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“You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, he doesn’t just give us an example or a new commandment. He gives us a gift. In the foot-washing, Jesus gives us the gift of his love, which rescues us from the clutches of the evil one and cleanses us from the corruption and defilement of our lovelessness.
When the time had come for Jesus to die, he gathered his disciples together in the upper room. He doesn’t tell them what’s happening or what’s about to happen. He doesn’t give them some explanation about how his crucifixion will rescue them from death and the devil. He doesn’t give them some theory about how his death will forgive sins. Instead, Jesus gives them an action. He gives them an action to understand all that’s happening and all that’s about to happen.
Jesus got up from the supper-table, removed his outer garments, wrapped himself in a towel, and washed his disciples’ feet. Of course, the disciples don’t understand what’s going on. Peter pipes up and says, “Lord, what’s this? You, washing my feet? Never!” And Jesus continues washing his feet and gently responds, “If I don’t wash you, you don’t belong to me.” “Well then,” Peter says, “not only my feet–spray me down with the hose!”
It’s a tender and intimate picture. Jesus, gathered together with his closest companions, wrapped in a towel and kneeling down to wash their feet. It’s a picture of humble service–the master taking on the role of the servant. It’s a picture of Jesus’s love for his disciples. There was nothing love could do for them that love would not do for them. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the uttermost.”
But in the background of this tender, intimate moment lurks a powerful darkness. During supper, the whisper of the devil had gained a foothold in the heart of Judas. Just as love is going to the limit, evil creeps in between the cracks. The dark power of evil is gathering itself to do its worst. Judas will depart into the darkness. He will betray Jesus and stand with the people and the powers that seek to destroy him.
This is how evil works. This is how the devil corrupts and defiles–a whisper and then destruction. Think back to the Garden of Eden. God created Adam and Eve to be his image bearers. He placed them into the garden to delight in and care for his creation, to reflect his wisdom and love out into the creation. Then the serpent’s whisper: “If you eat of the tree in the midst of the garden, you shall not surely die. God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…” Notice that the serpent doesn’t say, “Let’s cause some mayhem and wreak havoc on the world.” No, it’s just a whisper: you will be like God. It’s the seemingly innocent promise that you can be something more and something better. And the bliss and beauty of Eden is shattered.
It’s through that whisper, through that seemingly innocent promise, that the devil holds the world in his grip. You see, you and I and the whole world have abandoned our human vocation, as God’s image bearers, to reflect his love into the world. And we’ve abandoned that vocation to love because this whisper has found a foothold in our hearts and taken us captive–you can be something more, something better.
That’s the reason you withhold your forgiveness from others and harbor all kinds of bitterness and resentment in your heart, because you can be something more and something better than a pushover who forgives others. That’s the reason you run other people down and call them lousy and terrible, because you can be something more and something better than a person who is compassionate and understanding. That’s the reason you get angry and threaten to punish others if you don’t get your way, because you can be something more and something better than a person who seeks to serve, rather than be served. This is why you doubt other people and assume the worst of them, because you want to be something more and something better than someone who might get disappointed or hurt. This is why you get irritated and annoyed when the needs of others interrupt your plans, because you can be something more and something better than someone who is burdened and inconvenienced by others.
You’re not unloving because the people around you are unloveable. You’re unloving because you’re captive to the power of the devil. The world is full of conflict and hostility, wickedness and evil because the world is full of people just like you–people who are enthralled by the promise: you can be something more and something better. It’s that whisper that leads you to want things your own way. Not God’s way. Not anyone else’s way. Your way. It’s that promise that is at the heart of all your selfishness and all your self-seeking desires. It’s by that promise that the devil holds you in his grip.
And that’s what makes the footwashing in the upper room such a gift. It’s no accident that Jesus is in Jerusalem for one last Passover. Passover was the festival where the Jews celebrated God delivering them from slavery in Egypt. It was a commemoration of God rescuing them from the grip of Pharaoh. And now here is Jesus at Passover preparing to rescue the whole world from the grip of the devil.
When Jesus wraps himself in a towel, kneels down, and washes his disciples’ feet, he’s pointing ahead, out beyond the upper room, to the victory of his love. Judas will betray him. Jesus will be arrested. His disciples will abandon him and deny him. He will be beaten, spit upon, and nailed to a cross to die. But Jesus stays the course. He doesn’t turn back or seek another route. He doesn’t try to be something more or something better. Instead, he goes into the heart of the world’s wickedness and evil, and lets it do its worst. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. And greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
The cross is love in a loveless world. And it is this love that casts out the ruler of this world. It is this love that overthrows the dark powers and draws all men to himself. It is this love that cleanses the corruption and defilement of lovelessness in the water and blood that flowed from his side. This is the victory of love. This is what it is for God to so love the world.
In Jesus, the power of love is flooding the world. And you have been caught up in that love. Jesus did not wash your feet, but in your baptism, Jesus washed you in his love. There at the font he cleansed you from the defilement of your lovelessness–forgiving your sins. He grabbed hold of you, rescued you from the grip of the devil, and silenced the whisper. And now there’s nothing more and nothing better to be than in the grip of this love–this footwashing, self-giving love. Therefore, love one another, as Jesus has loved you.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
John 13.1-17, 31b-35
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 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 back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand 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 share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand 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 just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
…Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. 33 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”