On Being a Servant
I had never washed anyone else’s feet (bathing my own children doesn’t really count) until I went to work in a church where they acted out this scene every Holy Week. On the Thursday before Good Friday, many churches hold a service where the ministers, copying Jesus, wrap themselves in towels & wash the feet of those attending the service.
The first time I did it, I had prepared for the service in the usual way. But nothing could have prepared me for the sense of holy intimacy that went with the simple, but profound, action of washing other people’s feet. Feet are very basic things: not pretty, not ugly, just basic. Down to earth, you might say! Washing them is very mundane – we all have to wash our feet, & we do it so regularly we hardly think about it - & yet very close & personal. Washing between someone else’s toes is an intimate action. It is a moment of tenderness.
All of that – the love, the down-to-earthness – comes through in our passage. It is both the beginning & the end: the beginning of the long, slow build-up to Jesus’ crucifixion & resurrection, & the end, the climax, the goal, of everything Jesus has done so far. Now, John says, he loved them fully.
The first 3 verses form a detailed introduction both to the foot washing scene & to the whole rest of the Gospel. Watch how John, like a brilliant artist, fills in the background with 3 quick strokes of his brush. If we understand each of these, we will see not only what the foot washing meant, but also what Jesus’ death & resurrection mean.
First, Passover. We know John well enough by now to know that, when he mentions a Jewish festival, he wants us to understand that Jesus is applying its meaning to himself. Passover has been, from the beginning of the Gospel, the greatest of festivals. Jesus is the Passover lamb. He spoke, at Passover, of the Temple being destroyed & rebuilt – meaning his own body. He fed the crowds at Passover time, & spoke of them feeding on his body & blood. Now he is back in Jerusalem for a final Passover. John does not describe the meal itself; he seems to suppose that his readers know the story of it well enough from their traditions, & from their regular experience of the Eucharist. But in this extraordinary scene he explains, just the same, what the meal was all about, & how it pointed beyond itself to the events of the following day.
Second, Jesus’ time had come. In chapter 12, Jesus sees the moment dawning, the moment for which all his career had been preparing. But now John describes this time in a way that goes beyond what has been said so far, & sets up the whole sequence of events that will occur in the remainder of his Gospel. It is time – time for Jesus to leave this world & go to the Father.
Not simply “time for Jesus to die,” though that is part of what this means. We should not make the mistake many have made, & suppose that Jesus, in this gospel or any of the others, simply “died & went to heaven.” John is clear, in 20:17, that after his death Jesus is first raised to new life, then meets the disciples, & only then goes up to the Father. But it is this complex & completely unexpected sequence of events, the whole thing together, that means he is going to the Father. This what gives new depth & meaning both to the foot washing & the crucifixion. They are the events which form the ladder from this world to the Father’s world. They are the acted words the eternal Word must speak. They are the way home that the son of God must take.
Third, & for John even more important, what is now done is done as the action of supreme love. Think back to the good shepherd of chapter 10. The shepherd loves his own sheep, & they love him in return. And the greatest thing the shepherd can do for them is to lay down his life. Now, John says, he loved them fully. Not just with a dogged see-it-through kind of love, although that is here too. Jesus loved them to the uttermost. There was nothing that love could do for them that Jesus did not do now.
All of this, astonishingly, is contained in verse 1. The second & third verses, too, prepare the way. First there is Judas, allowing the devil’s whispered suggestion to gain a foothold in his imagination. Notice how evil creeps in between the cracks at the very moment when love is going to the limit. There is nothing cozy or romantic about this scene. It is about love betrayed, not just love portrayed.
But then, in verse 3, we see the full picture. The Word who was with God, the Word who was God, became flesh. He laid aside the clothes of glory, & put on our human nature, in order to wash our feet. He had come from God & was going to God. Here John sounds a lot like Paul in Philippians 2. And notice that here, as in Philippians, the point is not to say, “Imagine! Despite the fact that he had come from God, he nevertheless washed their feet!” The point is to say, “No! Washing their feet was what he had to do, precisely because he had come from God.” The foot washing - & the crucifixion itself, to which it pointed – was Jesus’ way of showing who God was & is. The next time Jesus has his clothes changed it will be to reveal him as the man (to use Pilate’s words), the king; after that he will be naked on the cross, revealing the Father’s heart as he gives his life for the world.
