Washing Each Other’s Feet

On January 24, 1993 I preached a sermon called “Serving, and Being Served” at First Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama.  In February of 2014 I substantially revised and updated this message in the form it appears below.  I’m indebted to pastor David Moore for some of the ideas in the updated version of this message.

John 13:1-18 (Revised Standard Version)

13:1 Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 And during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. 5 Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. 6 He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “You are not all clean.”

12 When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

I’d like to invite you to come with me, if you will, back in history a little over 2000 years, to a time very different from our own. A time when there were no airplanes, no buses, no trains, or cars; a time when most people walked wherever they needed to go on. Robes were usually their clothes, and their shoes were open sandals. Roads back then weren’t paved, so if we were to walk together around our town, or from one village to another, you can imagine how dirty our feet would get!

In those days when you came inside after being out walking, you’d wash your feet. If you were a guest in someone else’s house, it was common courtesy for them to provide the water for foot-washing. If your host was wealthy, or if you were an honored guest, then a servant might come and wash your feet for you. My guess is this would have been very nice–to have someone pour cold water on hot, tired aching feet, and to have them massaged with a soft towel afterwards. Sounds good, huh? Maybe not so much on a cold wet day, but imagine it in the summer-time!

In Jesus’ day, washing someone’s feet was commonplace. In a moment, though, we‘ll see how Jesus took something from everyday life and used it in an extraordinary way to convey an important message. Let’s look in now at Jesus and his disciples in the 13th chapter of John.  (The Gospel of John was written by John, the disciple of Jesus.)

We’re joining them at supper-time–in fact, this is Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. It’s worth noting that in John’s version of the story, Jesus’ final Passover meal of bread and wine with his disciples is never mentioned, even though all three of the other gospels tell us about it. Instead, John focuses on another ritual Jesus performed that night: The washing of his disciples’ feet.

The story is pretty familiar. While the disciples are eating, Jesus gets up, takes off his robe, wraps a towel around his waist, and begins to wash their feet.

Now there are several significant things about. First of all, as a Bible scholar named Barnabas Linders points out, normally the foot-washing would have been taken care of as the disciples arrived. By waiting until the meal, Jesus is showing that what he’s about to do has special significance. He wants them to know there’s more going on here than just cleaning dirty feet.

The way Jesus takes off his robe and wraps himself in a towel is significant, too. In doing this he’s taking the posture of a servant. I’ve already pointed out that people often washed their own feet, and if there was ever a time when another person washed someone’s feet, it was normally a servant, not the host. By washing the disciples’ feet for them, Jesus is going against the grain, doing what would normally have been done by a servant or slave.

Maybe the most striking thing, though, which another commentator named Raymond Brown points out, is that sometimes in those days disciples would wash the feet of their teacher or rabbi as a sign of devotion. It’s likely the disciples were aware of this. Imagine what might’ve been going through their minds as their teacher, their rabbi, got down on his knees and washed their feet! The roles were being reversed.

Imagine how quiet it must have gotten in that room as one by one the disciples began to realize what was happening. Envision how the casual conversation over the meal must have gradually subsided, how the clatter of utensils must have slowly ceased, how the twelve must have stared in amazement as their teacher washed his own disciples’ feet!

Imagine how the faces of the disciples must have grown hot, flushed with embarrassment as they watched in silence. Then, two-by-two, sheepish eyes would have had to look away, at the floor, at each other, at their food. Soon the eating must have resumed, this time as something to do to avoid looking at what was happening; but the silence would have remained, so that all you could hear was the renewed clatter of utensils.

If this is an accurate picture of what happened that night, then Peter’s exclamation when Jesus comes to him last makes perfect sense: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?…You will never wash my feet!” Peter’s not being insubordinate; in fact, he’s trying to be honorable, for he fully realizes the roles are being reversed–if anything, he should be washing the feet of Jesus. He means, “Lord, I don’t deserve to have you wash my feet!”

