"Foot Washing Reconciliation" on John 13.1-17 by Joe Ellis — July 10, 2022
Before we jump right into this passage, let me first explain why we are reflecting on this particular passage this Sunday. We have been going through the fruits of the Spirit, which are a list of character traits that the Bible teaches us we grow into, as we continue walking with God. The list is love, joy, peace, patience (or long-suffering), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but they’re helpful to reflect on in any case. Last week we talked about long-suffering. This week we are talking about kindness and goodness. I’m doing two at once because I want to finish this series before going on vacation, and one commentator said that kindness and goodness are often synonyms in the Old Testament. So, I thought that this Sunday I’d hit two birds with one stone and cover two fruits in one sermon. We’re getting a little crazy here this Sunday.
The reason why I chose the story about the ‘foot washing’ is that the same commentator, Gordon Fee, said, “if long-suffering means not to ‘chew someone’s head off’, kindness means to find ways to actively show mercy to them, to take a towel and wash basin in hand and wash their feet.” So, I thought let’s reflect on this passage to explore what it looks like to approach each other with goodness and kindness through foot washing.
Let’s start with looking at verses 12 to 15 in John 13. After washing the disciple’s feet, Jesus says, “Do you know what I’ve done to you? You call me ‘Teacher and Master,’ and you’re right. That’s what I am. Well, then: if I, as your master and teacher, washed your feet just now, you should wash each other’s feet. I’ve given you a pattern, so that you can do things in the same way that I did to you.”
Jesus has given us a pattern. You know what a pattern is. Michelle follows patterns for sewing and needlepoint and it makes a beautiful bag or picture. It makes a particular bag, and a particular picture. That’s why you follow a pattern, so you can make something particular. You could think of music notes written for the piano as a pattern. You follow that pattern, you practice that pattern in order to create an especially beautiful and particular piece of music. In washing the feet of His disciples, he has given the pattern. And Jesus tells us in verse 17 that those who follow this pattern will flourish. (Blessed also translates as flourish.)
Jesus is saying that if you want to know how to flourish as a human being, you will want to follow this pattern of serving each other in humility, kindness, and goodness. You serve each other by taking on those roles sometimes in secret, sometimes in humiliation, and sometimes in sacrifice — serving each other in ways that you would rather not do. Yet, Jesus says that if you follow this pattern, you will flourish, and that you will flourish in a particular way. Just as following a particular pattern produces a particular piece of music — following Jesus’ pattern produces people who resemble Jesus. You look like the pattern that you follow. So if you follow Jesus’ pattern, you will resemble Jesus. Jesus tells us that as we follow his way of washing feet, by humbly doing goodness and kindness to others, we shall flourish in his likeness.
Now, as I talked with various people about the idea of foot washing for the service, so many people remarked about how intimate this action was. So let’s try it out. I’m going to invite you to start gently rubbing the person’s foot who’s sitting next to you. Not really, I’m kidding, that’s too intimate. Let’s just take turns squirting hand sanitizer on each other’s hands. That’s much more reasonable. Of course I’m joking, but the joke shows how intimate this can be.
Washing feet is not serving people at arms length. It’s not giving money to help people on the other side of the world, as important as that is. Our showing goodness and kindness to others needs to be as personal as touching stinky, sweaty, filthy feet. Serving others means that we can’t help get involved in their life on the foot level, going where we’d rather not go.
A while ago, I heard about a study that said that things are less gross the more intimate we are with the person. Changing your own loved one’s diaper is easier than changing a stranger’s diaper. So maybe this foot washing thing was just an activity for the closest disciples of Jesus. People who had bonded well, who knew each other well, who loved each other well. Maybe that is the only sort of context that can handle this sort of intimate act of service. It’s true, John opens this chapter by telling us that Jesus loved his disciples right through to the end. But, I want you to notice two of the disciples that Jesus washes.
First, notice that Jesus washes Peter’s feet. Notice that Peter is scandalized that Jesus would do so. It’s not as shocking for us today because humility is a value that is widely recognized as a good thing and we’re so familiar with this story. But humility is only cool because Jesus made it cool. Before Jesus, humility was not a value. The surrounding culture did not consider humility a virtue. So Peter is scandalized and responds the same way as when he hears Jesus say that he will be crucified. “Surely not, Lord!” This is important. In following Jesus’ pattern, you cannot only serve people who are going to understand and receive what you’re doing. Sometimes people will be uncomfortable. Sometimes people will be thinking that you should be doing the exact opposite. Sometimes people will criticize you and reproach you. “Surely you should not be doing that!” But, Jesus shows in washing the feet of your brother or sister, we do so despite the potential that they’ll misunderstand your actions. When you do so, you will flourish. It’s like Jesus says in the ninth beatitude in Matthew 5:11-12: “Flourishing (Blessed) are you when people slander you for my sake — there’s a great reward for you in heaven”. You wash people’s feet, even when they won’t understand what it is you are doing and might reject you because of it. That’s the way of flourishing.
Notice the other disciple mentioned by name whose feet Jesus washes. Jesus washes Judas’ feet. Verse 12 tells us that Jesus washed Judas’ feet, even though he knew full well that Judas was going to betray him. Jesus did not wash the feet of Judas to try and get Judas to change his mind about what he was going to do. Jesus did not wash Judas’ feet for any purpose other than to serve him with goodness and kindness. Elsewhere in Matthew 5:44 Jesus said, “Love your enemies. Pray for people who persecute you.” In Matthew 5:39-41, he said, “When someone hits you on your right cheek, turn your other one towards him. When someone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your cloak, also. When someone forces you to go one mile, go a second one with him.” Love your enemies. In washing Judas’ feet, Jesus isn’t telling us what to do, he is showing us what to do: “When someone is going to betray you and hand you over to be killed, wash his feet.”
