We’re about to read the story of the Last Supper. I’m skipping ahead; it’s a story we typically read on Maundy Thursday, which is the day before Jesus dies. The name “Maundy” is derived from the Latin mandatum, meaning a mandate or command: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” It begins with washing feet. This story of foot washing is part of the climax of the entire Gospel in the way that John tells the story. Compare John’s story of this night with the other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the other three Gospels, Jesus and his disciples are at a Passover sedar meal. Jesus takes the bread, blesses, breaks and gives transforming it into his body. He takes the cup calls it his blood for the new covenant. John doesn’t give us Eucharist—cup and bread. Instead, takes a basin and towel and gets down on his knees. Matthew tells the Last Supper in eighteen verses; John’s version of a meal, followed by foot washing and instruction, is one-hundred and fifty five verses and takes up five chapters in our Bibles. It’s the longest single discourse we have from Jesus. We’re just going to read the first seventeen verses this morning.
“If Christianity were illegal would there be enough evidence to convict you?” It’s a bumper sticker. It’s a cliché. I heard it a million times as a teenager. And I honestly don’t like the scenario because it’s implausible. But I heard this parable by Peter Rollins and it’s been stuck in my head. So let’s give it a go. What if? Would there be enough evidence? Here’s the story.
Imagine you’re living in a world where following Christ is subversive, illegal activity and you have been accused of being a believer; you’re arrested and dragged before a court. You have been under surveillance for some time and the state is starting to build up their case against you. They have pictures of you attending religious meetings and praying at the altar. They’ve even found things in your house: religious books, art, worship cds. There are poems and prose and journal entries that talk about your faith. Finally, the prosecution offers your Bible to the judge. It’s well-worn with scribbles, notes, and underlinings and highlights. The evidence was clear that you had read this book many, many times.
Throughout the case you have been sitting silently in fear and trembling. The evidence supplied by the prosecution is enough to put you away for years. But while this thought has plagued your mind, you resist the temptation to deny Christ.
Once the prosecution has finished presenting the case the judge proceeds to ask if you have anything to add, but you remain silent. Eventually, it is time for the judge to pronounce your punishment. Once you have been seated in the dock, the judge, a harsh and unyielding man enters the room, stands before you, looks deep into your eyes and begins to speak.
“Of the charges that have been brought forward I find the accused not guilty.”
And of course, you’re shocked. And you say, “What about the poems and prose and journaling?
The court says, “They simply show that you think of yourself as a writer.”
“What about the services and the times I wept in Church. What about my Bible?”
“The court has no concern for your Bible reading, nor your worship attendance; it has no concern for worship with words and pen. We care about those who would lay down their life. So, until you live as Christ and his followers, until you challenge this system, until you deny yourself and serve the world, until then, you are no enemy of ours. You may go free.”
What is the evidence of a Christian?
Could it be worship attendance, personal piety, works of mercy? Some combination of the three? For John’s portrait of Jesus, it’s one simple act: the evidence of a Christian is one who washes feet. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” We are a people who wash feet. Let’s think about this some.
Foot washing sounds like an easy enough task, but remember that feet are literally the lowest part of our body. Many of us have an aversion to these lowly appendages, with their callouses and bunions and plantar warts. That’s gross, right? It was customary to wash feet when Jesus lived. They only wore open toe sandals—Tevas with no arch support. They walked miles on dry, dusty roads. Dirt is plastered to their soles and trapped under toe nails. Homes would keep a basin, pitcher, and towel by the front door and before someone entered inside, it was customary to take off your sandals and have your feet washed. Why’s that? Because feet are gross. They smell. Well, not mine. But probably yours. It’s common sense—I go backpacking and the number one rule is no shoes in the tent. It’s not only because we want to keep the tent clean, we do, but also because we don’t want to die of odor poisoning.
Look through the Scriptures: foot washing was both good manners for the guest, and good hospitality for the host. Think about Genesis 18 when the strangers visit Abraham and he tells them, “Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree.” This was happening 1800 years before Christ. You wash your hands before a meal; you wash your feet before you come in the house. Washing feet was also a lowly act. If you happened to have servants or slaves, then they would wash your feet on your behalf. It was a bit demeaning to touch feet. One commentary on the Torah, the Old Testament law, says that it was even beneath Jewish slaves to do this work. Only Gentiles servants could wash feet.
This helps us understand what’s taking place at the Last Supper. Picture this: Jesus has already made preparation for the dinner, when the disciples arrive to the house. The enter the room and there would likely be a foot washing station. They’ve all washed their own feet thousands of times in their lives, but they pass by the basin. It’s interesting, no one stops to wash their feet. Not sure why. Is it because they are above this demeaning act of service? Each disciple is maneuvering and jostling to become the greatest and no one wants to the the disciple who washes feet. Remember those conversations they have with Jesus earlier in the Gospels: “Jesus, tell us which of us will be the greatest. Which one of us will sit at your right hand?” Jesus tells them that to be the greatest, is to be the least. If anyone wants to be first, he must be the servant of all. They never quite understand.