But Jesus answers, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter’s portrayed in the gospels is as an impulsive, enthusiastic man who means well, but often misses the mark. He’s a man of extremes. True to form, when he hears Jesus say these words he exclaims, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Again he’s missed the point. It’s only Peter’s feet Jesus intends to wash, because he’s trying to communicate a message.

What is the message of this story, the meaning in this act Jesus has performed in the presence of his disciples? The passage gives Jesus’ own explanation: “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet,” he says, “you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” He intended to show his disciples an example of servanthood.

The obvious implication is that if Jesus was willing to humble himself and take on the role of a servant, then his disciples can do no less.

Jesus’ example of washing feet is especially important in light of his place in society. He was a great leader, a religious teacher who was respected, maybe even revered, by the people around him. Someone of that kind of social standing would not have been expected to get down on his knees and wash anyone’s feet. That was the work of someone else.

Yet Jesus did it, and he instructed his followers to do it. When he laid aside his robe to begin, he was willingly laying aside his social standing in order to serve. He humbled himself; he “got his hands dirty,” so to speak, and tells us to do the same.

The message here is that serving Christ requires humility. Jesus consciously chose to set aside his own social standing, not to mention his identity as the Son of God, in order to serve. He likewise calls us to humble ourselves in order to serve one another.

If we’re going to be servants, though, it’s important that we first know who we are.  John 13:3-5 says:

3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. 5 Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded.

It says Jesus knew that His Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going back to God.  That’s some pretty major knowledge!  Jesus knew that God was His Father.  He knew where he had come from and where he was going.  He knew that his identity, indeed his entire being, was founded in God.  Even more than that, he knew that God had given all things into his hands.  All things!  It’s not without warrant that in Matthew 28: 18 the risen Christ says that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  That’s a major claim!  Jesus knew who he was, and was established in that knowledge.  And it was out of that knowledge that he took up the towel to serve the disciples.

If we are to serve and do it effectively, we must also know who we are.  We must first know Whose we are, that we belong to God and that he has us firmly in his grasp.  Like Jesus, we must know the authority that has been given to us (and this is through Christ himself, in His name).  And we must know where we come from (the kingdom of God) and where we’re going (to His eternal kingdom).  Only then can we serve effectively and confidently.

For let’s face it, service in the kingdom of God can be a thankless task many times, at least on a human level.  We can be taken for granted, unappreciated, even disliked.  Service sometimes requires a thick skin.  It requires knowing who we are in Christ, who God’s Word says we are.

This story also has a message for us about being served, though, too.  It’s the same message Jesus had for Peter when he said, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Not only are we called to serve, but we also need to be able to receive when others are serving us.  There are some Christians who only know how to serve but don’t feel like it’s appropriate for them to ever allow themselves to be served.  This is a form of pride, though.  None of us has it so together that we never need to be the recipient of help from others.

Peter couldn’t benefit from Jesus’ act of love unless he allowed Jesus to wash his feet, too. Peter had to come to a point where he was willing to receive from Jesus. In a similar way, we will not be able to benefit from the service others give to us unless we willingly receive it. Peter had to allow Jesus to wash his feet; sometimes we will have to allow others to serve us.

This requires us to admit our need–which itself requires humility. I’m reminded of a sweet old hymn called “I Need Thee Every Hour.” It’s a prayer to God that confesses our need for him. When we learn how to be that humble, when we learn to recognize and admit our needs in life, that is when we can begin to receive. That old hymn reminds us it’s okay to be in need.

Of course, admitting our needs to God is one thing, because they can remain secret; but admitting our need to another person is what’s really hard sometimes, because our pride gets in the way. Yet this is precisely what we will have to learn to do if we are ever to benefit from the service of others.

Jesus told his disciples to wash one another’s feet. This was a picturesque way of saying we will all need each other from time-to-time, because we’re all human and we all go through hard times. By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus was trying to set the tone for how things are to be in the community of the faithful, how we are to care for one another.  Empowered by the Spirit, let’s follow His example and serve one another.

Washing one another’s feet is kind of hard for us to relate to today, since foot-washing is no longer a part of our culture.  What would be a modern-day equivalent of this kind of menial service?  What modern-day parallels come to mind?

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