“The Shape of Love”
Maundy Thursday - March 28, 2018
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then 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. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean."
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
"Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Love is expressed through humble, hospitable service, like washing someone’s feet. In Jesus’ day, washing feet was a sign of hospitality. Almost everyone wore open-toed sandals. It was dirty outside on the streets, especially in a busy city like Jerusalem. (Remember the underground sewage system was not nearly as well-developed then as it is in our cities.)
When you returned home at the end of the day, it was normal to wash off your feet before you track in the dirt and smells of the streets into your house. When you entered someone’s house as their guest, it was customary that the host would provide someone to wash your feet for you. In most homes, this would be a chore for one of the children. In wealthier homes, a slave or hired servant would wash guests’ feet.
For some reason, on Passover night in the house where Jesus arranged to dine, no one had offered to wash feet. Perhaps the host wasn’t present. Maybe the twelve had rented this space and were supposed to arrange for it themselves, and forgot to hire or ask someone to. But as they entered the meal, it would have been obvious within a few minutes that something was missing. The room was full of the aroma of their delicious festive meal… but it also smelled like stinky feet.
And in this culture, you didn’t sit on chairs at formal dinners like the Passover. You lay down on the floor around the food which was placed on a mat or very short table. Everyone laid on his left said and reached out for food with his right hand, and they’d recline like this in a large circle. That means that the stinky feet aren’t neatly tucked away underneath a table. They’re away from the food, but you’re all laying down where you were standing.
So they all somewhat awkwardly gather around the table. The food is ready and dinner is beginning. People settle down and start to eat. And they all must be thinking, When are we going to wash our feet? I thought you were gonna get someone to do that for us. C’mon, Matthew! I can’t believe you forgot again! (I’m not sure it was actually Matthew. I’m just making that up.)
But they all gingerly begin to eat, hoping that if they collectively ignore the problem it will just go away. And finally, Jesus gets up from dinner, ties a towel around his waist, fills a basin of water, and starts going around the table to wash everyone’s feet. If no one’s gonna do it, then I’m going to.
The disciples and other guests must be shocked. Again, this is a slave’s job. And the people in the room, at the very least, believe Jesus is a remarkable, respected teacher, if not also the Messiah and Son of God. What is he doing stooping down to do this dirty work? In fact, the Twelve probably feel a little ashamed that their teacher and master has done this dirty chore when one of them could have done it (since they’re all probably younger than Jesus). So Peter responds like you’d expect: “You will never wash my feet!” This is uncouth. This is wrong. I’m ashamed to let you do this, Lord.
But Jesus’ reply is important: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me. … Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
The Son of God and Lord of the Universe humbled himself again, taking the form of a slave. This time he did so pretty literally for his disciples. Like a good teacher, he showed them how they ought to behave, rather than just telling them. To be a follower of Jesus, sometimes we need to stoop down and give up our privilege to address someone else’s need. Jesus held the needs of his friends and his community higher than his own pride.
Jesus later teaches, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
He doesn’t mean this abstractly. Love isn’t just a nice thought. There is a shape to Christian love. And the shape is servanthood. It’s giving others what they need even if it costs us something. It’s humble and it’s kind. It resists pride and self-aggrandizement. Jesus is willing to stoop down for us, and calls us to do the same for one another. That’s how people will know that we are his disciples.
"They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know that we are Christians by our love." ("They'll Know We Are Christian" by Peter Scholtes)