John13v1to17: JESUS WASHES HIS DISCIPLE'S FEET

(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)

This dramatic and poignant incident has some powerful lessons for us. Jesus said to his disciples: "I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you." v15. This is the key verse of the passage. Jesus in washing the feet of his disciples and leaving this loving act as an example addresses our egos. Christians, both great and small, have endless trouble with their egos. I am at present reading the biography of William Booth by Roy Hattersley. When the Foundation Deed of the Christian Mission, the precursor of the Salvation Army, was deposited in the Chancery Court it made clear that the Mission belonged to William Booth and not William Booth belonged to the Mission. To quote Hattersley: He had founded his first benevolent autocracy. It was one in which .... men and women enjoyed an equal status under God and the secretary. William Booth was egotistical! Fortunately for him, and all those he helped, the words of Jesus are wonderfully true: A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. Mt12v20.

(B) An act of humble service.

Jesus washed his disciples feet because:

(a) It was something that needed doing.
Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. v1. Jesus realised that the great work of redemption he had been directed to accomplish was imminent with its huge responsibility and many temptations and yet he was concerned about the state of his disciples' grubby feet. The Master didn't want dirty, gritty, uncomfortable feet to spoil this last meal that he and his disciples shared together. So Jesus proceeded to do what needed to be done.

    (1) It is a mark of humility to do a job simply because it needs doing. Roger, who attends our church, is like that. If the gutters of the chapel are clogged up and over flowing he just turns up and un clogs them. One of our members recently had a hip operation. Before she was even out of hospital he had fixed a second banister to her staircase.

    (2) It is very gracious to put the interests of others before our own. Roald Dahl writes this about his mother in his autobiography: In 1967, when she knew she was dying, I was in hospital in Oxford having a serious operation on my spine and I was unable to write to her. So she had a telephone specially installed beside her bed in order that she might have one last conversation with me. She didn't tell me she was dying nor did anyone else for that matter because I was in a fairly serious condition myself at the time. She simply asked me how I was and hoped I would get better soon and sent me her love. I had no idea that she would die the next day, but she knew all right and she wanted to reach out and speak to me for the last time.

    I am a short man and can never get a pair of trousers in my leg size. Fortunately I knew Anne, an expert dressmaker, who was willing to put up my trouser legs. When she was terminally ill with cancer she sent me a message: "I'm very sorry that I can no longer help with your trousers." That should have been the least of her worries! But Anne was not so preoccupied with herself that she couldn't show concern for me.

(b) It was a job no-one else was prepared to do.

Washing feet was something done for Jews by Gentile slaves. It was not something that disciples did for a teacher however much they revered him. The disciples were arguing at this last meal about who was the greatest. There was little chance in the prevailing spirit of rivalry that one of the disciples would volunteer to wash the feet of the assembled company. So Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of All, got up from the meal took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped round him. v4and5. This act of Jesus is reminiscent of the words of Paul: Christ Jesus .... made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant ... . Phil2v7.

It requires humility to do menial, serving tasks. My brother Philip is not so self-important that he cannot clean the Brockley Cricket Club lounge, changing room, toilets and shower. My brother Paul, the pastor of a Baptist church in London, is happy once a week to cook the meal for the homeless folk in the neighbourhood. My former headmaster, Mr Crawshaw, would frequently come into the staff room and make tea for all those enjoying a free period. He would bring it round on a tray. I admired him for that.

(c) It was a task that could be done lovingly.
It is a tactile, intimate thing - to wash someone's feet. Jesus could have done it in rather bad grace to shame his disciples. I can remember my mother asking her sons to do the washing up. If we put off the chore for too long my mother would do it herself with many sighs and then wear a martyred look all afternoon. I cannot imagine Jesus washing his friend's feet roughly or superficially. It was a service rendered with love.

We need to be careful how we serve - it makes all the difference. A few years ago I was hit on the head with a hockey ball. It made a mess of my forehead. So, I made my way to the casualty department of my local hospital. After I had been waiting three hours to be examined I was really irritated and thoroughly prepared to be disagreeable to the doctor. However, I was quite disarmed by the warm welcome a lady doctor gave me. She smiled and looked almost pleased to treat me. The doctor tended my wound with a tender touch. After she had finished I would have been quite happy if she had done it all over again.

I believe Jesus had a tender touch. John writes: Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. v2. A tender touch is something that should characterise the service we give to others.

(C) Peter's thoughtless protest.

He (Jesus) came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?"

Jesus replied, "You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand."

"No," said Peter, "you shall never wash my feet." vs6to8.

It is easy to understand why Peter was appalled by the behaviour of Jesus.

(1) He found it demeaning.
Peter probably considered Jesus' action was entirely inappropriate. It was undignified and detracted from his status as Peter's Lord. Jesus was putting himself down and making it hard for Peter to respect him.

Most leaders have the trappings of power. When the Bishop of St Edmundsbury visited Debenham High School our headmaster told him to put on all his regalia. He wanted the Bishop to look the part! Really important people, like Tony Blair or the Prince of Wales, never carry anything.

