but in what we know. In verses 3-4, John writes, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had put 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.” Jesus knew three things: He knew he was fully in control, he knew where he’d come from and where he was going. In that knowledge, he could get up from the table and humbly serve his friends.
We know those same three things to be true. Scripture tells us that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus (Matthew 28:18). He’s in control. He’s got this. Scripture also tells us God created each of us – and not just created us, but created us in his image (Genesis 1:27). We know our roots, that we came from our Heavenly Father who loved us enough to create us in his image and to call us his children. And we know where we’re going: Later on in this same conversation, Jesus will tell his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for us in our Father’s house. “And if I go and prepare a place for you,” he says, “I will come again and will take you to myself.” (John 14:2-3). With this assurance that we know the bookends of our life – that we’ve come from God, that we will return to God, and that in between the two Jesus has us and all things in his hands – we are free to love one another just as freely as Jesus loves us.
So let us share Jesus’ love with one another around the table tonight that we may, too, may get up from the table to extend it to the world.