John 13:1-17/ Maundy Thursday
Austin Seminary, 2 April 2015
I have never liked this passage. For that matter, I don’t like the practice of footwashing in general. Despite my crude Tennesseean origins, I have managed to gather and retain some shreds of dignity and sophistication, all of which are threatened by the prospect of removing my shoes and socks in public and, worse, permitting someone to wash my feet, and then, worse still, having to wash someone else’s. I know what my feet look like and, more to the point, smell like after a day’s confinement in the prison of my shoes, and I am not eager to share that knowledge with others. Add to that the fact that, in the old South where I come from, hauling out the galvanized tubs filled with cold water and dunking one’s naked extremities is something only that brand of Christian we used to call “Foot-washin’ Fundies” ever did, and the clash of culture and custom is almost overwhelming. I dread this day. And so I will not look askance at any of you who, beset with similar dread, elect to sit silently in your pews and stare at the cracks in the floor while your colleagues make their way to the washtubs. I understand, believe me.
That said, if you can stay with me for a few moments, I would like to offer you a different view of this text and its importance, one that has only recently dawned on me. For I have begun to see this text not merely as warrant for another of those annoying ordinances the Footwashers of my childhood insisted on practicing because Jesus told them to, but as an invitation to a different view of Jesus, of church, and ultimately of us. Let me explain.
Let’s start by acknowledging that Jesus in the gospel of John is an intimidating figure. He seems to know what others are thinking, and to be only too ready to correct their misperceptions. He is constantly talking about himself and his rather unusual relationship with the one he calls his Father, something not done in polite company. He seems unwarrantedly rude toward his mother at the wedding reception in Cana, and a little too intrusive in his conversation with that strange woman at the Samaritan well. As the gospel picks up steam through the middle chapters, he seems inordinately eager to get on with it, to get to the cross and his moment of “glory” like some overconfident athlete that isn’t sufficiently modest about his prospects for victory. Unlike the synoptic gospels, where Jesus pleads in Gethsemane that the Father might spare him his suffering cup, in John Jesus doesn’t ask for divine mercy, but boasts that “it is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (Jn 12:27). John’s Jesus seems almost arrogant.
All of which makes what happens in chapter 13 so strange. Jesus knows that the last hour has come. Instead of marching into the street to confront the Temple authorities and dare them to arrest him, he lingers at table, strips to the waist, and kneels before those who have called him Master, and washes their feet like a common house servant. What’s going on here?
In a nutshell, what’s going on is love. that loves those whom he has called, and because he loves them he is preparing them to be without him. That much is clear from the first sentence of the chapter. Verse 1 is really one long sentence whose only finite verb is he loved: “he loved his own to the end.” All the rest—the fact that the Passover had started and that Jesus knew that his hour had come—all those are relative clauses that set the context for this first word of Jesus’ love. To put it most directly, foot washing is about the love of Christ.
Which makes sense of the rest of the scene, if you think about it. In the middle of the meal, the last meal they will share until they and we stand on the other side of cross and tomb, Jesus rises, strips off his outer garments, and begins washing feet. In any Greco-Roman house, it is an act of hospitality to welcome one’s guests by rinsing the dirt of the road from their feet, signaling thereby that they belong in the home, that there is a place waiting at hearth and table, that they have a share in the bounty of the place. You can even hear this is Jesus’ response to Peter: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Jesus’ work with basin and towel is the work of welcome, the work of love. But this hospitable act comes in the middle of this, their final meal together, rather than before it, which is, I think, John’s way of telling us that cleansing is not a prerequisite for sacramental grace, but its result. As we share the fellowship of Jesus, we are made clean and welcomed, given a share in the bounty of the house.
But it’s not just any house into which Jesus welcomes us. Rather, it is the Father’s house, the same one of which he will say in the next chapter that is has many rooms, and where he goes to prepare a place for us. Note the little aside the narrator gives us just before Jesus takes up the water and towel: “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God….” John wants us to know what Jesus knows: that the home to which he goes, and into which he welcomes those who follow him, is the Father’s home, and that this welcome is an eschatological act. What happens when Jesus washes feet is not just that the dust of the road is rinsed away and we are welcomed into a house; it is that we are welcomed into the intimate, inclusive fellowship of God. We are made clean. We are made whole. We are made one with each other and with the Father and the Son. We are ushered into the presence of the Kingdom. His welcome is the welcome that transforms.
But even that’s not the end of it. Having washed the disciples’ feet, he then commands them to turn and do the same to others. Does he mean, as the Baptist brethren of my childhood thought, that we must haul out the galvanized tubs every month as a reenactment of the moment, just to remind ourselves of our belonging? Perhaps, but I think that Jesus is using the metaphor of washing other’s feet as a way of pointing to a deeper reality. I think it’s a way of reminding us that it’s never enough to “enjoy the benefits of Christian community for ourselves alone” (Book of Order, F-1.0302a), but that something about this moment of gracious inclusion keeps forcing us out to include others. Something about being welcomed into the eschatological fellowship of the people of God impels us to look beyond these walls and those already inside them, but out through the windows at those yearning to come in, and even those for whom entry has never even crossed their mind.
My wife, who will be received into the heavenly precincts as a far better Christian than I, is by training and experience a public health nurse. While we lived in Jacksonville, FL, Pat worked as clinic nurse at a medical clinic for the homeless. Hundreds of Jacksonville’s most destitute street people made their way through the clinic every week to receive free medical and dental care, well-baby check-ups, pre-natal care, and psychiatric services. But the most popular clinic by far was the foot clinic. Here, in an otherwise unimpressive exam room in a corner of the clinic facility, men and women who spent their lives on their feet, mostly in leaky, ill-fitting shoes, or no shoes at all, could sit for a while, and receive treatment for corns and callouses, ingrown toenails and a myriad of fungal infections, so that when they went back to plodding the paths of their endless pilgrimage, it was with a little less pain and the knowledge that someone cared enough to wash their feet. Pat always approached what she did with clinical precision: trim that nail, apply this ointment. To her it was just part of a life of medical practice. But I’ve always thought that there was a lot more to it than that. To me, what she did looked a lot like the Kingdom of God. It was a way of saying “you belong” to those hustled out of every doorway and rousted off every park bench in town. It was a way of saying, “welcome home” to those for whom “home” was a distant or even painful memory. It was a way of saying, “I see you; you are valuable in my sight” to those we mostly don’t make eye contact with. It was a sure a sign of the eschatological fellowship as I have ever seen. “As I have washed your feet…,” said Jesus.
A few weeks ago, I came across this poem by the young British poet, Liz Berry. It’s about a dog, and the person who rescues her on a cold north English Maundy Thursday night. At least, at one level, it’s about a dog. But the poem—like all great poetry—works on more than one level, and Berry keeps expanding the metaphor, until it’s a mirror in which I see my own face. Maybe you will see yours, too. Here’s something else you should know: Berry is from the Black Country, the industrial north, near Birmingham. There the term wench, which sounds derogatory to us, is an affectionate term for a female, and a “midden” is a garbage dump. The poem is “The Passion: The First Path.”
In a few moments, I’m going down to have my feet washed, and then to wash whoever will come after me. I don’t do this to boast of my faithfulness; I’m not that faithful. I do it because my wet naked feet remind me that I’m loved, that I’m home, that I belong, and washing your feet reminds me that you belong, too. I’m doing it because, mongrel that I am, when I look into your eyes, I can see myself through the eyes of Christ. Maybe you can see that, too.