Summary: Jesus’ coming as a servant is highlighted in his washing the disciples feet at the last supper
Well, it’s the day before Christmas. Tomorrow we celebrate the birth of God’s only Son who came to live among us. As the first chapter of John tells us: (John 1:14 NRSV) "the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth."
But what is it that we’re celebrating? What is the full significance of the incarnation, of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us? Today I want us to look at John 13 with that question in mind. Strange as it may seem to be looking at the last supper on Christmas Eve, I think we find here one of the great expositions of the significance of the incarnation.
So with that in mind, let’s have a look at the text.
The first thing we need to understand is the situation. Look at v3: "Jesus [knew] that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God." Jesus understands who he is. He knows the position he has before the Father. But of course what he is at this moment is only a pale reflection of what Jesus had been, even more perfectly, before he came to earth in the form of a human being. This is a theme taken up by Paul in his letter to the Colossians: (Col 1:15-17 NRSV) "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers -- all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together." Jesus was there at creation, bringing this world into being. He is the one in whom all things hold together. Without him life couldn’t go on. He’s pre-eminent in the whole creation.
But there’s more. Listen to what the writer to the Hebrews has to say along the same lines: (Heb 1:2-3 NRSV) "but in these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word." Jesus is God’s only Son. He bears the exact imprint of God’s very being. He is God incarnate, God made flesh.
So what Jesus is about to do has to be seen against that background. John wants us to recognise that the action that’s about to take place is carried out by one who is in every way equal with God and that he knows it.
So what is the action that takes place? "Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then 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 first takes off his robe. Now, you’ve probably heard that ’clothes make the man.’ In every society I can think of, clothes are used to demonstrate or to create status. For example, you can always tell when someone’s going for a job interview, because of the way they dress up for the occasion. At university ceremonies, the staff always put on their academic hoods to show the type of degree they have. In the 70s & 80s when women started to move into the business world they developed what was known as ’Power Dressing.’ And so forth. So what Jesus does here in taking off his outer robe, signifies a change in status. He takes off the clothing of the teacher and puts on the clothing of a servant. He ties a towel around his waste so that when he’s washed the disciples feet he can more easily wipe them dry. Never mind the fact that his makeshift apron is going to be soiled by the grime he wipes from their feet. That’s the lot of a servant.
The significance of all this isn’t lost on the disciples. Peter, always the impetuous one, always the spokesperson, stops him. There’s no way he’s going to let Jesus demean himself by washing his feet. He understands Jesus status. He knows where he fits in the order of things. So he naturally recoils from the idea of Jesus becoming his servant. But the trouble is, he hasn’t understood the significance, the meaning behind what Jesus is doing. Jesus replies with this warning: "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." This simple act of washing contains within it such meaning that for them to refuse to partake, will rule them out of the blessings of being part of Jesus Kingdom. There’s something of a parallel here with the Pharisees who refused to accept the type of Messiah that Jesus was. They didn’t like the unseemly way he behaved, the sorts of people he associated with. But their rejection of his lifestyle and teaching resulted in them missing out on the blessings he came to provide. [Just as an aside, this might be a warning to us as well. Are there activities that we recoil from because they appear to be unseemly to our conservative Protestant cultural mindset, but which in fact might lead to the growth of God’s kingdom? Do we miss out on something when we fail to take up opportunities that Jesus would have availed himself of if he’d been here? It’s worth asking ourselves that question whenever we find ourselves worried about some activity that’s being proposed for St Theodore’s. But let’s move on.] So Jesus warns Peter and the others to accept his humble service of them even if it does make them feel uncomfortable. Why? Because of what lies behind his actions.