This was an intense sermon to write. The text is so rich that I wanted to soak in as much of it as I could. I’ve looked forward to preaching on this for a while, and I finally had my chance. It’s a really poignant and powerful scene, as the Lord washes His disciples’ feet. I ended up doing a homily, where I walked the congregation through step by step and expounded as I went. The Gospel of John lends itself well to that, perhaps more than other Scriptures. I also aimed to tie in the Sacrament which Jesus instituted on this night, because that’s part of the source of the Church’s life — His Word and His sacraments.
Rather than multiply my own words, I’ll just let you ponder John 13 on your own, then read the sermon. Hopefully it leads you to greater awe and wonder at the love of a Lord who was willing to die for those He loved, and wash their feet too. May Jesus bless you on this Maundy Thursday.
“It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.
2 The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
10 Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (john 13.1-15, 34)
If you knew tonight was your last night on earth, what would you do? Maybe you wouldn’t do anything different. Maybe you’d have a nice dinner, spend some extra time with your family, do that last thing you’ve been meaning to get to but never have. Maybe you’d try and get as much as you possibly could out of your remaining hours. Maybe you’d live it up. Maybe you’d spend a quiet evening with an old friend or two, reminiscing and saying goodbye.
In our gospel for this evening, that’s the situation Jesus faces. In a matter of hours He will be betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane by Judas. That will start the long descent into suffering and humiliation that will end with His last ragged breaths from the cross, and a last triumphant shout of “It is finished!” Right now, it’s all in the future, but Jesus knows it’s close at hand. He knows His time has come: the time for His suffering and death.
So what will Jesus do with His last hours? He could reflect back on His life and ministry and hold forth to His disciples. He could go on and on about everything He’s accomplished, everything that is left to be done, how important He is as the Son of God and how grand and glorious His legacy will be. Jesus could act like any other celebrity in their last hours: surrounded by friends in a cozy setting, reminiscing about the good times and what a great job He did. That’s not what He does.
After the food is served and right before they’re about to eat, Jesus stands up, takes off His outer clothing, and wraps a towel around His waist. Then He fills a basin with water, walks over to the closest disciple, and kneels down. They’d all taken off their sandals on entering the room, and now Jesus takes the disciple’s dirty, sweaty foot in His hands, dips it in the water, and begins to wash off the dust and dirt. He washes the other foot, then He dries them with the towel. He stands up, moves over to the next disciple, squats down, and does it again, all the way around the room. He even washes Judas’ feet – the feet of His betrayer, the one who will send Him to death. He washes his feet along with everyone else’s. The only sound is the water dripping and splashing in the basin, and the soft rustling of the towel as Jesus dries their feet.
Look at the contrast that John paints for us: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under His power, and that He had come from God and was returning to God.” In just these few words John sums up Jesus’ entire life and ministry, all of who He was and what He did. Jesus had all things in His hands – life, death, the past, the future, they were all in those hands that washed His disciples’ dirty feet. He was God walking on earth, yet He did not refuse to do the most menial task of all. In just a short while He would return to God through the cross, but He’s not thinking of Himself here. He’s thinking of His disciples to the last. He loved them to the end. He wanted to leave them with one last lesson, indelibly burned into their minds.
None of the disciples had wanted to do this. This was a job for the lowest servant. They’d all arrived at the upper room, and after milling around for a short time nobody had volunteered, so they all sat down to eat. They’d all been too proud to volunteer. They were unwilling to humble themselves by playing the part of the lowest servant, and now Jesus, their Lord and their Teacher, had done it for them. How embarrassing! How humiliating. Most of the disciples stare at the ground. Some of their faces are red. A few exchange glances, like they can’t believe Jesus is doing this, but they feel like they can’t stop Him. Jesus always talked about serving others, the Son of Man did not come to be served to but to serve, and here He is, doing what He always talked about.
You don’t find this special kind of love just anywhere. You don’t find it anywhere, period. Sometimes we get close in a parent’s love for a child that leads them to change diapers and wake up in the middle of the night, but even that can’t really come close. Jesus’ love here is so amazing because it’s so selfless. He derives absolutely no benefit from what He does here. The disciples benefit, because their feet are clean and they have seen Jesus’ love for them, but they didn’t do anything to earn that love. Quite the opposite – Jesus does what He does here because they don’t love each other enough to serve one another.
Jesus shows us the true nature of a good work here. The best works are those that are done solely for the benefit of the other person. Your flesh wants to profit in some way, but if you don’t, then that shows that your good deeds really are pure and good, through and through. When we do something for someone else, we want to get something out of it. What’s in it for me, we ask. True serving love, like Jesus shows here, never asks that. It simply asks where the basin and the towel are.
It bothers me on a daily basis how little of this kind of love I see around me, in the world and even sometimes among ourselves – and how often I see that lack of love in my own heart. Shame on us. Jesus rebukes us here not with angry words or a loud voice, but with a simple, humble act of love. That’s almost worse, because it shows how much we lack.
