A number of years ago, I was in New Orleans for a continuing education conference. I was in the hotel lobby, deep in conversation with a colleague after the evening session when we witnessed an interesting exchange.
A man who looked to be homeless shuffled into the lobby and approached the front desk. I don’t know if he was struggling with issues of mental health, or was chemically impaired, but I do know that he was agitated. Something was bothering him. He approached the young woman working at the desk and began to speak gibberish to her…quickly and loudly. Obviously well trained, she was polite, she maintained eye contact, and listened, nodded her head, while picking up the phone and dialing for security.
About 60 seconds later, the door behind her opened and a security person walked out. He was dressed in a maroon sportcoat and tie, and carried a cup of coffee. He was a big man. Really big. Big in the kind of way where I’m pretty sure that if he flexed his biceps, he would put dents in both walls of whatever hallway he was in. And he had a no-nonsense look in his eye.
I thought to myself “uh oh…this could get ugly.” The guard approached the man from the side, and firmly took him by the upper arm. The man turned to look at him and they made eye contact. The agitated man resumed his rant. The security guard smiled, ever so slightly, and put the cup of coffee, which I had wrongly assumed he was drinking, into the man’s hand. Together they turned, and the two of them slowly walked towards the main entrance. The man spoke gibberish, and the security guard continued smiling and nodding. Together they walked outside, and the security guard continued to listen to the words that he couldn’t begin to understand. Then the guard smiled, shook the man’s hand patted him on the shoulder, and returned inside, disappearing back behind the door. The security person handled the man with compassion, wisdom and respect.
And this story did not have the kind of ending that I expected. That’s true in a lot of the stories I’ve experienced.
There are moments in our lives when stories, our stories, take a turn, and the very thing that we least expect, happens.
It is through that filter that I want us to take a look at our Gospel story for today.
Our Gospel story is simple but is really important. It is a story that takes a significant and unexpected turn. And it is one that has shaped our understanding of grace, of love, and of the role Jesus plays within our hearts and minds.
It is a story that can be broken down into three equally important parts: I’ll call them: Jesus’ actions, Jesus’ call, and Jesus’ promise.
First, some context might be helpful: In the ancient world, people commonly washed their own feet. When guests arrived at someone’s home, feet covered with dust from the road, a good host would offer them a basin of water. The host would not wash the guests feet themselves, but instead would provide the water so that the guests could wash their own feet. If the host was wealthy, they might have a slave wash the feet of the guests. But it was understood that no free person would ever stoop to wash the feet of another free person. Hospitality meant offering water and perhaps the services of a slave. It did not mean doing the actual washing.
And so in that night, when Jesus was betrayed, his story took a turn. At this simple Passover meal, Jesus unexpectedly stood up, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist and poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet.
Using the most ordinary means, Jesus conveys the most extraordinary kind of love. Jesus, the Messiah, bows down, literally and figuratively lowering himself in order to serve.
This is a story that we are familiar with in the church. It’s a nice image, one that perhaps we even take a bit for granted…Jesus serving someone. But don’t underestimate the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ action. Jesus assumes the role of a slave to show the depth of his love for his disciples. In verse 1 John writes that: “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…” He loved them to the end.
So, when Peter clumsily objects to the foot washing, it is completely understandable. No self-respecting disciple would allow their Rabbi to wash the feet of his students. In verse 6, in a voice that we can imagine is full of disbelief, Peter asks “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus insists that Peter must change his understanding of what it means for Jesus to be savior, in order to have any part of the gifts Jesus brings. “Well ok then”, says Peter. “My feet…my hands…my whole self…”
Through this simple act of washing feet, Jesus is demonstrating his complete devotion, his unconditional love, to his disciples. It is a devotion that will take him all of the way to the cross. And of course, Jesus’ love is not limited to that small group. You too are God’s precious child, his disciple, and you are also the recipients of that same devotion. Total devotion. That is what Jesus did. Those were his actions.
Then, there is Jesus’ call: He is clear with his disciples that what he has done is not only a gift, but an example. Jesus asks the disciples “Do you understand what I have done for you?” He is asking the question: “Do you get it? Do you get what I am all about?” And he goes on to command them “you also should wash one another’s feet.”
Note the order of events: first Jesus acts, he washes feet…then he calls the disciples to wash feet. Jesus is intentional in first giving the gift, before commanding his disciples to give the gift.
This is significant. It reinforces this idea that is central to our faith: God always acts first with love and grace, and then we have the opportunity to respond to that. God acts, and then we respond.
God always leads with love and grace. Sometimes I’ll hear a brother or sister from a different Christian denomination ask the question “have you accepted Jesus into your heart?” My answer is always the same: “Well yes, but that’s not nearly as important as the fact that first, Jesus accepted me into his.” Jesus’ love has nothing to do with any decision that you do or don’t make. You get to choose how to respond to Jesus’ action, but you can’t choose whether or not to be given this gift. You don’t get to decide whether or not God loves you.
The directive to wash one another’s feet is a call to share the kind of love that Jesus gives first. The example of foot washing is a call to do what is needed; to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and care for the sick. Jesus calls us to translate love into service.
First, Jesus’ actions. Then, Jesus’ call.
And finally, then, Jesus’ promise: The story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples is one that foreshadows the journey that he will make to the cross for each of us. Jesus removed his robe and literally lowered himself to the feet of his disciples, taking on the role of a servant, and he does this on behalf of his disciples.
After his arrest, Jesus will again have his robe removed…he will be humiliated, lowered to the role of common criminal, and will be crucified. He does so because of his great devotion for his disciples, and for each of us. His death and resurrection bring us the gifts of eternal life and forgiveness of sins. He does this because of love. In this Last Supper, Jesus makes a promise that we experience every time we taste the bread and the wine: New life! Forgiveness! Love! It is a promise that will be fulfilled in the resurrection.
Jesus acts, Jesus calls and Jesus promises. What then is our role within this story?
First, we see Jesus’ actions: We recognize the grace of God embodied in the form of the man hanging on a cross. We understand, deep within us, the sacrifice Jesus was making, for each of us.
Then, we hear Jesus’ call, and like those disciples 2,000 years ago, we follow Jesus. We lower ourselves and serve as Jesus did.
And finally, we live into promise of this Gospel; that we are, in fact, those whom Jesus has called and that those who follow his story to the end are promised new life in this world and the next.
Tonight, Jesus acts, and Jesus changes our story. Through his love and devotion, through his example, and through his journey to the cross, Jesus loves in ways we can’t begin to anticipate. And Jesus calls us to love those around us in the same way; to echo his actions, his call and his promises. We live in and bring his love to all we encounter…we love with complete devotion, and we serve with complete devotion. Jesus calls us you, and me, to join him in living a story that takes an unexpected turn and surprises the world.
Remember those words from verse 1: “having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end…” He loved them to the end. This turn in the story is what Jesus does for us, and what we do within the world.
Love, to the end. We love to the very end.