This sermon would be preached tonight. However, on account of the ice-storm, the service was cancelled.
Jesus got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist…and began to wash the disciples’ feet (John 13.4,5). Amen.
The account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet stands as a narrative ‘hinge’ in John’s Gospel; this story is a transition between Jesus’ earthly ministry and his Passion. Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet is, therefore, a summary of Jesus’ earthly ministry, a ministry of serving others, welcoming sinners, and teaching about life in God’s kingdom. Indeed, immediately preceding tonight’s Gospel reading, Jesus offers us a summary of his teaching, concluding by saying: “I don’t speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me regarding what I should speak and say” (John 13:49). These words of the Father are, as Jesus describes, “eternal life” (13:50).
Everything Jesus said and did, everything Jesus says and does, reflects his Father and reveals life in his Father’s kingdom. Therefore, Jesus is the full and complete revelation of God to humanity; to see and hear the Son is to see and hear the Father. What we see and hear Jesus do in washing his disciples’ feet is a remarkable and beautiful portrait of God.
You will recall that John’s Gospel begins with a complex poetic description of the Word who created the cosmos becoming flesh and making his home among us (cf. 1.14). This Word is grace and truth; this word is Jesus Christ (cf. 1.17). In the washing of his disciples’ feet, we see God’s grace and truth in action.
Moreover, as a summary of Jesus’ earthly ministry and as ‘hinge’ joining that ministry and the Passion, the author of John’s Gospel contends that the washing of the disciples’ feet can only be fully understood in light of the crucifixion. While one person washing the feet of his friends is an intimate moment that we can easily embrace, to claim that God’s grace and truth are most clearly seen on the cross is scandalous. To claim that Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet can only make sense in the shadow of the cross is scandalous because it challenges our desire to reduce the foot-washing to an ethical example that somehow stands apart from Christ’s self-revelation as God’s Son.
Indeed, the Incarnation itself is scandalous. It is one thing to claim that God took on human flesh, becoming fully human while remaining fully God. The scandal becomes amplified when we see this God disrobe, tie on a servant’s towel, and kneel before the feet of his disciples. Jesus is not simply offering us an ethical example of how to treat people, telling us to love other people the best we can. Jesus is revealing to us the God who kneels. Jesus is revealing to us the Creator who serves his beloved creatures. Jesus is revealing to us the lengths God will go to in order to heal and restore his broken creation.
This is a mystery that is simply beyond human comprehension, which is why we tend to reduce Jesus’ foot-washing to a mere ethical example we are supposed to follow. Yes, Jesus does command his disciples to do likewise, but we do so as a form of worship and obedience to the God who kneels, the God who for us and our salvation came down from heaven, the God who “emptied himself by taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2.7).
A vulnerable and humble God is distasteful to those who demand that only a god who wields absolute power is worthy of worship. Likewise, a kneeling servant God fundamentally challenges the claim that, when we boil things down to their essentials, all religious really worship the same god.
In Jesus Christ, we see a God who’s power is revealed both in the humility of becoming a servant and the apparent weakness of submitting to death on a cross. In Jesus Christ, we see the utterly uniqueness and singularly of the God whose power is simultaneously love. Jesus reveals a God who is neither a tyrant nor inconsequential, but rather a God who is love all the way down and, as such, is intimately involved with the world through the scandalous particularity of Jesus Christ.
Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, sandal-clad feet that are dusty to be sure, but also feet that inevitably walk through the various kinds of dirt and filth that one would find on a road in 1st-century Palestine, including the leavings of the multitude of animals crowding these roads. Our feet are a God symbols of the direction of our lives and so often we walk through dirt and filth when we insist on going our own way apart from God.
Jesus shows us a God who is unafraid to get his hands dirty in order to make us clean. Jesus alone, as Peter soon realized, is the only who can make us clean, the only one who can restore us to fellowship with God. It is only on this basis that Jesus then tells his disciples to do what he has done. The servant-king, the God who kneels, commands his disciples to go into the world to proclaim the love of God which cleans and restores.
The hard truth is that we all need to be washed by Jesus’ we all need to have the dirt and filth of sin washed from our lives. To self-righteously refuse on the grounds that I am a good and pious person is to foolishly insist that I am clean while sitting in a mud puddle. The truth that we all need to be washed by Jesus is good news; the Lord of All willingly undergoes the humiliation of becoming a slave and “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2.8) in order to wash us, reconciling us to our heavenly Father. We can only receive this washing when we humbly receive Christ into our hearts, allowing him to wash us from the inside out.
On the night Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, Jesus also gave them a meal, the meal we know as Communion or the Eucharist. Jesus gave us this meal as a way of drawing his disciples into fellowship with him so that we “have a place” (John 13:8b) with Christ. This place is God’s kingdom, a kingdom that is enacted every time we celebrate Communion and anticipated as we go into the world to proclaim the good news of the God who kneels.
The gift of Communion and Jesus’ command to “go and do likewise” find meaning and fulfilment in the shadow of the cross. Jesus does not tell us to remember that he washed his disciples’ feet and to remember the celebration of that Last Supper; Jesus commands us to remember his death. In remembering his death in the Eucharist, we are also sent to tell the world how his death is good news and to show the world what life in God’s kingdom is like: a life of grace and truth, of life of self-giving love and mercy. Christ restores us to communion with God so that we may see and know as well as tell and show the God who is with us and for us, the God who kneels and gives us eternal life.