They arrived in groups of 2s and 3s, talking loudly, laughing boisterously…They
were all disciples of the Teacher. Jesus entered in the midst of them, and in the space
of a few minutes, all had Assembled. Suddenly, however something changed. Facial
features which, moments ago, had been animated – smiling, laughing, and talking –
now reflected uncertainty and discomfort. Though no-one spoke it, everyone in the
room faced the same dilemma; everyone felt the same awkward apprehension. You
see,as the streets that these men trod were like winding dirt tracks, all covered with a
thick layer of dust. It was the custom for the host of a home to station a slave at the
door to wash the feet of the dinner guests as they arrived.
If home could not afford a servant, then it was customary for one of the early arriving
guests to graciously take upon himself the role of the servant and wash the feet of
those who arrived after him. To enter a banquet hall such as the upper room with
unwashed feet was hugely embarrassing. So, though no one spoke of it, everyone
faced the same dilemma; someone really should wash their feet.
The table was spread with plates and cups, and the fragrance of the roast lamb and the
herbs and bread mingled with the odour of unwashed feet that hung over the ends of
A few awkward moments passed then Jesus, without saying a word, slipped away
from the table, silently pulled off his outer tunic, and with the towel, pitcher and pan
in hand, knelt at the feet of the disciple nearest him.
So he continued, washing the feet of his sheepish, embarrassed disciples, and then
returned the pitcher, towel and basin with the dirty water, to their place by the door.
Each man recalling shamefully those moments when he had first entered the room,
when each was too proud to take the basin and towel and do what their Lord and
Master had just done.
26 years ago I was working in a challenging poor parish in the north of England, We
ran a Sunday afternoon club for local children. One afternoon one of the girls was
clearly quite quiet and distressed. She didn’t want to join in most of the
activities, and when she did she would be difficult. Then at one point she sat
herself in the middle of the dusty hall floor and would not move. No amount of
cajoling or rebuking would move her and there she sat. We were all at a loss what to
do, and then I realised that the only thing I could do was to sit down on the dusty floor
beside her, she cried…I cried and very very gently we talked about her problems and
her mood changed.
It’s one of those moments that I shall never forget, because as I sat down on that floor
I realise more than ever before that is what Jesus does. He does not rebuke us, or
cajole us but comes alongside us and meets us as we are, in all our mess, and our
muddle and our difficulties and gently tends our wounds and cleans us up.
On a day when clergy renew their vows, feet are washed and we prepare to watch and
wait we remember that the Son of God came…in the simple, ordinary things of
life…in the vulnerability of a young woman, in the dirt of a stable, at a time of
political turmoil, to turn everything upside down. He came not to Lord it
over us, but to serve, not to rule with power or might, but with gentleness and
humility, not with chariots, palaces and wealth, but in poverty, with a donkey and a
Jesus, in fact washed feet all his life, if only the disciples had seen it.
The towel and basin were the fundamental symbols of what Jesus was all about. Jesus
had been using the basin for three years, not like Pilate to absolve himself of
responsibility, not like the Pharisees to exclude others. His basin was one of assertive
love which took responsibility for others and included them in his upside down
kingdom. In retrospect we can clearly see the shape of his basin ministry – Jesus
spoke out forcefully against the rich who dominated the poor, He healed and shelled
grain on the Sabbath. He ate with sinners and tax collectors, He allowed a prostitute
to touch and anoint him. He travelled with women in public, He told parables that
stung the religious leaders, he talked freely with Samaritans and Gentiles, he healed
the sick, blessed the helpless, touched lepers, entered the house of pagans, purged the
sacred temple and stirred up large crowds. He didn’t make a fuss for the same of
making a fuss, but actively and aggressively used the basin and towel to serve the
poor and helpless regardless of the conventional social customs.
And we are invited to enter the basin ministry with Jesus. Not just a ceremonial
Ritual but a lifetime of service.
There were, I believe, a number of meanings that apply to the passage we have before
us tonight. There is the Manifest meaning of what Jesus did…..
