We had a wonderful discussion about this scene a couple weeks ago during Wednesday evening study. We were chatting about the discipline of submission and how the practice of the discipline frees us from any numbers of fears or idols. Chiefly, submission teaches us that we do not need to get our own way. We can rest in the arms of God confident that when things seem not to be going our way, He still is in control. But submission also helps us deal with the fear that motivates us to try and take charge of everything, to do things our way. Who’s afraid, you might be asking. All of us. But what we fear is perhaps not what we think we fear.
As the disciples have been on this journey with Jesus, one of their consuming discussions has been questions of power. Lord, when you come into your glory, permit us to sit at Your hand, one on your right and one on Your left. At times, they even argued over their own hierarchy. Jesus repeatedly taught them that the kingdom which He was ushering in was turning all understandings of power and authority on their ears. To be greatest in the Kingdom of heaven is to be the servant of all. One of the problems with pride, brothers and sisters, is that it enslaves us to a terrible fear. Nobody wants to be least. Think of your time in gym class. Were you as concerned about being picked first, or were you more concerned about not being picked last? We you more concerned about getting a date to prom or Homecoming with Mr. or Miss Popular, or were you more afraid of being stuck alone? Or worse, going with the nerdy, comely next door neighbor? Even as adults, we still understand that visceral fear. Ever been through a company merger or takeover and had to worry whether you were expendable or redundant? You are not alone. Better still, our Lord understands that fear.
Ever noticed one of the small, weird details in this story? It was the custom in the ANE that if you hosted a party, you provided foot cleaning. Part of it was, no doubt, for your own house cleanliness. After all, who wants a ton of dirt or other stuff being tracked into one’s home? More importantly, though, it was for the purposes of hospitality. In the ANE, people mostly walked to and from their destinations. And, even if one was wealthy enough to own a horse or traveling over roads smooth enough for carts, one still arrived at the destination dusty, particularly one’s feet. Now, on these roads were animals, mostly beasts of burden. We live in the Midwest, so we might understand how well trained the animals were when it came to bathroom breaks. Yes, what caked travelers’ feet was not just mud! So, one lucky slave or servant was assigned the task of washing peoples’ feet upon their arrival. If it was a big party, more than one might be assigned. Hopefully, you get the idea.
Flash forward to our scene for Maundy Thursday. The disciples are celebrating the Passover Meal with their Rabbi, the one they believe to be the Christ. By the time we get to the foot washing part of story, how far are they into the meal? Imagine, if you will, not washing up for Christmas or Easter dinner before coming to the table. That is what has happened here. During the biggest meal of the year, nobody washed the feet of those in attendance. Consider that for a moment in light of Jesus’ instruction to His disciples regarding favoritism and power and authority. Of that motley group of fishermen and tax collectors and whatever other jobs they held, who was willing to serve as a slave to his or her brothers and sisters and wash the road dust off their feet?
I know we like to think of those early Apostles and disciples as Saints, and they rightly are. But they are not yet in His story. Like us, they struggle with what they see, what they hear, and what they have been taught. What the world claims, sometimes, seems to be in conflict with Yahweh revealed. And it does not help that those who represent Yahweh get so far off His message. These same disciples who argued over where they were to sit or who was to lord over each other still do not understand Jesus’ teaching and still do not recognize the path to greatness in the Kingdom. The author of this account of the narrative points out that Peter had to ask him to find out who the traitor was! Nobody wants to be the slave that washes feet, so nobody gets their feet cleaned for the Passover Meal. Nobody wants to be the least! Nobody wants to be the last!
Then, we are told, He rose, took off His out garment, and wrapped a towel around Himself and began to wash their feet! Think of that act for just a second. We so often spend time fixated on the Cross. Rightly so, we equate the cross as a sign of our salvation. Most of us are humbled by the thought that someone would love us enough that they would die for us, let alone God. Yet, that is the message of the Cross.
But what of the message of the Towel? Jesus was so immersed into the lives of His disciples that he was willing to humble Himself and wash the mud and dirt and other wonderful items off their stinky feet! He who was and is and will be God condescended to wash the feet of those whom He created! Have you ever heard anything so scandalous? Have you ever heard anything so absurd? For those of you who have a hard time coming to me in this service to have your foot washed, I can only imagine how hard it would be for you to come to Jesus.
Wait! I don’t have to imagine. There is one like you! Peter says to Jesus that He will never wash his feet. Jesus tells Peter that unless He washes him, Peter will have no part in Him. He understands and tells Peter and the others that they will not understand the events of the night right away. And Peter gives in and asks His Lord to wash ever part of Him. It is an amazing gift of Jesus. He has freed all those who follow Him from worrying about being least. He has freed all who follow Him from the dog eat dog worries of corporate life. He has free all those who follow Him from caring whether they are picked last for kickball or some other contest. He has freed all who follow Him from the need for pride, from the need for power, from the need for authority. All those who follow Him learn from this example that such concerns are immaterial to Him. He loved each one of us enough to die for us; He loved each one of us enough to wash the grime from our feet!
As I said a moment ago, we talk long and hard about the Cross being a sign of God’s love of us. We would do well, I think, to ponder the Towel as a sign of God’s love of all those around us. Better still, we would do well to ponder this amazing event and its results. By virtue of our baptism into His death, you and I have died to ourselves. By virtue of His rising again, we have been baptized into the Resurrection. By virtue of His gift of the Spirit, we have been called forth as ambassadors! When we see or hear a need, we are called to remember the Towel. We are called to remember that the One whom we are called to represent got down on His knees and washed the feet of those who dined with Him. Can we do less than emulate His behavior, if we truly intend to glorify Him in our lives?
Brothers and sisters, like those who came before us, you have heard the same teachings of Jesus. You shall have no other God but the Lord. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the torah and the prophets. Just as we are called to contemplate the Cross as a sign of His willingness and love to save each one of us, each of us is called to remember the Towel as the sign of that love for those in the world around us. He has called you into a glorious inheritance! He has promised you a double portion of the firstborn! How can you truly honor such a gift of grace without picking up that cross and towel and following Him?
Like those in our narrative tonight, we do not truly understand what He has done for us. Oh, unlike them, we know that He will die and be raised again as the first fruits of the Resurrection, but we really cannot understand what comes next. All we can do is look and marvel at what happened to those men and women in tonight’s story. Those who were arguing over position and power were amazingly transformed by their experience of the Risen Christ. Some of those who fled later became martyrs; those who denied later became amazing witnesses; even those who doubted became certain! And none, none worried about power and authority and ranking after that experience because they then understood however haltingly, however incompletely, the joy to which He called them. May those in our lives, by our wielding of the Towel, recognize that same transformation in us and feel called to share in this wonderful inheritance!