In politics and pop music, people perform radical acts to make a point. In politics, people chain themselves to railing, burn flags and lie down in front of bulldozers to express their opposition to perceived injustice, oppression or environmental desecration. And in the world of pop music, people wear unconventional clothes or sing shocking lyrics to grab our attention.
In our Gospel reading this evening, Jesus performs a radical act to get his disciples attention. By washing their feet he wanted to teach them a lesson that they would never forget. It was a counter-cultural act that still speaks volumes today, two thousand years later.
Foot washing was an essential but unpleasant task in 1st century Palestine, as it remains in similar places today. We can all imagine the grime and smell coming from feet that had been in open sandals all day long, walking through hot, dusty and dirty streets. Unsurprisingly, the duty of footwashing was always assigned to the most lowly servant in a household. Indeed it was sometimes regarded such a degrading, demeaning task for a Jew, that even Jewish servants could be exempted from the task, with Gentile slaves brought in to do the dirty deed instead.
So we can imagine the disciples’ shock and incredulity when Jesus got up from the table, removed his outer garments and began washing their feet. In verse 6, Peter expresses this incredulity by saying: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” How could the Teacher they respected - the Master they followed - stoop so low as to wipe their feet?!
So why did Jesus do this radical act? Well, undoubtedly he had deeper reasons than simply a concern for cleanliness at the dinner table. It was an act that was more about personal salvation than personal hygiene. In particular, I believe we can draw out two powerful points Jesus was trying to make:
- Firstly, he was providing his disciples with an illustration of what his coming death would achieve. It was intended to be a ‘visual aid’ that would help us understand the Cross.
- And secondly, Jesus was providing an example for his disciples to follow. An example of service, a model for our daily discipleship.
In short, Jesus washed his friends feet to give them i) an illustration of the cross and ii) an example to imitate. I’d like us to look at both of these in a little more detail.
1. An illustration of the Cross
If you can remember back to your days at school, college, or university, you will know that a good teacher will recognise that people have different learning styles. Some of us learn best by simply being given a book and told to go away and read it. Others of us prefer to learn audibly, and like nothing better than to listen to a lecture. But for many people (perhaps most?), it is visual images and illustrations that we find most powerful, most memorable - most conducive to our education. A good teacher will give good illustrations to those they teach.
Its for this reason that Jesus performed his famous foot washing. It was intended to be a practical illustration – a visual aid - that would help his closest friends understand the Cross - an event now only a day away.
John tells us in verse 1 today that Jesus knew his ‘hour’ had arrived. The time had come for him to leave this world and return to his Father. His imminent death would have preoccupied his mind and shaped all his words and actions during the short time he had left with his disciples. This act of foot washing was to prepare his disciples for his imminent passion.
So what was Jesus’ illustration of his death designed to teach?
- First of all he was teaching that his death would be voluntary and in accordance with God’s will. Just as Jesus freely chose to wash the disciples’ feet, so too would he willingly submit to his arrest, trial, and execution. Back in John chapter 10, Jesus had already taught them that he would “lay down his life for his sheep.” His life would not be taken from him - he would willingly lay it down in obedience to his Father’s command.
- The foot washing also shows us that Jesus’ surrender to death was self-sacrificial and humble. As verse 3 today says, Jesus had come from God, and the Father had given all things into his hands. Yet just as Jesus cast off his outer garment and picked up a towel to wash his disciples feet, he was shortly to surrender every aspect of his divine power and status to pick up instead a wooden cross. The humility God’s Son showed at the incarnation became even greater at the crucifixion.
- And thirdly, this illustration also leaves us in no doubt what Jesus’ death will achieve. It will secure the cleansing from sin, not only for the disciples, but all those who trust in the saving effects of his death. As far back as the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16:30, we read of the importance of physical cleansing and washing as symbol of having received the forgiveness of sins. In Leviticus, of course, forgiveness was achieved for Israel through the repeated sacrifice of animals. But on Calvary, it was made possible once and for all through the blood of Christ.
Of course, we all individually need to receive the forgiveness Christ offers us. We all need to let ourselves be personally cleansed from our sin by Christ. That’s the crucial point Jesus makes in his conversation with Peter in verses 8 to 10 tonight.
In verse 8 Jesus says to Peter that he must be washed by him to have a share, or ‘part,’ in him. Peter’s pride should not prevent him coming to Christ for the forgiveness that he – and all of us – so very much need. The great news of the Gospel, emphasised by Jesus in verse 10, is that once we have been ‘washed’ by him – once we have come to him in repentance and faith - we are “completely clean”. There is no need for extra things like penance, pilgrimage or purgatory to take away our sin!
Like any good illustration, Jesus’s footwashing should stick in our memory. It was a radical act, a dramatic illustration of what Christ’s death would achieve. A death he endured voluntarily and humbly, so that we could have our guilt before God washed away.
2. An example to imitate
As a parent, it’s a constant challenge to set a good example to my children. Its relatively easy to set a good example to people who may see you once a week - its much harder to model good behaviour to people who are with you 24/7! Its very tempting to say to my kids “Do as I say, not as I do”, but that really won’t work. If I truly want them to behave well, I need to set them a good example to follow.
And that’s also what Jesus was doing when he washed his disciples’ feet. Because as well as being an illustration of the Cross, it was an example to imitate. Jesus is quite clear about this in verse 14, where says that since he’s washed their feet, they should wash one another’s feet.
This is the principle the apostle Paul applies in Philippians chapter 2. Because in that famous passage he writes: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!”
In imitation of Christ’s example, and in gratitude for what he achieved for us, we too should be prepared to give up our claims to status, rights, privileges and personal comfort.
- This may mean accepting humiliation, persecution or ridicule for his sake, by being willing to be known as committed Christians amongst our secular colleagues, friends and neighbours.
- It means placing no lower limit on what we are prepared to do for the physical wellbeing and spiritual welfare of others.
- And it will mean being “downwardly mobile” in a society obsessed with being “upwardly mobile” and personally successful.
Perhaps the safest course is to follow John Wesley’s famous motto: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, for as long as you can.” Christ gave up everything to save us by his grace, and our grateful acts of service ought really to have no limits.
As I finish, let me leave us with three brief applications from tonight’s powerful passage.
Firstly, it should leaves us in no doubt of Christ’s love for us. He willingly surrendered his rightful status to experience indignity and shame. Not simply the shame of scrubbing dirty feet, but the humiliation of crucifixion for us. We can’t fail to be moved by such love.
Secondly, this passage should be powerful reminder and reassurance of our salvation. A reminder that Christ has done everything necessary for our forgiveness. A reassurance that Christ makes every Christian completely clean. There is no spot or blemish in our past that can’t be wiped clean through faith in Christ.
And thirdly and finally, Jesus sacrificial service should be an inspiring example to us. Whether it involves sacrificing our time, talents or treasure, let’s all ‘stoop to conquer’ - just like Jesus did!