So Jesus and his disciples sit down to start the meal, when he abruptly gets up, and instead of taking bread and cup, he ties a towel around his waist and picks up a basin of water. Here, a Jewish Rabbi, the Messiah, bends down to wash feet. It’s why Peter is embarrassed by the lowliness of this. “You will never wash my feet. Quit acting like a slave, Jesus! Have a little self respect.” That kind of grace is hard to receive. It’s too much. Many of us are too proud to accept a little help when we can’t get out of bed or meet the monthly budget. This is the extravagant grace of a God who welcomes home the prodigal son with the fattened calf. And before you forget, glance over toward the end of the line. There he is, Judas, the one who will betray Jesus hours later. He literally places himself under the feet of his enemy, who betrays him with a kiss. And if Jesus stoops down under the one who is complicit in his murder, then no feet have too many warts for Jesus.
What is the evidence of a Christian? Jesus doesn’t just say the Gospel, he shows us the Gospel. It’s a summary from his whole life. Sam Wells says this: “Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his robe, and puts on a towel. In other words he leaves heaven (that’s the table), puts aside divinity (that’s the robe), and takes human form (that’s the towel). He faces controversy from Peter, just as he faces controversy in his ministry. He offers teaching and prophecy. He asks questions and provides an example, just as he does in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem. Then he puts on his robe and returns to the table, just as he will return to heaven and be reclothed in the divine mantle.” (Sam Wells).
Jesus’ life and death and resurrection is summarized by one act—washing feet. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” The new commandment is washing feet: self sacrifice, abasement, giving up something of yourself. Jesus comes to reverse our self centered ideology. Relationships are much smoother when we wash each others feet. This is the best marriage advice I know to give: wash her feet, wash his feet. Literally, wash them because foot massages are nice. But also, put yourself last. Eat together. Do the dishes, cook dinner, whatever. Forgive often. Put yourself under her feet, even when she’s wrong. Relationships, all relationships, are about washing, not expecting to be washed. It brings abundant life. And in the process, you start looking more like Jesus.
I love his words to the disciples: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You address me as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so. That is what I am. So if I, the Master and Teacher, washed your feet, you must now wash each other’s feet. I’ve laid down a pattern for you. What I’ve done, you do.If you understand what I’m telling you, act like it—and live a blessed life.
At the Last Supper in the other three Gospels, Jesus takes bread and juice and says, “Do this.” It’s a shame that we don’t listen more often. We obey once a month, which is a start. In John, Jesus takes towel and pitcher and says, “Do this.” It’s a commandment. But we have selective hearing; it’s much harder to hear John’s portrait of Jesus. Which leads us to the question: whose feet have we washed recently?
Our problem, a problem for many small churches, is that we don’t get many visitors who just show up on Sunday morning or folks who join the church from the outside. And so we end up only washing each other’s feet. What about the stranger? We have to leave the building to wash feet. Pope Francis gets this right. On Maundy Thursday he goes to a prison and washes the feet of twelve mafia inmates in a maximum security prison. In 2016, he washed the feet of Muslim refugees and migrants. Could you wash a Muslim’s feet? Murderers? Politicians? How much easier this would have all been if Jesus had not stooped down, if he had not washed the feet of Judas.
But there are times that we get it right, too. It’s about a couple adults and a few college kids who give up their spring break to build a wheelchair ramp. Washing feet. Feeding a house of women who are trying to get back on their feet, like we will today. Washing feet. Filling up backpacks with food so children have enough to eat on the weekends. Washing feet. And the world will know that we are his disciples.
What is God calling you to do? We’ve talked so much about works of piety and I’ve challenged you to engage in those acts. How about service? Where is the need in our community? Where are you suited to meet that need? Can you engage in one act of service a month? Our survival as a church depends upon whether we will wash feet. But not only that, our discipleship does, too
One last thing: a chapter before this, Mary came to Jesus at dinner and broke a bottle of expensive perfume on his feet. It was an act of preparation for his burial. She realized that Jesus was about to die and she anointed him. She washed his feet. One chapter later, Jesus starts washing the feet of his disciples. It’s not a coincidence. Mary prepared for Jesus to die. Now, Jesus is preparing his disciples for their death. Foot washing is nothing more than following Jesus to his death. Would you let Jesus wash yours? Even if it meant that you had to die?
What is the evidence of a Christian? It’s picking up a cross and following Jesus. Die daily. Wash feet. Let that be the rhythm of your life. It’s the new commandment.