Summary: Using the story of Jesus washing the disciples' feet, this is a call to simple, self-less service. The sermon also discusses Jesus' provision for our ongoing fellowship with him.
The Order of the Towel and the Basin
Textual Introduction: Jesus’ public teaching has come to an end. In the next few chapters, he will teach some of his most profound lesson to his small band of disciples, those who had been with him from the beginning, teach them during the few hours before the crucifixion.
Circumstances and schedules conspired to keep our youth from going on what has become an annual mission trip. I’ve had the privilege of going with them on each of their trips.
You’ve heard the stories of meeting Native Americans on the Cherokee reservation, of painting houses, of dealing with children in Bible clubs, of visits to nursing homes, of nightmarish bathrooms, of hordes of wasps; and, most recently, of angry rioters burning homes only a few blocks where we were staying. You haven’t heard as much about the evening worship times.
These were usually encouraging and often inspiring. Still, I always looked forward to the final night with a kind of dread. You, see the Thursday night meeting always concluded with a foot-washing service.
From our first trip to Cherokee we’ve asked the local leaders to make sure each person knew they had the right to decide for themselves if they would participate.
We’re we trying to be hard to get along with? I hope not. I think we were acknowledging that this passage has created some issues for Baptists over the years. Some of our fellow Christians are convinced Jesus was instituting a third ordinance, along with baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In fact, some Christian groups conduct a foot-washing service whenever they have communion. They believe the act is a sign of humility. One writer actually implied a congregation wasn’t healthy unless it practiced foot-washing.
The irony is these groups often believe they are being more humble than the rest of us.
Other groups focus on the cleansing Jesus speaks of and argue that foot-washing symbolizes our willingness to forgive the hurts and slights we may have received from that person whose feet we’re washing.
The fact someone has to go to such an effort to explain the rite probably means they’ve missed to point Jesus was making.
By the way, from what I can determine, the rite of foot-washing didn’t appear in the church until the fourth-century. Does this mean I believe any group of Christians who observe this practice is doing wrong? No. It does mean I believe the danger of missing the point of this story is very real.
As often seems to happen in John’s Gospel, there may be several levels of meaning in this account but ultimately I believe Jesus is calling those who believe in him to display a spirit of service.
Jesus had some final lessons to teach his disciples and he does so dramatically by providing a visual aid.
To do so he casts himself in the role of a servant. But, of course, this was nothing new. Paul reminded the Philippians that Jesus had conducted his whole earthly ministry in just such a servant spirit. Quoting what may have been an early Christian hymn, Paul says:
Your attitude should be the kind that was shown us by Jesus Christ, who, though he was God, did not demand and cling to his rights as God, but laid aside his mighty power and glory, taking the disguise of a slave and becoming a man. Christ humbled himself and he humbled himself even further, going so far as actually to die a criminal's death on a cross. (2:5-8)
Keep that in mind as we examine this story.
The Servant’s Example
In the ancient world most travel within a community and often from community to community was on foot. Even when a traveler was careful to bathe, his feet would inevitably become soiled and dusty from the roads. Most hosts made sure a servant stood ready to wash the feet of those who entered the home. This courtesy not only cleaned the dust from the feet but tended to refresh the traveler.
To omit this courtesy was highly irregular. Yet, as important as it was, washing another’s feet was considered a menial task, one to be performed only by a servant, a child, or your wife.
So, when the disciples gathered for what would be their last Passover meal with Jesus, no one offered to perform the duty of washing the feet of those attending.
The other Gospels tell us that the disciples had been debating about which one of them was the greatest so no one was about to do anything which might imply he was inferior to the others. Apparently, no one even felt compelled to wash Jesus’ feet because to do so might lead to the expectation that they would move on to wash their fellow-disciples’ feet. Consequently, the meal began with their feet unwashed.