Our Scripture reading today came from Chapter 13 of the Gospel of John. Chapters 13 and 14 present a key scene in the life and ministry of Jesus. These chapters reflect the scene of Jesus’ final meal before his arrest and subsequent crucifixion. I think to help us understand this scene we should ask ourselves some questions. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, with whom would you choose to have your last meal? What would you want to talk about as you ate? What would you want to do for those who ate with you as a memory of that time together? Would you give them a gift? What bit of wisdom would you want to share? Your time is very limited. So, if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, with whom would you choose to have your last meal?
If we keep that question circulating in our mind, then we will have a better feel and perspective on today’s Scripture passage from John, Chapter 13. I invite you to join me for Jesus’ last meal by turning to that passage.
John began the scene this way, “1 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” John began filling in the answers to our questions about who was at the last meal. Jesus has chosen the people of his intimate circle of friends. John describes them as “his own.” This was a closed meal. It was not an American open house occasion where anyone can drop in to say “Hello,” have a bit to eat, and then leave. For Jesus, he wanted a very private last meal and John said Jesus’ main interest was to have next to him those whom he loved. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you have an open house or would you have a closed meal?
John continued, “2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.” We now see that two people understood that this was Jesus’ last meal. Jesus understood that to be the case, knowing that he would be arrested and put to death. The devil, working through Judas, someone Jesus loved, was also working to make this Jesus’ last meal. John was showing that this last meal was part of a cosmic battle between the powers of good and evil, Jesus and Satan, between light and darkness. This is monumental spiritual battle played out through human actors.
Human actors, Jesus’ loved ones, were also engaged at this moment in some very human behavior. If we looked for a moment at other accounts of this meal, particularly in the Gospel of Luke, we would read that at this point, “A dispute arose among them [Jesus loved ones] as to which of them was considered to be greatest” (Lk. 22:24). Can you relate to this scene? Have you ever been to a family dinner, hoping it would be a pleasant time, only to experience the sibling rivalries come into full bloom as to who is the boss of who?
We absorb this scene for a moment. Jesus was sitting their quietly, knowing this was his last meal. He was looking at those he loved. He saw Judas, eating from the same table. Jesus and Judas were both aware Judas would soon betray Jesus. That betrayal would ignite an epic spiritual battle. The others at the table were alternating between bites of food and arguments about their rising status as though they were vying for the senior vice presidency of a growing industry “Jesus Incorporated,” if you will. Jesus’ knew that time was running out. Soon, Jesus would yield his life for this group of argumentative and misguided friends. This group would need to carry on the work Jesus started and bring the message of hope across the world. This group would continue the epic spiritual battle of light and darkness, of hope and hopelessness, of life and death. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, and such chaos was present at your final meal, what would you say or do at this moment? Would you yell, “I am going to be dead tomorrow and all you can do is think about betrayal and who will be in charge?” Or perhaps we would just sit quietly and weep over this scene. Jesus knew death was soon and to make a lasting change on this group, he could not yell, he could not cry, he needed to do something loving, radical, redemptive, and memorable.
John continued, “3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
The noisy table talk ended abruptly in the silence of Jesus’ actions. Jesus removed his outer clothing, grabbed a basin and a towel, knelt before one of his friends and began gently washing and then drying their feet. John had said that Jesus “Having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end.” Jesus was loving his disciples by washing their feet. Gary Chapman, author of the book, “The 5 Love Languages,” wrote, “Almost instantly in a time of crisis, we hug one another. Why? Because physical touch is a powerful communicator of love. In a time of crisis, more than anything, we need to feel loved. We cannot always change events, but we can survive if we feel loved.” Jesus knew the crisis was coming for his friends and he wanted them to know that he loved them. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, how and to whom would you express your love?
The room remained very quiet. The only sound was that of Jesus moving and washing the feet of his friends one by one. Jesus then came with his basin and towel and knelt before Peter. John wrote in verse 6, “6 He [Jesus] came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7 Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8 ‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet.’” Peter, who on more than one occasion knelt at Jesus’ feet in recognition of Jesus’ holiness and being the Son of God could not imagine Jesus kneeling at Peter’s feet. Peter saw Jesus only doing the task of the lowliest servant. For Jesus to take the posture of the lowliest servant was too radical for Peter. Peter could not let Jesus remove the debris, dirt, and dust from his feet. Jesus’ action was radical. Jesus was reversing expectations. Jesus was good at doing that. When young people died, Jesus raised them from the dead. Outcasts, such as tax collectors and sinners were invited to repent and become part of the kingdom. Women, marginalized by society, were raised up into positions of prominence in the kingdom. Those who had little to give but gave were praised above those who gave from abundance. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would act in a radical manner toward your loved ones?