The little drama with Peter, misunderstanding yet again what Jesus is up to, is funny on the outside but deeply serious on the inside. Jesus must wash us if we are to belong to him. Yet he has already washed us, in our baptism; what we need day by day is the regular washing of those parts of ourselves, our emotions & bodies, which get dusty & dirty.
When Peter objects to Jesus washing him, this reflects his objection to Jesus going to the cross. Neither Peter nor the disciples have yet understood what it is that Jesus has to do & why.
And so Jesus speaks in verse 15 of giving his followers an example – a pattern – to copy. The word he uses could mean, in the ancient world, a picture showing how something could be done, or a tracing that someone else would follow, filling in the details. And this pattern gives Jesus’ followers a task so laborious, requiring such a strain on the nerves, will, heart & energy, that we shouldn’t be surprised at how many of us fail to get it right. Jesus, having washed his disciples’ feet, declares that he has established a pattern for them to follow.
Why is this so hard? Why does he have to go on to insist that the slave is not greater than the master, that the person who is sent is not greater than the person who sent them?
Because we are proud. Today, when we perform the foot washing ceremony in our churches, it is the leader, the senior minister, who does it. It has become a sign of leadership. When Jesus did it, he was doing what a slave would normally do; but when we do it, we’re doing what Jesus did. Though it is a deeply moving & intimate thing to do, it is still, rather obviously, the leader of the congregation copying Jesus - &, in a strange way, having his or her own authority & status enhanced by doing it.
Somehow, we need to get beyond this. It is important that everybody in a church family helps with the necessary tasks. The truly Christ-like are known by the ease & spontaneity with which he or she does the little, annoying, messy things – the things which in the ancient world the slave would do, the things which in our world we always secretly hope someone else will do so that we don’t have to “waste our time,” or demean ourselves.
The church needs to learn this again & again, because – God forgive us! – we are so readily subject to the temptation to proclaim Jesus as Lord when what we really mean is that we, his servants, are rulers of this or that province in his kingdom. We easily create little spheres of influence, of power, & we enjoy exercising it. We talk about the kingdom of God in the hope that some of that kingly glory will rub off on us. We draw attention to the promises about God’s people in Christ being “kings & priests” in order that we can lord it over others. And we quickly forget about the servant bits, the nuisance bits, the things which… yes, the things which Jesus would have done.
And there are endless possibilities for self-deception here. We can so easily use the doing of menial tasks themselves as a way of avoiding the real & important, but demanding, vocations that we alone can fill. Or we can even use them as a way of showing how humble we are, so that we can be proud – of being humble! At that point the right answer is to laugh at ourselves & move on to something else.
My point is that, for us as it was for Jesus, we should be looking away from ourselves, & at the world we are supposed to be serving. Where the world’s needs & our vocation meet is where we ought to be, ready to take on insignificant roles if that is what God wants, or to be publicly visible if that is our calling. And, as with Jesus, the picture of foot washing is meant to serve not only as a picture of all sorts of menial tasks that we may be called to perform, without drawing attention to them. It also points to the much larger challenge, the challenge that Jesus issued to Peter, the challenge to follow Jesus all the way to the cross, to lay down life itself in the service of God & the world he came to save.
Balancing the warning about servants not being greater than their master is the promise at the end of the reading. Those who go in Jesus’ name, who get on with whatever work he gives them to do - & do it in his spirit & love – are given an extraordinary status & privilege. Anyone who receives them, receives Jesus, & thereby also receives the one who sent him. You probably won’t realize it at the time. You’ll be too busy thinking of the people you are working for & with. But, as you look back, you may be surprised by the joy of realizing that as you walked into that house, into that hospital room, into that place of pain or love or sorrow or hope, Jesus was walking in, wearing your skin, &speaking in your tone of voice. I have given you an example, Jesus said. And he meant it.