Reflections on Passover and the washing of feet

One would understand if Jesus were done for the evening, without taking on the added responsibility of washing everyone’s feet.

I would submit to you that the symbolism of the night was complete without adding anything to it. Here is Jesus, serving the Seder supper. He is the Passover Lamb. He has gotten Himself to Jerusalem at the proper time. He is about to be handed over to Pilate. He is here, in the upper room sharing that Seder Supper, with all of its symbolism – about Himself – with them. He has said “this is my body, which is given for you” and “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). You would think that it would be enough. It would be okay now for Jesus to recline and rest now – for the upcoming battle. But it was not to be, He was not finished. In His sovereignty, Jesus adds something to the moment that moves beyond the Old Testament symbolism of the Passover and shows us how we are now to act toward one another.

For a dispute has risen among them (not the first time) as to which one is the greatest (Luke 22:24). Don’t miss the irony of this. Amidst all of this symbolism about Jesus and the entire history of the Jewish Faith focusing in on this moment like the sun through a magnifying glass, and burning a hole in history, right here, right now, they are arguing amongst themselves as to who is the greatest. One would certainly understand if Jesus were just to flee to prayer in frustration right there and then. Instead he “rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, he tied it around his waist.” (John 13:4).

Jesus was taking on the characteristics of the lowliest servant. He was making a point in a way that only He could make it. I’m reminded of a recent episode with my son Ben, who is now 8 yrs old. I had encouraged, exhorted, corrected, on this one point for a long time with seemingly no change in his behavior. One day I said in frustration “I’m not getting through to you!” Well shortly after that we had another situation in which I applied some pretty unique discipline. Later that night, Benny said to me “Dad, you know how you’ve been saying that you’re not getting through to me?” “Yes…..” I answered slowly – he really had my attention now. “Well, tonight, you got my attention,” he said quite sincerely. I was shocked. I had no idea that this would be the time that I finally got through to him. In my exhaustion, I chose a unique way to carry out his correction and in so doing, I finally “got through to Him”. I have to believe that this is part of Jesus’ motivation here in wrapping a towel around His waist and washing the disciple’s feet. I believe the mere fact that they were arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest just after the Passover supper may have produced despair in Jesus. Father, how can I teach them this the most important point of all? Did Jesus ask that of the Father? We’ll never know, but I think that something like that may have transpired.

As Jesus begins to wash the disciple’s feet, He comes to Peter. In the memorable exchange, Peter first says that Jesus cannot wash his feet. Jesus then answers that if He does not wash Peter’s feet, then Peter “can have no part in Him”. Peter then pulls the fastest 180 degree turn in the Bible and asks Jesus to wash not only his feet, but his hands and his head too! Jesus explains, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean” (John 13:10). While I don’t pretend to know the full meaning of this scripture, I can tell you what it means to me. I believe that Jesus is telling us that we “are clean” from our sins because of His work of redemption. Because Peter was “clean” in this way Jesus did not need to wash his head and his hands – rather only his feet were “dirty”. Our feet are the part of us that touch the ground, which come in contact with this earth. In the days of dirt roads and sandals, you could take a bath and walk to someone’s house and be quite clean and yet still need to have your feet washed from the journey. In the journey, the part of us that comes in contact with the earth can become quite dirty, even though we are “clean” elsewhere. Do you see the spiritual metaphor here? We are clean because of the redemption of Christ and we do not need to be “re-cleaned” ever. There is however a part of each of us as Christians that comes into contact with this world that “get’s dirty”. We live in a dirty, dirty place and in our journey through it the part of us that comes in contact with the world often gets dirty. Thus, we must wash each other’s feet with acts of service and in humility in order to cleanse this part of our souls. When Jesus was finished washing the disciple’s feet, he asked “do you understand what I have done for you?” (John 13:12) That question still stands today: “do we understand what Jesus has done for us?” Jesus then went on to say “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done to you.” And so there it is. Jesus, our Lord and master was willing in that moment to take on the position of the lowliest servant and do the humiliating task of washing feet and then He states that we should do likewise. His theme is clear throughout John chapters 13,14,15,16, and 17 – Love. It seems to me that He is saying, you are about to need to love one another more than ever. He was leaving, they were about to face unimaginable challenges, and Jesus spends His last hours with them teaching them on service, oneness, and love. Could His message to us be more clear? We are to love one another in service and unity

One must understand the positioning of the foot washing in the timeline of the ministry (and indeed the Passion) of Christ. This was one of His very last acts of ministry. This wasn’t Jesus going through a mental checklist of things He had intended to do: “Let’s see, fast 40 days (check), temptation (check), healing (check), foot washing – ah yes, well I do have time to fit that in yet tonight.” No, this was Jesus in some of His last hours with His disciples showing them what was most important! In fact, in John 13:34, Jesus issues a new commandment. “Love one another, just as I have loved you.” “By this, all people will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Wow. We are to love one another just as He has loved us? Furthermore, this will be the manner in which “all people” will know that we are His disciples? This statement cannot be taken lightly. Jesus then repeats this command in John 15 verses 12 and 17. Shortly after this, Jesus prays in John 17 that the Father would protect us (vs 15) and that He would sanctify us (vs 17) and that we (all believers to follow) would be one so that the world would believe that He was sent from God (vs 21).

Jesus wants us to love one another, and He wants us to be one. I believe that this is His fondest hope for us as His followers. It was so important to Him that He added to the symbolism of the Passover supper something that had never been there before and He made it a priority to preach it to His disciples in His last hours with them. But so much more than that, it is what defined His life with us. His act in coming to earth to save us, His time with us, and all of His examples to us can be summed up in Love. His love for us is what sets us free to love one another (even as He loved us). Because He paid the price for you and for me, we don’t have to keep score any more. We’ve each been redeemed by the precious blood of the lamb. Let us now take the bread and the wine with a new understanding of our responsibility to love one another and a renewed commitment to do just that – so that the (North Coast of Honduras – and indeed the) world will know that we are His disciples. Amen.