When I visited my brother Frank in Hawaii recently he told a favorite childhood memory of his about me. We were at the beach at Breezy Point on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with our family and I was about 4 years old. I was going to take our German Shepherd dog named Renny for a walk. But before doing so, I was warned that I was not to let go of his leash. Never having taken him for a walk before, I forgot to put my shoes on before hooking up his leash, and the minute he was hooked up, he took off with me holding on for dear life as he dragged me down a rocky road. Needless to say I was totally unprepared as he was stronger than I. The whole way down the road I was yelling out, “My feet, my feet, my feet!” My whole family watched, laughing at my pitiful predicament. It was a story my family never forgot, and they love to tease me about it to this very day.
Well, tonight we have an unforgettable memory in the life of the disciples. And it, too, is also about feet. And Jesus drew from it not only an example but also a new commandment.
“It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave the world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.” (John 13:1)
The cross was clearly in view for Jesus. He knew that he would be betrayed by one of them, denied by another, and that all of them would forsake him for a time. But still he loved them.
One of the things that we must constantly remind ourselves is that these twelve disciples were not perfect. As Jesus gathers them in the Upper Room, we must get out of our heads those pictures of the Last Supper—where all the disciples have halos and angelic faces. As we know from other gospel accounts, the disciples came into this setting with frowns upon their faces and deep-seated passions in their hearts. They were fighting among themselves—and their quarrelling did not concern piety, charity and humility. It was all about power and prestige. Who was the greatest among them? Who was most loved by their Master? Who would have the privilege to sit on his right and left hand in the kingdom?
In full view of their petty questions and approaching display of weakness and infirmity, our blessed Master did not cease to have loving thoughts of His disciples. He was not weary of them. He loved them to the end. And he showed them that love in a most practical way for on this night he stripped himself down to a loin cloth—the garment of a common slave—wrapped a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the feet of his proud disciples.
Remember, the Jews wore sandals—there were no boots or Florsheim shoes. The sandals they used were a piece of leather with a string to secure them to their feet.
The streets were travelled by beasts of burden, so you can imagine the raw sewage lying around everywhere. There were no street cleaners or garbage pick-ups, so, unavoidably, filth accumulated on their feet. What Jesus therefore began to do was not even what a Jewish slave could be required to do for his master; and it made them uncomfortable. Peter was so uncomfortable that he refused to accept it.
- Peter’s Response:
“Are you going to wash my feet, Lord?” Peter asked.
“You don’t understand,” Jesus replied.
“Never at any time will you wash my feet” was Peter’s answer.
Peter’s problem was one that we all share. He wanted to accept Jesus, but only on his own terms. He could accept Jesus as Master and as Lord—as someone exalted and lifted up above all others, but he could not accept Jesus as a servant, or as someone humbled and brought so low as to stoop to him to wash his feet in such a condescending act of love and service.
III. It is essential that we accept this love:
You might think that Jesus would be honoured by Peter’s humility here. But to the contrary, we learn that it is absolutely necessary that he do so. “If I do not wash your feet you will have no part with me.” So, too, we must learn to accept this act of self-sacrificing love on our behalf or we will have no portion, no share, no communion, no common inheritance with our Lord in the honor and blessings of his kingdom. Those are very powerful words. And I think our Lord’s intention was to let Peter know that unless he would accept his love, where he needed it the most, he could not be a disciple of Jesus.
And so it is with us. Unless we can let Jesus love us in our brokenness, in our failure, in our uttermost need –not as the persons we desire to be, but as we really are; not at our best but at our worst; not in our strength but in our weakness; not in that which is washed and perfumed and dressed in our Sunday best, but in that which is worn and dirty, tired and ugly, smelly and despicable, impure and tainted, blind and wretched, hard-hearted and rebellious, knowing full well that all of us are wayward sinners. Unless we can let Jesus stoop to love us at our worst, we cannot be his disciples. That is what the cross is all about—Jesus loving us at our worst.
Application: Like Peter, we have a hard time accepting this kind of love. The world has taught us that to be loved, we have to be lovely and to hide our imperfections–those things about us that are cracked and callused and bent and downright smelly. Jesus knows all about our feet. He knows the worst there is know about us and it is at our worst, in our ugliness and sinfulness that he desires to hold us in his hands and tenderly wash us clean.
“He had always loved those in the world who were his own” but not because they were lovely. They were common ordinary fisherman at best, and others were prostitutes and tax collectors. He loved them because they “were his own” – because he chose to love them. And he “loved them to the uttermost” – or as some other translations put it, “To the absolute limit.” He held nothing back when he showed them his love.
Therefore He loves us and to be His disciples He asks two things:
- That we accept that love, and
- That we love each other as He loves us. For we are under obligation and a commandment to love one another as He has loved us. We can affirm and bless each other in the name of the one who has washed our feet.
The Rev. Stephen Becker