Sadly, humble people are often despised and treated with contempt. Selfish children will say of a mother who puts the interests of her family before her own, "She likes to do it."

There is a terrible tendency to look down on people who do menial jobs. I recently watched a TV program on office cleaners in the City of London. They deal in dirt and are treated like dirt. All of them are immigrants! In India people who did unclean jobs like skinning cattle or curing leather became a caste of untouchables. There is a caste called the burakumin in Japan that consists of the descendents of butchers and leather workers that were shunned in a Buddhist society that had learned to eat meat but not accept those who processed it.

I am certain that many Christians would find it difficult to respect their pastor if he was, for example, a down-at-heel, part-time pavement sweeper in a busy part of town. The folk in the pews want someone to look up to. So did Peter and that is why he objected to Jesus washing his feet. Take heed Christian!

(b) He felt guilty and ashamed.
I expect Peter felt rather guilty that it was left to Jesus to wash the disciples' feet. It wasn't something he ought to be doing. Sometimes people have said to me: "You shouldn't have to do that." I suppose it makes them feel better just as Peter's protest made him feel less guilty. The fact remains that none of the disciples, Peter included, jumped up and volunteered to wash feet instead of Jesus. They let him get on with it.

There is a tendency in many churches to let the willing horse get on with it. The sad truth is that because lazy Christians do feel a bit ashamed of themselves the willing horse does not even get the appreciation he or she deserves.

(c) He was too proud to be helped.
Peter wanted to be valued for the support he offered Jesus. He probably thought that he was an asset to the Master. His contribution was worth something. Peter was prepared to swing a sword in Jesus' defence. He said: "I will lay down my life for you." John13v37. Peter was not so keen on Jesus doing something for him.

He had to learn the crucial importance of submission. Jesus said to Peter: "Unless I wash you, you will have no part with me." v8. This was a very sharp rebuke. Jesus didn't shrug his shoulders and pass on to the next disciple because a self-sufficient, self-confident attitude does debar a man from the Kingdom. He said: "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." Lk18v15.

We can never become children of God as patrons of Jesus Christ! We have to come to him as paupers - debtors to mercy alone. Any would be follower of Jesus must accept absolutely what Jesus has done for him.

            Not what my hands have done
            Can save my guilty soul:
            Not what my toiling flesh hath borne
            Can make my spirit whole

            Thy work alone O Christ,
            Can ease this weight of sin;
            Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God,
            Can give me peace within.

I think we should also submit to our brother Christians who offer to wash our feet. If a fellow believer is keen to do something to help us we should let him or her. Some folk are too independent. My mother could never receive a gift without paying the person back. All she needed to do was show appreciation. Christians who won't accept help actually deny others the opportunity to serve. Jesus, unlike the apostle Paul, was happy to accept the hospitality of his supporters. He was pleased with Mary's sacrificial offering of precious perfume and the tears with which the prostitute bathed his feet.

I can remember looking at an exhibition of books at a chapel in Chelmsford with a pastor friend of mine. He picked one up and said, "I would like that." He looked at the price and continued ruefully, "Too expensive!" Pastor S. let me buy him the book. He gave me the opportunity to do a small kindness for Christ's sake.

(D) Peter's grand gesture.

After Jesus had remonstrated with Peter for refusing to have his feet washed the impulsive disciple blurted out: "Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!" v9. What motivated this characteristic outburst?

(a) Peter tried to gain credit.
When I was a boy we had an expression that sums up Peter's reaction. He was talking 'big'. He wanted to make a big impression so he was prepared to go even further than Jesus intended. His attitude was in danger of spoiling what Jesus was doing.

We should never go further than Jesus requires in order to gain credit. Zealous, over enthusiastic Christians are liable to do this. Some people exaggerate how wicked they were before conversion to make God's grace more convincing. There is no need to do that! You might say it is impossible for the natural man to exaggerate his wickedness. Well, I read in this month's Evangelicals Now about a former Moslem who claimed that before his conversion he had powerful charms that could make him disappear at will. He did not need to travel by car - all he needed to do was think of where he wanted to be and he was there. After he became a Christian God took away these satanic powers!

Jesus wants us to be holy but he does not want us to go further than he demands in a legalistic spirit to gain credit. I find it very sad that in the early years of the Salvation Army nobody was permitted to be an officer unless they foreswore alcoholic drink and tobacco. Jesus would not have been able to satisfy one of these conditions!

(b) Peter was humouring Jesus.
Perhaps Peter was being patronising. He was saying in effect, "If washing my feet is of such great importance by all means wash my hands and face as well." Does Peter know better than Jesus? The Master did not think so! He told Peter: "You do not realise now what I am doing but later you will understand." v7.

Jesus knows what is best for all God's children. We must act in humble submission to him who was sent from God and spoke the words that God commanded him to speak. In 1881 the Salvation Army abandoned the Eucharist (Lord's Supper). George Railton, William Booth's chief lieutenant, argued that before conversion communion was pointless and after conversion it was superfluous. The administration of the Eucharist by priests and clergy implied that common men could not communicate directly with God. It was much more satisfactory for services to end with repentant sinners approaching the penitent form than with the congregation remembering 'the Lord's death until he comes' at the altar rail. Yet who was it that instituted the communion service? Who was it that took bread and broke it and gave it to his disciples saying: "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me."? Lk22v19. Jesus knows what is best for all who believe in him - including believers in the Salvation Army!

