Before the Passover festival began, Jesus was keenly aware that his hour had come.
From beginning to end, Jesus’ days were marked by his love for his people.
Before Jesus and his disciples gathered for dinner, the adversary filled Judas Iscariot’s heart with plans of deceit and betrayal.
Jesus, knowing that he was one with God, stood up from dinner and removed his outer robes. He then wrapped himself in a towel, poured water in a basin, and began to wash the feet of the disciples, drying them with his towel.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
Simon Peter said to him, “Then wash me but don’t stop with my feet. Cleanse my hands and head as well!”
Jesus 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.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After washing their feet and picking up his garments, he reclined at the table again. “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call Me teacher and Lord, and truly, that is who I am. If your Lord and teacher washes your feet, then you should wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth: a servant is not greater than the master. Those who are sent are not greater than the one who sends them. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
“My children, my time here is brief. You will be searching for me, but you cannot go where I am going. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
John 13:1-17, 31-35
This strange and unusual story about a strange and unusual foot-washing is only found in the Gospel of John. Jesus engages his disciples in a tangible, touchable experience. In fact, I would venture to say that this story is so tangible—so sensual and raw—that even its retelling 2,000 years later can make us feel something. If you’re like me, this story may make you feel a little uncomfortable. Friends, when a story can reach across the distances of time and culture and language and still make us uncomfortable, I think it’s safe to say that the storytellers experienced something real.
Stories like that have a pulse.
It’s almost like we can sense the transformational power to which they testify. Perhaps that’s evidence of something that was previously just an idea to the storytellers, somehow ending up embodied—being directly experienced. Peter certainly experienced it. When I hear in this story that Peter pipes up and objects to the discomfort he’s feeling, I agree with him. I think, “Thank God, someone else sees it! I thought it was just me. I am uncomfortable with this foot-washing.”
But maybe that’s the point.
Maybe the discomfort I’m feeling at the thought of the Christ washing my feet—the same discomfort that Peter experienced—comes from embodiment. Maybe, like facing exhaustion in the desert, that’s what happens when the abstract idea becomes a concrete reality. Fuller Theological Seminary professor Joel Green said it this way, “If Jesus just wanted to make a point about serving others, he could have just said, ‘Serve each other.’” But that’s not what he does. Instead, Jesus takes off his rabbinical robes, wraps himself in a servant’s towel, gets down on his knees, and does the menial task of cleaning the desert dust and dirt off of the feet of the disciples. Friends, that’s not an idea. Jesus puts tangible, touchable body to this encounter. Humility knelt among the disciples.
Service looked them in the eyes.
Love picked up a towel and washed their feet.
That’s embodiment. Just like our never-ending hike in the Negev, the invitation is to experience. “Get this inside you. Don’t just know it in your head. Live it. Feel it in your bones.” Even Jesus’ sparing choice of words in this story point to embodiment. After he finishes washing their feet, Jesus speaks to the disciples about what has just happened. In verse 15, he says, “For I have given you an example…” The Greek word that is translated as “given” in that sentence is the word didōmi—and it is accurately translated as “to give” or “to entrust.” But friends, there’s more here. There’s wordplay afoot. Didōmi sounds an awful lot like the Greek word didymos—a word used only three times in the Christian scriptures. All three of those usages occur in this Gospel—John’s Gospel—to refer to Thomas, the twin—Thomas, the didymos. Didōmi…didymos. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “I have given you an example so you can twin me. Don’t just think this, live it. Do just as I have done. What I embody, I call you to embody. Become my twin.” It’s worth noting that the arc of experience in John’s Gospel begins in the first chapter with Jesus rounding up disciples with an invitation of “Follow me…come and see.” Here, in Chapter 13, on the night in which one of those disciples would betray Jesus, the invitation shifts from “Follow me” to “be like me…become my twin." Friends, the context of that shift is crushing and easy to miss. If I wander through this story like the stubborn goat that I am, I can all too easily blow right past a particular embodied detail that I don’t really want to face
Judas is there.
Judas Iscariot, the one who would betray Jesus, is among the disciples as Jesus washes their feet. Love embodied knowingly puts on a towel, kneels down, and washes the feet of betrayal embodied. There’s no qualification for who can receive. There’s no distinction between the worthy and the unworthy. There is no separation. This humility and service and love is for everyone—even Judas. The one who would hasten the arrest, torture, and crucifixion of Jesus has the towel-wrapped Christ kneel before him to wash his feet.
Friends, I don’t do this.
If I’m going to serve someone, I want to know that they are worthy of my service. I’m much more comfortable humbling myself before people who recognize and appreciate my great humility. Why would I love someone who is actively exploiting and rejecting my love? This makes me all kinds of uncomfortable, but this story seems to suggest that perhaps I haven’t washed enough feet. Perhaps I need to hike this trail a few more times before it gets inside me. I’m not yet a twin of the Christ. The Christ doesn’t try to avoid pain and suffering like I do—doesn’t try to escape betrayal, side-step suffering, or dodge the dirty work. It’s all incorporated—included—absorbed. Love necessarily risks betrayal and lays down retaliation and resentment. Dirt and spirit—the mundane and the sacred—the human and divine—are one. They occupy the same terrain. At the end of this story of John 13, Jesus repeats his invitation to embodiment, saying “A new commandment I give you—love one another just as I have loved you.” That seems another odd choice of words considering that the Hebrew scriptures are filled with commandments of service, humility, forgiveness, and love. Leviticus 19 includes commandments not to seek revenge or bear a grudge and to “love your neighbors as yourself.” Jesus’ commandment to love was not really a “new” idea. But once again, maybe that’s the point. Perhaps Jesus’ commandment was new because it was no longer an idea.
It was new because Jesus the Christ put a body on it.
Divine love in and through flesh and blood and dirt and sweat and tears--not abstract…not just an idea…but tangible, touchable, and twin-able. “Love one another just as I have loved you” ceased being an idea to these disciples. It became an embodied reality—something they experienced directly—a trail they would hike and feet they would wash over and over again in the deserts that lay ahead. And for us, right here, right now, the path of embodied love goes on. Sheep follow…goats wander. Just like the uncomfortable and uncertain disciples before us, we too are offered and called to a love that will not only humbly kneel to wash feet and absorb betrayal, but a love that, in its fullness, will rise from its knees to walk willingly and confidently toward darkness, suffering, and death. Pay close attention to each step. Because where our Shepherd goes...
we must follow.
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