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Sunday, March 12, 2017 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Jesus Washes the Feet of the Disciples
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
I am so tired of waiting,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind.
Langston Hughes, "Tired"
We have skipped ahead quite a bit this Sunday in John. It seems like just yesterday Jesus’ ministry was getting started: He was restoring the sight of the man born blind and demonstrating how no one is invisible to God. He gave another shot at life to Lazarus, thereby giving Lazarus and his friends the opportunity to testify how God in Jesus was making new creation. But then suddenly today, even though we are only in chapter 13, we read that Jesus already knew his hour had come and that he was near his end.
John will now spend the next six chapters describing a single day, slowing down all of the action to a snail’s pace so that we hear every word, watch every step, notice every detail that unfolds as Jesus journeys towards his death. (Side note: Our guest preacher next Sunday will take us back to John 4, when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, so we will have a small reprieve from the slow steady walk to the cross. But after next Sunday, we move forward again, watching Jesus clash with the religious leaders and the secular authorities as they conspire to end his life.)
Today, here, now, we stop. We stop and gather around the table with Jesus and the disciples as they share the evening meal. We watch as Jesus stands up, takes off his robe, picks up a towel, ties it around his waist, pours water into the basin, and washes the disciples’ feet. All of those action verbs—standing, taking, picking, tying, pouring, washing—one verb after the other serves to highlight that every single movement of this action was purposeful and perhaps pre-planned. Why?
To be clear, in Jesus’ day, foot washing was a rather standard act of hospitality. Most everyone wore sandals and walked along dirty roads on which both human and animal waste lingered. So whenever a person entered someone’s home, it was common for either the host to offer a towel and water for the person to wash his own feet or for a servant to wash the traveler’s feet, giving him some relief, helping to keep the home as clean and sanitary as possible. Therefore, what Jesus did that night was not all that unusual. What was unusual, though, were the details.
As I just indicated, the act of foot washing was always an event done upon arrival, but Jesus did it in the middle of a meal. And it was an event always acted out either by one’s self or by a servant, a person of low-honor status. Jesus was their rabbi, their leader. Clearly those social mores did not matter to Jesus. Perhaps that is because he not only desired to show the disciples what they were to do—how to live and to serve others—but before they got to the doing part, he wanted to show the disciples who they were, as those whom he loved, those whom God loved deeply.
It is worth noting that this is the first time in the Gospel of John where we hear explicitly that Jesus loved his disciples. As a matter of fact, love, agape, serves as the frame for the whole chapter. We hear about this love in the very beginning: “having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved (agapao) them fully.” And, we hear about this love near the very end, in verse 35: “This is how everyone will know you are my disciples, when you love (agapao) one another.”
It is because of the love frame that surrounds this chapter that I almost stopped reading the story in the middle of it. I considered stopping after the conversation between Jesus and Peter, when Peter first resists Jesus’ action but then goes overboard. The reason I pondered stopping was due to an interpretation written by Frances Taylor Gench of Union Presbyterian Seminary. In her book, Encounters with Jesus, Gench writes, “Two interpretations of the foot washing are presented in the story: the first asks disciples simply to receive Christ’s act of hospitality; the second, to extend it to one another. Interestingly, the first interpretation is often overlooked, and the second overemphasized in the church’s appropriation of the story, perhaps because it is far easier to extend hospitality than to receive it.” I agree with her. My guess is that for many of us, it is much easier for us to consider how we can serve others rather than how we can open ourselves up enough to receive care from others.
Truthfully, the discomfort that comes with the act of foot washing demonstrates that dilemma powerfully. How many of you here today have participated in foot washing during a worship service? I have, but not often. In the second congregation I served, a smaller church, we would vary our Maundy Thursday service to sometimes include the opportunity for foot washing, even though some people always lobbied for hand washing instead. But even when we did foot washing, it was always optional and set off to the side of the main service. The process was that you would have your feet washed first by the person in front of you in the line, and then you would wash the feet of the person in line behind you. The children in the church loved it and took it very seriously, making sure to scrub every part of the person’s foot with the washcloth before drying every single toe with the towel set beside the basin. But other than those young ones, very few church members or staff took part, and people were not shy in sharing why they would not do it. “Feet are gross” is a statement I would hear and, frankly, agree with. Or “It does not seem sanitary.” Occasionally, someone would confide in a quieter tone, “I am just not comfortable with anyone touching my feet. They are in bad shape, and I am embarrassed by them.”
When Taylor Gench, the professor I mentioned a few minutes ago, once brought up the possibility of foot washing to a group of other clergywomen, one remarked “If I told my Presbyterian Women’s group that we were going to do foot washing at the next gathering, half of them would not show up and the other half would spend the afternoon prior to the meeting getting a pedicure.” That story checks out. So I’ve wondered this week if we would have a similar response here at Fourth Church. What would happen if we had foot washing the next time we had Communion? I cannot even imagine the kind of resistance most (all?) of us would have, this pastor included. After all, it is so difficult for most of us to have someone else perform what feels like an uncomfortably close and intimate act—taking our feet in their hands, first washing them, then drying them: our feet with our calluses and crooked toes and discolored toenails and scruffy heels from winter boots.