So, we aren’t simply to follow Jesus’ pattern and wash the feet of people who are ‘like us’. We don’t just wash people’s feet who will know, understand, and pat us on the back. People who will reward us in some way, by either doing us good or by stop doing bad to us. We are to wash the feet of our enemies and the feet of those who simply don’t get what we’re doing and think we’re stupid for trying. It’s kind of like Jesus said in Matthew 5:46, “If you love those who love you, do you expect a special reward? Even Tax Collectors do that, don’t they? If you greet only your own family members, what’s so special about that? Even Gentiles do that, don’t they?” If you only wash the feet of your friends, what’s so special about that? If you only bring baked goods to your friends, do you expect a special reward? If you only call your family members to check in, what’s so special about that? Of course we are to serve, love and care for our friends and family. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Jesus calls us to a deeper way of flourishing — he calls us to wash the feet of our enemy, to wash the feet of those who don’t agree with us.
Now, about foot washing — this certainly is for us a symbolic action. It doesn’t work for us to literally to wash someone else’s feet. Most of our feet aren’t that dirty, although I wouldn’t mind having my toenails clipped every now and again. Jesus calls us to symbolically follow this pattern of feet washing. just as Jesus later calls us to symbolically follow this pattern when he says in Matthew 16:24, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” Follow his pattern of doing goodness and kindness to others, especially when it means death to our own desires, death to our own inclinations, advancement and life. That’s generally what it means to follow the pattern of foot washing and cross carrying. Serving others in ways that involve dying to self. Ironically, Jesus tells us that’s the way to flourishing. Dying doesn’t end up with more death. Dying is the way to flourishing.
So, now let’s get more specific. How is God calling us to follow his pattern of foot washing and cross carrying in this season? Really, all of Jesus’ life and teaching are instructions on how to foot wash. That’s why we so often focus on Jesus’ life, why we meditate on his actions — Touching and healing the unclean, advocating for the poor to be respected, rebuking those who ‘do religion’ for show. There are many ways we could explore what it looks like to wash feet, but today I want to focus in on one specific way.
Over the past two years of Covid, we’ve all ended up with real stinky feet. We’ve been judged and we have judged. We’ve been rejected and we have rejected. We’ve felt angry and we have angered. We’ve felt scared and we have scared. We’ve felt persecuted and we have persecuted. This is an opportunity to wash each other’s feet — through reconciliation.
Jesus says in Matthew 5:23-24, “When you’re coming to the alter with your gift, and there you remember that your brother has a grievance against you. Leave your gift right there in front of the altar, and go first, and be reconciled to your brother. Then come back and offer your gift.” In other words, resolve your conflict. Unresolved conflict gives everyone stinky feet. It can smell terrible, and everyone in the room smells the stench. We’ve all smelled it, and we’ve all sat around in a room trying to pretend the room doesn’t stink.
Let’s wash each other’s feet this season. Think of someone who has been on the other side of the fence these last two years — Go, wash their feet. Not literally, but seriously. For many of us, it probably has been two years since you’ve seen some of your friends who were once your friends. Go. Wash their feet. Listen to them. Listen to their convictions, their hurts, their attempts at being righteous, and their heart for God in that time. Listen in order to understand, and by doing so, wash their feet. Ask the Holy Spirit right now to reveal who you need to reach out to. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to reveal what it looks like to wash feet through the holy act of listening.
Maybe the Holy Spirit is revealing a different sort of reconciliation that needs to take place. Maybe it has to do with a serious family conflict. Go, wash their feet. Jesus tells us not to wait — a week can turn into a month, into a year or two, which can turn into twenty and we’ll look back and be shocked at how estranged we became. Go, make preparations to wash their feet this very day, if not today, at least this week. Seek reconciliation right now. As with Peter, you may not be understood. As with Judas, you may be betrayed. None of that stopped Jesus.
Perhaps, the Holy Spirit is calling you to reconcile with a stranger. To listen, to understand, to perhaps even ask forgiveness. Go, wash their feet. A friend of mine once pursued reconciliation with a stranger after yelling at the person’s dog.
All this stuff can result in stinky stuff. Listening, understanding, giving and receiving forgiveness, this washes away the stink and leaves us feeling so fresh and so clean.
This is one of a thousand ways to live out washing each other’s feet. Washing feet is a life imitating the goodness and kindness we see in Jesus’ words and actions. In this season, the Holy Spirit has provided us ample opportunity to practice the art of foot-washing through reconciliation. This is such a gift! Let’s not miss it. Reconciliation is a powerful way of practicing the foot-washing pattern that Jesus shows us. So, let’s practice these things for real. Practice makes perfect. Let’s practice being Peacemakers and we’ll be called children of God. Perhaps we need to start small. Perhaps, as we are faithful in smaller acts of foot-washing, we will learn how to do bigger acts of foot washing. We may learn how to wash the feet of people who have seriously hurt us, seriously misunderstood us, seriously slandered us, perhaps even persecuted us. Love your enemies. Pray for people who persecute you. Wash their feet. Bake them bread. Give them cookies. Buy them coffee. Call them to check in and listen to them. This is Jesus’ pattern for flourishing, and as we follow His pattern, we will be like Him, and we will flourish.