A Community of Foot-Washers (John 13:1-20)

Around Christmastime in 1996, Linda Hyne, Joy Tepner, Mary French, and Charlotte Smith happened by a pottery shop in Gainesboro, Tennessee, on the way to a Women's Retreat. They saw a pitcher and bowl the artisans there had made for a deacon ordination. And they talked them into making a second set for me.

The pitcher and bowl have the key words of today's text inscribed on them. They are in my office at home to challenge me to learn the meaning of service and sacrifice, the meaning of pouring out myself for Christ by serving this church. I need the challenge.

At one time or another, we all need the challenge. And the challenge isn't always about washing feet. Occasionally it's about moving an old mattress out of the house. It's about fixing the leaky faucet in the kitchen. It's about letting him know how much you appreciate how hard he works for his family. It's about making your child's parent-teacher conference. It's about treating the people at work with more respect. It's about swapping a shift with a co-worker whose dad is having surgery next week. It's about walking from one of the more remote parking spots here on Sunday morning. It's about helping with Children's Ministry. It's about being a mentor with CCSI. In the Gospel of John, it's about washing feet. Got your Bible? I'll show you.

Jesus Washed Their Feet

Chapter 13 begins Part B of the Gospel of John. Chapters 1-12 constitute "The Book of Signs" and tells of Jesus' public ministry through a series of signs with accompanying explanatory sermons. Scholars commonly call chapters 13-21 "The Book of Glory." It might make more sense to call them "The Book of the Ultimate Sign." If we stay with the term "glory," though, it is significant that Jesus' was glorified through his death. The crucifixion - that climactic moment in which Jesus was "lifted up" (cf. 12:32) - was not the tragic death of a martyr but the glorious death that made him Savior, King, and Lord for us and prepared him to return to the Father where he has been exalted and given the name above every name.

This new section of John begins with an introductory statement and an introductory event. Here is the statement: "Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end" (13:1). Here is the event:

The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean."

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you?" (13:2-12).
John doesn't give details of the "supper" for which the group is gathered. I think this is because he presumes his readers knew about the Passover with his apostles and the Lord's Supper that grew out of it. John is focused on Jesus' "hour" and the significance of it not only for the Twelve but for his readers. So chapters 13-21 will explain what the enigmatic "hour" was and show how Jesus "loved [his followers] to the end."

The man who was president of the Navigators for thirty years, Lorne Sanny, preached at his home church during that same period some sixty-four times. Many of those lessons were about Christian discipleship, Christian ministry, Christian service. After all, that is what the Navigators teach and coach to the people who attend their seminars or use their materials.

One Sunday as he was headed home after an assembly, he stopped to change a tire for some older ladies from that church. By his own admission, Sanny isn't particularly gifted at mechanical things. He sweated, got tire black on his shirt, and somehow bent his eyeglasses. But he finally got the tired changed. He claims that since the event he has gotten more comments about that one Good Samaritan act than he ever got about his sixty-four sermons rolled together. Ministry is better modeled than taught. Service to others is far more effective in deed than in lectures. Love for someone is far more credible in demonstration than in declaration.

I don't know how many weddings I've done. But every one of them had some version of a vow to love the other person "in sickness and in health." Last week a lady whose wedding I did five years ago was telling me about a twelve-hour surgery her husband had gone through and the ordeal of a long recovery that lay ahead. "He and I were counting on the 'health' part of our wedding vows for much longer than these five years," she said. "We hadn't counted on 'sickness' - maybe never, but certainly not this soon or this young. But we are going to go through this together. With God's help, we will make it and be closer to each other for having experienced it!"

Jesus had told his followers that he loved them. He had committed himself to their instruction and salvation. He had included them in his work and would eventually entrust it to them in his absence. These last several chapters of John would be his clinching proof that he loved them - and would all the way to the end. Even Judas!

Thirteen men were reclined at a U-shaped table. Leaning on their left elbows, their feet were extended toward the walls of the room. Jesus of Nazareth - God in fleshly form - got up from the meal, took off his coat and tie (or their equivalent!), and started moving around the perimeter. He was washing the feet of each of the Twelve in turn!