The uncomfortable truth is that having someone with your feet in their hands feels incredibly vulnerable, and feeling that vulnerable can be frightening for those of us used to having power and control in most of the situations we encounter. Participating in a foot washing, when we are the ones receiving and not the ones doing, makes us feel emotionally exposed. I would venture to guess that most of us here today would have joined our voices with Peter’s revulsion in the beginning, palpably embarrassed by the fact that our Jesus, the one we call Lord and teacher, is on his knees with our feet in his hands, carefully scrubbing every part of our foot with the washcloth before drying every single toe with the towel around his waist. “Lord, please don’t do that,” we would say. “We should wash your feet instead.”
So what, then, are we to make of Jesus’ response to Peter: “Peter, unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” Is this an allusion to Baptism, the sacrament that enacts our joining with Christ’s body here on earth, the sacrament that embodies God’s claim on our lives? Might it even be a preemptive act on Jesus’ part: washing off Peter’s denial before it even happens, trying not only to show the disciples what service looks like, but forgiveness, as well. Or perhaps Jesus wanted disciples to know that unless we learn how to receive hospitality as well as give it, then our growth in our faith will be stunted: we may never fully be able to understand that God’s love for us in Christ comes only as pure gift and is not something we can earn or will ever deserve (Frances Taylor Gench, Encounters with Jesus, p. 98). Peter’s initial response to reject the hospitality Jesus offered him, our initial response to say no, might be yet another illustration of the “tenacity of our human resistance to the self-giving love of God.”
If this interaction between Jesus and Peter does nothing else, it does graphically illustrate “how we human beings instinctively seek to protect our own positions of power and privilege so much that we unintentionally recoil at the thought of power embodied in self-giving and humility (quoted in Encounters with Jesus, p. 99). Yet power embodied in self-giving and humility is the very definition of what God decided to be and to do in Jesus. As Bill Placher wrote, our God purposefully decided to become weak in power in order to show us the strength of God’s love. So what might it mean for our lives that we, like Peter, tend to unintentionally recoil from that kind of purposeful self-emptying of power and control?
If we cannot learn how to receive hospitality and not just give it, even though being on that receiving end makes us feel incredibly vulnerable or emotionally exposed, then we very well may be inadvertently shutting ourselves off from experiencing all that we could of God’s powerful and abundant love expressed in Jesus. I don’t think that is what any of us want to do, not even the most powerful or in-control amongst us, those for whom vulnerability equals weakness most of the time. Actually, I am willing to bet that all of us are here in worship today because, at some level, we are starving to know and to experience God’s love in our lives. We are starving to know that just as God loves fully all of these innocent little ones we just baptized, God also loves fully all of us who are not so innocent anymore.
We are here because we want to know more about God’s love, a love that receives us completely as we are—calluses, rough heels, and all—yet a love that also not simply leaves us just as we are but calls forth our own love and compassion in response. A love that we cannot ever earn or deserve but a love that surrounds us and fills us and never leaves us, nonetheless. A love that held literally nothing back, a love that chose to walk right into suffering and death so as to destroy its power forever. A love that challenges us to learn how not to just offer hospitality for someone else, someone we think needs it, needs us, but to learn how to receive hospitality for ourselves, no matter how much we unintentionally recoil or feel exposed and vulnerable in our need. That is the Love illustrated, embodied, in this passage that begins with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
In his book Wind, Sand, and Stars, Saint-Exupéry describes his train ride through France watching people. As he watches the people on the train with him, he studies their faces and comments that all he sees in their expressions is silent misery and wasted lives. He talks particularly about a man whom he refers to as a musty civil servant, a clerk kneaded of the same stuff as the rest of us but who knew not that he was hungry. Why didn’t someone shake this man? Saint-Exupery muses as he focuses on that man’s face. Why didn’t someone shake this man early in his life before the clay hardened and get him to live the kind of life of which he was capable? Now that musician, that poet, that astronomer inside the man is gone; it will never happen. Why didn’t someone shake him to get him to live? Why are so many men and women left unawakened?
When Jesus began to wash his disciples’ feet, I believe he was trying to shake his disciples into a fuller awakening and a deeper awareness of just how intensely he loved them. Even though Jesus knew Judas would betray him, Jesus washed Judas’s feet because Jesus loved him. Even though Jesus knew Peter would deny him, Jesus washed Peter’s feet because he loved him. Even though Jesus knew all the other disciples would desert him, Jesus washed their feet because he loved them. Even though Jesus knows we might betray, deny, desert, forget his claim on our lives a million times a day, Jesus still wants us also to know, to trust, to receive the truth of his deep and abiding love for all of us, as well, a love that is the most important and defining thing about who we are—more important than what we do or what we make or what we wear or where we go to school or if we have a college degree or not or if we have a permanent home or not or any of those other things that we cling to in order to preserve our power or control.
No, the most important thing about us, the truest truth about us is that we, too, are those deeply loved by God, those for whom God would get down on her knees to take our feet in her hands and tend to them—calluses and all—just so we might be awakened and remember, so we might receive the hospitality, the deep, full love God pours out on to us every single moment of our lives, but not just upon us, but upon all people, those unawakened and those fully present.
Who knows, maybe someday we will do a foot washing. Amen.