… the plain, obvious, meaning to those first disciples of Jesus. Jesus
said, Now that I, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also should wash
one another’s feet. Do we see that ? we also should wash one another’s feet.
Jesus told his followers, clearly and matter-of-factly, ‘Next time this happens…wash
one another’s feet’. And I believe he meant it literally. I believe his intention was,
when, according to Acts 2:1, these same people (with the exception of Judas) gathered
together for the feast of Pentecost, that they should do for each other exactly what
Jesus had just finished doing.
Now, the Bible doesn’t tell us explicitly whether they did that or not, but I suspect that
they did; I imagine that that night in the upper room was so vivid in their memories
that they rushed to the servant’s task of washing feet at the next feast after Passover. I
also think that because years later, Peter himself – who at first had tried
to refuse Jesus’ servant ministry to him – wrote a letter to the church throughout Asia
Minor and told them, in a pointed reference to Jesus’ act of wrapping the apron of
humility around himself before washing Peter’s feet ‘Clothe yourselves with humility
towards one another.’
I think it is as simple as that. That Jesus intended, literally, for them to wash each
other’s feet the next time they were in such a situation…and the time after that and the
time after that.
Yet Jesus’ words and deed of washing feet carries a second meaning, the metaphorical
meaning of what Jesus did.
When Jesus spoke the words he did not mean only that his followers should literally
wash each other’s feet; His words had a much broader meaning. He was simply
taking another opportunity to vividly reinforce a lesson he’d tried many times before
to get through to them and it was this:
In the words of Mark 9: 35, if anyone wants to be first, they must be the very last, and
the servant of all. If Jesus, our Lord and Teacher, washed his disciples feet, we also
should serve each other, there should be no task, no role, no effort that we will not do
for each other.
I am still learning this. But, the Christian walk does mean doing the things that you
would not instinctively chose for yourself, or going to places that you never dreamt of
‘Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash
one another’s feet. It is not enough to say ‘Oh yes, I would do anything for my
brother.’ Or ‘I wouldn’t hesitate to serve my sister’…Jesus didn’t say, I have set you
an example that you should be willing to do as I have done for you, he said, I have set
you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
Whether we’re willing or not, if we are not humbly serving our brothers and sisters,
we are not following Christ. But even that does not exhaust the meaning of what
Jesus is and said that night in the upper room.
There is a mystical meaning for what Jesus did: I point us again to that
passage, to a detail that is so often and easily missed. Who washed Jesus’ feet? Who
washed Jesus’ feet? We read that when he had finished washing their feet, he put on
his clothes and returned to his place. Twelve men got their feet washed that day…But
there were thirteen men in that room. From all appearances, Jesus returned to the
table with unwashed feet.
Why do I mention that?
Do you remember when Jesus spoke of feeding the hungry and clothing the poor and
visiting those who are sick and in prison? Remember that he said, whatever you did
for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me, and whatever you
did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me?
Let me suggest something that Jesus went back to that table with dirty feet because –
in some mystical but real way – when his followers do not serve each other, Jesus
himself pays the price of their pride.
When you and I do not serve each other – because we’re unwilling to forgive, because
we won’t swallow our pride, because the task is somehow beneath us, because it is
easier to let someone else do it, whatever the reason, in some mystical way, Jesus’
feet go unwashed. Notice that Jesus did not say, whatever you did for one of the least
of these brothers of mine, it is as if you did for me, he said, whatever you did for one
of the brothers of mine, you did for me.
When we wash the feet of another, when we humbly serve a brother or sister, when
we give and expect nothing in return, when we cook a meal, sweep a path, offer a lift,
mop a floor, empty a bedpan, pay a compliment, surrender the spotlight, deflect the
credit, shoulder the blame, share the burden, we are blessing not only that person, we
are blessing the very heart of Jesus.
Jesus says, not only to the twelve, but to us…do as I have done…wash one another’s
feet…..serve one another in love…. and as we turn now and in our liturgy walk with
Christ the way of the cross, we are challenged even further in our Christian life as he
embarks on the ultimate act of service, to lay down his life for his friends.