This was no religious ceremony. All the literature we have from antiquity says this job was anything but esteemed. It was lowly work - often even degrading work. It was a task with social implications in which the "lower" served the "higher" - a wife her husband, children their parents, or pupils their teachers. I know of no record where the roles were reversed - except this one. Typically, this was the task of a slave.

When Jesus got up that night and started washing feet, the apostles must have been too startled to say anything. They were taken off-guard by him. Jesus had taken the role of a slave in relation to them, and they were simply too bewildered to know how to react. It symbolized even then the far great act of sacrifice that would come at the cross. But only after his resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit did they comprehend.

Oops. I said the event proceeded without protest. Not quite! When Jesus got to Peter's spot at the table, the outspoken fisherman protested. Jesus responded rather gently by asking Peter to trust what he didn't understand. He couldn't understand, so he wouldn't trust. It is such a typical Peter-type response. "You will never wash my feet!" he exclaimed. The answer came back rather sharply and immediately: "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." The term "share" is probably significant here and refers to a share of the inheritance, a share in the kingdom of God, or a share in the eternal life Jesus had been promising these men.

Acting in typical form for him, Peter - if I may paraphrase his words - said, "Hold on! If I need my feet washed to have a share of the Kingdom of Heaven, then wash my feet all the way up to my arm pits! And wash my head all the way down to my knees! And scrub my back with a steel brush! And dump that entire bowl of water on me! And use a bar of that Wash Away Your Sin soap that David Costello brought to Rubel last year that is 'tested and approved for all 7 deadly sins' and that 'reduces guilt by 98.9% or more.' And . . ."

"Stop right there, Peter!" interrupted Jesus - if I may now paraphrase his words. "Anybody who has already had a bath and who comes to a dinner party through the dusty roads of Judea only needs his feet washed. And trust me. You have been washed clean already - all of you in this group, except one." Who that "one" was and what his uncleanness consisted of would be visited again in verses 18-20. Jesus knew what had been going on in the heart of Judas. His pending betrayal by the disciple from Kerioth would shock the others, but not Jesus.

Although the meaning of this part of the conversation about "washing" isn't going to be my focus today, please don't miss it. Anybody who has been cleansed by Jesus doesn't have to go through the entire process again because of the "nasty daily grind." If you were baptized in Jesus' name and later realized how little you knew when that happened, how much you've grown since then, or how badly you've failed your Lord, you don't need another baptismal washing. (The "wash" words in this text may well be a reference to baptismal theology. Some commentators think so, and they may be right.)

Be grateful you have been cleansed by Christ's blood. Be grateful you have grown since your salvation. Be grateful your failure hasn't destroyed you or your conscience so that you couldn't repent, and let God deal with you in that particular area to heal and restore you now. Once Jesus washes you of your sins, you are clean - clean all over and forever. When you have specific issues to deal with, you can deal with them in the assurance of your salvation and in hope. It isn't like "Chinese Checkers" or "Sorry" where you get bumped off the board and have to go back to the starting gate.

With Peter answered and his personal issue addressed, Jesus finished washing the twenty-four feet in that room. Then he sat down. And he asked, "Do you know what I have done to you?"

We Are to Imitate Him

Jesus' question was rhetorical. Of course they didn't know what he had done to them! They were all as mystified in their own ways as Peter! By now they knew that Jesus had a purpose to everything he did, but they had no clue what the purpose of this was! So he answered his own question:

You call me Teacher and Lord - and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, 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. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them (13:13-17).
If I were convinced the issue here is washing one another's feet, I could do that. Some believers and some denominations think this text requires the modern practice of foot-washing. I have washed someone's feet as an act of Christian piety only once in my life. And it was incredibly meaningful. I have no real criticism to make of those who - like our brothers and sisters across Franklin Road at Cofer's Chapel Freewill Baptist Church - have periodic services to wash each other's feet as an act of religious devotion.