Maybe that’s why Peter gets defensive. None of the other disciples speak up, but Peter’s hasty temperament shows itself again. He says to Jesus, “Lord, are You going to wash my feet?” He almost can’t believe it. This shouldn’t be happening! A little late for that, Peter, but at least he recognizes that this is the opposite of what should be.
Jesus’ reply has more meaning than Peter can know right then: “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” It’s like Jesus is saying, “Oh, Peter, this is just one part of why I’m here. This is about more than washing feet, Peter. It’s about My life for your life, My death for your death; My atoning for your sins before God. This is the simplest and clearest example of why I’m here. I came to wash you – not just to get the dirt out from between your toes, but to wash your soul of sin. I came to make you clean. You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
All this goes over Peter’s head. In his stubbornness he’s so worked up that he doesn’t stop to consider what Jesus is saying. He doesn’t seem to be listening. He says, “No, You shall never wash my feet.” In Greek what Peter says is more like, “Lord, You will never, ever wash my feet – ever! Ever!” He really does not want Jesus to wash his feet. He’s basically rebelling against Jesus here.
Jesus needs to get Peter to see what He’s actually doing here, so Jesus tells him, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with Me.” Jesus is talking about two kinds of washing: physical and spiritual. Peter is resisting the physical washing, and Jesus is gently reminding him that if he tries that with the spiritual washing, he will lose Jesus. It’s true for us too: None of us get clean without Jesus washing us. He washed each of us when we were brought to the font in Holy Baptism, and the water applied with God’s Word washed away our sins by giving us Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection as our own. His Word makes us clean every time we hear it and believe what it says to us. It has to be Jesus’ blood that covers your sin, Jesus’ righteousness to make you right before God – Jesus’ hands washing the dirt off your feet, or you will never be clean.
Peter hears what Jesus says, and it almost frightens him. He doesn’t want to lose Jesus. He goes too far the other way: “Then, Lord, not just my feet, but my hands and my head as well!” Make me all clean, Lord! Jesus reassures him, and us, that His washing is always there for us: “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean.” In other words: whenever you fall into sin and see how much you need Jesus, come back to Him and He will wash your feet. He will take away each day’s load of sin as quickly as you pile it on – forever. Take refuge in His love that forgives your sin. His washbasin is always full to make you clean again.
Jesus finishes washing their feet, then He puts His clothes back on and sits down again. All the disciples look at Him, their pride rebuked, their feet cool and clean, their attention on their Lord. He asks them, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” When Jesus asks this, at the time He’s talking about the foot washing. Now, we can apply it to everything that happens to Him during Holy Week. Just like He knelt down before His disciples, so He chose to humble Himself to life in this broken, angry, ruined world. Just like He laid aside His outer clothing and wrapped a towel around Himself, so Jesus willingly laid aside His glory, the glory of the One and Only, and wrapped Himself in human flesh. Just like He poured water into a basin to wash His disciples’ feet, so He poured out His blood on the earth to wash away our sins. As He wrapped the towel around Himself, so when He was lifted up on the cross the soldiers stripped off His garments and cast lots for them, and after He died, His battered body was wrapped in strips of clean linen with strong spices in between the layers – the only honor He received in His death. We see the love behind all of it here: it was all for us. Everything He did was for our benefit.
Jesus explains for us the meaning of His humble service: “Now that I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” It’s curious that when just about everybody can find some statement of Jesus to take literally, whether it’s supposed to be or not, hardly anybody takes this literally. Everybody understands that Jesus is talking about more than washing feet here. The pope washes feet every Maundy Thursday, and the kings of England used to wash feet on this day, but that’s more of a nice gesture than anything else. They stay pretty firmly in charge the other 364 days and 23 hours of the year. Jesus’ loving act was different. Real feet had real dirt on them, and He really washed them. It wasn’t a symbol; it was an act of service that came from His love for others. It was something that nobody else would lower themselves to do, yet He did it for those He loved.
So how do we serve others like Jesus does here? How do we wash feet? Do what nobody else wants to do. Do things that make you think at first, “This is beneath me.” Do things to help others, even when it’s not your job or your responsibility. Help others even when nobody says thank you or notices. Help others when there’s absolutely no benefit for you.
Don’t forget what else Jesus did on Maundy Thursday to help you. He instituted the Lord’s Supper. He gives us Himself to strengthen us, to cheer us, to give us energy for our task of loving one another. It’s in the Lord’s Supper that we receive the ability to love and serve one another as Jesus teaches us here. Any plan for Christians to love one another and serve one another that does not include the Lord’s Supper is incomplete. No matter how good your intentions are, they won’t go anywhere without Jesus’ help that comes in the Sacrament. We need to gather around the Lord’s Table before we can bend in service to one another and start washing feet. When you receive the Lord’s Supper, Jesus shows the full extent of His love to you all over again. So come to His Table tonight and be prepared for service – Jesus’ service to you, and your service to others. Let’s try our best to show the full extent of Christ’s wondrous love to each other. God help us in this. Amen.