What foot washing tells us about the character of God A sermon for Maundy Thursday John 13:1-20 by Revd. Alex Pease

John 13:1-20

What would you do? What would I do, if we won the Lottery? And when I say ‘won’, I don’t mean the odd thousand.  I mean millions and millions.

One mega winner gave up work and travelled the world….with a dozen members of her family. Others buy their dream homes and sports cars or set up trust funds for their families or buy things for their families or blow it gambling…Some sponsor their favourite activities whether it be smoking pot or women wrestling….

Would you want to do any of those things?  Or would you want to become known as a philanthropist; a Bill Gates?

Money gives us some power in the world; power over our circumstances, but what would we do if we found that we had been given complete power over the world? Complete authority over everything?

What would you do? What would I do? Would you stop hunger and poverty; bring an end to war? So that we win the Nobel peace prize?

Because the answer that we make to these questions reflects a lot about who you are, about who I am, about our identity….

It’s interesting to reflect on these questions because, in this passage from John, we see what Jesus did when he knew that he had been given power and authority over everything.

Verse 3 ‘Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table took off his out robe and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him’.

Jesus knows that the Creator God has given him ‘all things’; given him the power and authority over the world of the Creator himself.  What does he do?

He washes his disciples feet….

This is what a slave would usually do for guests at a supper party, not what the host would do. It seems like a strange demonstration of his power and authority over the world.

Jesus washes his disciples feet.

That this is a point about Jesus’ identity that Jesus is saying something hugely significant is emphasised by John when he says, Jesus knew ‘that he had come from God and that he was going to God’.

Theologians call the relationship between the Trinity between the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit: perichoresis – an eternal dance between the three members of the Trinity; a dance which is so loving, so serving, so interactive, so dynamic and so understanding, that each knows and anticipates the wishes of the other even before they are expressed.

Jesus knew that he had been part of this dance before his incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth and he knew that he was returning to it, as he gets closer to death, he becomes even more sensitive to the Father from whom he has come and to whom he is returning; even more sensitive to his Father’s wishes to who his Father is….

Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper must be seen in that context.  They must be seen as something which reflects the character of the Father to whom he is returning….he washes his disciples feet. In doing so, he is revealing the Father’s character; how God uses his power, how God uses his authority over us.  He is revealing how much the Father loves us and how the Father shows love in a way which is so self-sacrificial and so beyond natural human inclination, that a new word had to be invented for the New Testament to describe it in Greek – the word ‘agape’.

But in washing the disciples feet, Jesus is also modelling what is about to happen to Jesus himself in the crucifixion and why.  The washing of the disciples feet is symbolic of the self humiliation which Jesus will suffer as he accepts death on the cross to bring about our cleansing of sin.  

Peter objects: ’you are not going to wash my feet’.  None of the disciples were willing to wash each others feet  when they came in for the Passover Supper as would have been normal etiquette.  They were not willing to take that subservient role to be seen as anything other than equals that’s why the usual etiquette of feet being washed on the way in to the dinner had not been observed.  Whilst Peter would not have been happy washing the other disciples feet, as that would have implied his subservience to them, he is outraged by the suggestion that Jesus would wash his feet.  Jesus replies ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’.

If we are not willing to accept the cleansing that Jesus offers us on the Cross, we can have no share of him.  If we are too proud to admit that we need cleansing; if we are too proud to accept that we are sinners, then there is nothing that he can do for us.  There can be no relationship with him except on this basis

Peter, of course, gets the wrong end of the stick and says ‘in that case wash not just my feet but my whole body’. But Jesus is saying that his disciples are clean already; because they have accepted Jesus’ word ….they have been reborn.  They don’t need the complete bath of baptism, but only the daily washing of the dirt that sticks to us as we live our lives, the daily confession and repentance of the sin that sticks to us, as we walk along the grimy streets of life.

If you have not yet accepted the gospel; if you are not yet reborn, now is the time to be washed through…. to start your journey as his disciple, but if you are a follower of Christ, then come to Jesus to remove by confession and repentance, the sin which we encounter in of our daily walk through life…..come and be clean, let Jesus wash your feet!


Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet

13 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 18 I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ 19 I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. 20 Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” 

 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 13:1–20). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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