On my view, Jesus' teaching that you and I "ought to wash one another's feet" is not about water on feet but something more basic. Servants must not consider themselves greater than their Master. Anything he does (i.e., humble service, costly sacrifice, emptying self for others) is something we are supposed to be learning to do ourselves.

To create a culture of literal foot-washing could be too easy! You and I could wash each other's feet once a month or once a quarter and be deceived into thinking we have done something ultimately spiritual. Other than having proved that we are not intimidated to have people think we're a bit strange, I'm not sure the ceremony has proved much.

What Jesus did that night was powerful not because of the particular deed of washing feet but by virtue of the role he embraced in doing it. That deed is foreign to our time and culture - but foster care for children isn't. Or rocking AIDS-babies, mentoring a single-parent mother, teaching three-year-olds in Sunday School.

When he was President of Denver Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary back in 1973, Vernon Grounds challenged the graduates to embrace John 13:15. He then told them he was going to present them a tangible symbol that could help them in their future ministries by calling them back to this challenge from Jesus. As they filed to the front, he gave each of them a small square of white terry cloth. One of those graduates who has since served as an overseas missionary says, "We were commissioned to go into the world as servants. That small piece of towel, frayed and grubby from years in my wallet, is a constant reminder of that moving moment and of our basic call to serve."

A piece of terry cloth can be a prompt. A pitcher and bowl can remind you of the challenge. A time when you actually wash someone's feet may be spiritually significant. But any or all of these could be empty, unless something happens in our hearts. It is no stretch at all for me to imagine that some first-century poet-songwriter was meditating on Jesus' act of self-emptying in washing his disciples' feet when he wrote the Carmen Christi hymn Paul quoted at Philippians 2:6ff.

[T]hough he was in the form of God,
[Jesus] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death -
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
And do you remember the words Paul wrote as his preface to the piece? He wrote: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:5).


The challenge of this lesson is not only to understand how Jesus emptied himself for our sakes but also to renew our commitment as a church and as individuals to being a "community of foot-washers" or, perhaps better to this time and place, a "culture of sacrifice." This church is filled with people, but it is far more important that all the people here be filled with God's Spirit, Christ's humility, the Father's love for his children.

We're stymied, church. We are turning people away at the second and third services every Lord's Day. Some of us who are comfortable at the table are going to have to get up from our comfortable familiarity, embrace the mindset of a servant, and make a sacrifice for the sake of the spread of the gospel message.

One of the strangest things about the rhetoric after 9/11 - from President Bush down to his aides down to the local restaurant owners - is that our goal should be to "go about life as usual" after 3,000 terrorist murders. I think I know what they have meant to say: We must not be frozen by fear in the aftermath of that day. But surely there is a better way to say that than to talk about "life as usual." I agree with the lady in her eighties whom I saw on a network news program. She said things weren't the same, and she didn't have a goal of "life as usual." She remembered World War II and sacrifice - ration cards, brownouts and blackouts, doing without sugar, curtailing travel because of gasoline shortages. "And I want somebody to tell me how to make a sacrifice now that will make a difference for the better in this war on terrorism," she ended.

Doug Burny said he heard a man say recently that the biggest generation ever born (i.e., 1980-2000) is here and that it is giving signs already of being the generation most motivated to find something true. We know what is true: The gospel of Jesus Christ. And we are bursting at the seams because people can come here, be accepted as they are, and hear the message of Christ made meaningful. It will take a "culture of sacrifice" to meet their needs. It will require emptying ourselves for their sakes in order to be faithful to the divine mandate about doing for them what Jesus has done for us.

I don't have any idea of all the things that will entail. Can we find a way to have a fourth service? Or fifth? Should we plant some churches? Can we get 300 more volunteers for our Children's Ministry? Can we . . .

No, "we" can't do it by our wisdom and strength. But God can do it, if we will embrace the mindset of Christ: We are not here to be served, but to serve. We are not here to get what we want, but to give what others need. We are not here to be accommodated, but to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to win a life-and-death struggle against the darkness that is always trying to engulf the light of Christ.

provided, designed & powered by