“Jesus answered [Peter], ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’” Peter thought for a moment. He wanted to be with Jesus and to be with Jesus more so than any other disciple. Peter responded, “9 ‘Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!’ 10 Jesus answered [Peter], ‘Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.’” Peter did not understand the radical nature of Jesus act was not about washing the dirt from the physical body. The washing of the dirt expressed in physical terms the spiritual battle Jesus was waging. Jesus was going to the cross to redeem his friends, to redeem you, and to redeem me from sin. The cross is an act of washing us clean of the debris, dirt, and dust of sin. Jesus told his friends, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” The later, the understanding of redemption, would come at the time of Jesus’ death burial and resurrection. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you want to redeem any relationships with those you love?
Jesus acted with love, he acted radically, and focused on redemption. The human arguing over who would be the boss ended. There was one more lesson Jesus wanted his intimate friends to remember. Verse 12, “12 When he [Jesus] had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. 13 ‘You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.’”
Jesus gave his disciples a powerful visual memory on that evening of that last meal. Jesus used the simple implements of a basin and a towel to show his love, his radical humility, and his desire to redeem his friends. Those who study human behavior tell us that we remember emotionally charged events better than any other event in our life. This last meal was an emotionally charged event. Behavioral scientists tell us pleasant memories and positive memories are better remembered with greater detail than unpleasant memories. Jesus used the basin and the towel to embed in the memory of the disciples a positive, encouraging scene to remember, for soon they would be struck by the disturbing and grotesque memory of Jesus nailed to the cross. For three days, thereafter, the disciples suffered Jesus’ absence. It was a hollow horror following his death. They experienced genuine pain of grief. I wonder, how many times the disciples quietly thought about the last meal they shared with Jesus and the washing of their feet.
We no longer wash the feet of our dinner guests. Occasionally, you might see a church hold a special service in which pre-selected individuals come forward for the pastor, priest, or pope wash their feet. In many cases, the washing of feet in the church has become a ritual aping what Jesus did. Jesus was not so narrow in his charge to his disciples that they might mimic his behavior. Jesus wanted his disciples, and he wants you and me to imitate his heart of his behavior and make it our own. How so?
First, Jesus wants us to recognize the message of love in the washing of his friends’ feet. With whom would Jesus want you to love? What is the basin and towel Jesus wants you to use with those people? What is the love language Jesus wants you to speak to those people? Is he calling you to speak words of affirmation to someone? Is Jesus calling you to speak words of encouragement to someone, kind words to another, and humble words to third? Are words the basin and towel you are to use today to love someone? Is Jesus asking you to spend time loving someone? Is he calling you to sit and talk with someone who is lonely, or hurting, or confused? Is Jesus asking you to give a gift to someone? Perhaps the gift is a poem you wrote, a colorful stone or piece of beach glass, or a bag of groceries to say, “Friend, you matter.” Is Jesus asking you to comfort someone with your tender touch? Perhaps a hug, handshake, or pat on the back is needed to encourage someone to do the next right thing, only there is no one to give that to them that touch of encouragement, except for you. The basin and the towel and the languages of love come in many forms. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you imitate Jesus and show love to others?
Second, Jesus wants us to be radical with our love. He wants us to come to him and ask for his Holy Spirit to empower us to help walk with others to reverse the challenges of life. It is radical to help those who cannot repay you. It is radical to stand up for those who have been marginalized by the world. It is radical to step out of the comfort of our lives and help carry the burden of another person. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you imitate Jesus and be radical for others?
Third, Jesus wants us to bring the message of redemption. Jesus said, as you are going through life, “make disciples… teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19, 20). Peter, who could not imagine Jesus washing his feet, later understood. Peter said, “In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pt. 3:15). If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you imitate Jesus and speak of redemption to someone you loved?
Love, acting radically, and speaking of redemption were all made memorable by Jesus through a simple basin and towel. Jesus knew he was going to die the next day. We do not know whether tomorrow is our last day or that we have many days ahead. Therefore, we should not wait to be loving, radical, and redemptive.
A poet explained it this way.
In an upstairs room, a parable
Is just about to come alive.
And while they bicker about who's best,
With a painful glance, He'll silently rise.
Their Savior Servant must show them how
Through the will of the water
And the tenderness of the towel.
In any ordinary place,
On any ordinary day,
The parable can live again
When one will kneel and one will yield.
And the space between ourselves sometimes
Is more than the distance between the stars.
By the fragile bridge of the Servant's bow
We take up the basin and the towel.
And the call is to community,
The impoverished power that sets the soul free.
In humility, to take the vow,
That day after day we must take up the basin and the towel.
With whom will you share your basin and towel? Let us pray.