(c) Peter was being silly.

Peter in all likelihood spoke as he did because of two flaws in his character. He desired to be well thought of and he was impulsive. This resulted in him speaking without really thinking and saying something silly. He behaved in the same way at Christ's transfiguration and when he was asked by the collectors of the two-drachma levy: "Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?" Mt17v24.

Jesus knew about Peter's little weaknesses and this explains his rather matter of fact response. He reminded Peter that he had a good wash that morning and only his feet needed bathing. "A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. v10. Jesus did not have to do for Peter what he had done perfectly well for himself.

I don't think we should make Jesus responsible for decisions that we make for ourselves! Some Christians talk as if Jesus was responsible for every aspect of their lives. He tells them what church to attend, what school to send their children, what motor car to buy, what to cook for dinner .... . They are being like Peter - just plain silly.

There was, however, a deeper meaning to Christ's words. He said to Peter: "And you are clean, though not everyone one of you." v10. Eleven disciples believed in Jesus and their faith was credited to them for righteousness. They did not understand the great work of redemption that Jesus came to complete but none the less they believed that he was the Son of God and were devoted to him. Judas was the exception. Judas' allegiance to Jesus was conditional upon Jesus fulfilling his political agenda.

Everyone who believes in Jesus and is united to him is cleansed from sin. But because our walk is in the world our feet get dirty. Every day Christians fail Jesus in some way or another. I was talking to my friends at Brockley Cricket Club one evening after net practice about the foolishness of getting drunk. I found it difficult to persuade my fellow cricketers that I had never been drunk. Our groundsman Denis said, "It's time you became a sinner, JR." I need no encouragement to be sinner! I sin constantly. The consciousness of daily sin makes us feel grubby and out of sorts. Perhaps our communion with Jesus is broken. It is time then to wash our feet; to confess our sins for daily cleansing. John writes in his first epistle: If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1John1v8and9.

(E) A pattern to live by.

Jesus made it very clear to his disciples that he had set them a pattern to live by: "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. .... Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them." John13to17.

So let us take at least these two lessons to heart:

(1) Never be so preoccupied with your status that you are unwilling to humbly serve others.
I am not especially proud of my career as a teacher. I was very far from perfect but this anecdote is to my credit! I had Charlie in detention for not doing his homework. He was a very troublesome pupil and we conducted a running battle. As he did his homework I picked up the file in which he kept his work. It was a total mess. Nothing was in order. There was no way Charlie could ever revise for his GCSE exam using that folder. He needed another couple of detentions to sort it out. If anyone had looked into the classroom they would have witnessed a tranquil scene. Charlie worked steadily on his Geography exercises while his elderly teacher quietly sorted his folder out for him. (See also the third of The Three Victorias.)

(2) Don't let any thing put you off Christian service.
One Sunday on the way to chapel my friend Phyllis told me a story about her son, Keith. The tale started with an item in our local paper about a man who lost his overalls. He was a gardener who on finishing work and receiving his pay took off his overalls and stuffed them into a bag on the back of his bike. Somewhere on the way home his overalls fell off his bike with the 50 pay packet he had thrust into a pocket.

Keith was travelling to do the weekly shopping with his wife Anne when she cried out: "Did you see those trousers? It's that man's trousers. We must stop and look at them on the way home." There is no way that Keith wanted to stop and investigate! It was his wife's idea and not his but he would be the one who had to examine the grubby overalls. It was a very inconvenient place to stop - on a busy road leading out of Bury St Edmunds and right outside a fish and chip shop. He would be sure to attract attention to himself. He would look a right idiot messing about with a discarded pair of trousers. Keith was also a very fastidious man and he did not fancy feeling in the pockets of someone else's filthy overalls. But, he stopped - for his wife's sake! One pocket was full of nails and in the other was 50.

Keith did not let anything put him off doing the old, part-time gardener a good turn. He loved his neighbour for his wife's sake! We should serve our fellow men for Christ's sake.

Jesus could have been put off washing his disciple's feet and, indeed, the whole work of redemption because even the best of men are just not worth it.

Some years ago I entered my room to register my form for the last time after watching over them for five years. On my desk was a very nice array of presents. The girl who organised a collection and the purchase of the gifts was called Victoria. Some days earlier I had been very nasty to Victoria. She could easily have taken the view that her grumpy, bad tempered, unpredictable teacher wasn't worth it and abandoned her efforts. But she went ahead regardless.

We are not worth it but Jesus went ahead regardless - and so should we. Today, I received a letter from a couple, for whom I recommenced our evening services, informing me that they were not happy in our church and were leaving. I took a lot of trouble to accommodate them and now they have discontinued their support. I feel like giving up! Jesus says to me in my discouragement: "I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you."

ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net

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