Summit Presbyterian Church
April 21, 2011
Maundy Thursday - John 13: 1-17, 34b
The Great Unwashed
"You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand." Jesus tells this to Peter as he begins to wash his feet, and since that evening disciples of Christ have offered many interpretations of what he was doing - many different interpretations. One is that it's an act of humble service that we're called to emulate: Richard Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline (that we read during Lent) calls this the Ministry of the Towel. And/or it's an invitation to intimacy with Christ, and therefore with God (Perkins); some churches say it's a ritual of purification, for those sins we've committed after baptism; others, that it's a sign of welcome into the church family. Some churches - such as the Church of the Brethren - believe that Jesus ordered it to be done, along with baptism and communion; but most churches interpret it as an example of service, a symbol of fellowship with Christ, and do it only on Maundy Thursday with volunteers. Some churches know even that would be pushing it.
So, we don't fully understand or agree on what it means - partial understanding has to be enough. But scholars and theologians agree on this: it was an unusual, even shocking thing for Jesus to do. It was shocking because people either washed their own feet -- a host would provide water to guests - or slaves and servants did it. Masters did not wash the feet of their servants, Rabbis did not wash the feet of their students, Lords did not wash the feet of their disciples. So Peter was scandalized when Jesus bent down. Only when Jesus said Peter could have no share with him unless his feet were washed, did Peter agree. But Jesus went further: if he, as their teacher and Lord, became a washer of feet, they must also wash one another's feet. Perhaps that would put a stop to their bickering about who was greatest. But just in case they thought Jesus was turning the tables, just in case that thought that in this brand-new day slaves were now to become masters, or that students were to rise above their teachers, or that pigs werel to become farmers - if you remember Animal Farm - he points out that servants are not greater than their masters, nor messengers greater than the one who sent them. Everyone is part of the great unwashed. Everyone in Christ is called to be a foot-washer. As Richard Foster put it, Jesus didn't just reverse the pecking order, he got rid of it.
So the commandment to wash each other's feet is not only an instruction about what we're to do. It's a message about who we are. Equal before God. Different, yes, but utterly, absolutely equal. And if we're tempted to think that God must still do some ordering of human worth, if we're tempted to think that God must have some hierarchy of value based on how we behave, or based on what we believe -- we need to remember that Jesus didn't skip Judas. Jesus knew Judas was going to betray him, and in John he even told him to go do it -- but only after washing his feet. This is the new commandment: Love one another, said Jesus, as I have loved you. Amen.