...is still a week away, but I have been reflecting on the account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, found in John13:1-17. Jesus asks, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” I’m not sure that we have.
There are two common understandings of this passage, one concerned with ‘sin management’ and one concerned with service.
The first draws on Jesus’ exchange with Peter, centred on Jesus’ claim that “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean.” This is taken to refer to baptism and cleansing from sin, and the problem of ongoing sins, with confession and absolution a necessary and practical means of addressing that problem. Some think that at baptism, only those sins already committed are washed away – a deeply flawed theology of dying and rising with Christ. Others argue that being united with Christ decisively breaks the power of sin over us, but that we still struggle with the paradox Paul wrestles with in Romans 5-8. This struggle is real, but is it the thing Jesus wants his disciples to understand? Assuming that we already know what Jesus wants Peter (who will disown him, and will be restored) to know, we fail to notice the obvious:
the disciples’ feet are dirty because they have been following Jesus – because the dust thrown up by his feet has settled on theirs.
So unless Jesus has been leading them into sin, the ‘sin management’ interpretation misses the mark.
The second common understanding of this passage has to do with service. After the example of Jesus, we are to serve one another – not by washing feet (unlike sharing bread and wine, Jesus did not tell us to wash one another’s feet in remembrance of him), but in whatever ways are needed. And indeed, we should meet one another’s needs. But again, at best that isn’t an adequate understanding of Jesus’ point here, for again it fails to notice the obvious:
Jesus washes his disciples’ feet because Jesus got their feet dirty in the first place – and then tells them to do likewise.
Jesus washes his disciples’ feet not to demonstrate sin management or to demonstrate service per se but to model discipleship.
What would you do if God put all things under your power?
You might serve yourself. You might make others serve you. You might even choose to serve others. Jesus chose to initiate a movement.
To make disciples, and send them out to make disciples, teaching them to make disciples...
Jesus has called a particular group of people to follow him, to walk in his footsteps, to learn from him. He is fully committed to them: to ministering to them in the consequences of what he has called them into; and also to commissioning them to multiply exponentially what he has inaugurated.
When Jesus asks, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he is, surely, not simply referring to the previous twenty minutes or so, but to the whole sweep of the previous several years. This is the Gospel According to John’s parallel to Jesus’ parting words in the Gospel According to Matthew. “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”
Go and make other people’s feet dusty, and having done so, wash their dusty feet: in doing so, you are not only ministering to them but also commissioning them to be disciples who make disciples.
What does this look like?
As my wife and I have sought to follow Jesus, he has called us to follow him from place to place – for an extended season, with nowhere to settle long – and where we have led we have called our children to follow, to come with us. This has been an adventure, and we don’t regret it, but it has been hard at times. Right now we know that we will be moving on again, but we don’t know where we are moving to, and that is uncomfortable. In following me, my children’s feet have become dusty. I can chastise them for sitting down at the table with dirty feet, or I can get down on the floor and wash their feet.
That’s the first aspect, the need to attend to their weariness and irritations – and to not place undue burdens on them. And then there is the other aspect, commissioning them to call others to follow their lead – not to come with us when we move, but to carry on doing here the things they have done: befriending the friendless kid; picking up litter on the way home from school; taking responsibility for things that facilitate worship, where others are not forthcoming.