Washing One Another's Feet
Readings: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15
Passover is one of the most important religious festivals in the Jewish calendar. Jews celebrate it to commemorate the liberation of the Children of Israel who were led out of Egypt by Moses. It is an age-old celebration dating back to about 1300 BCE.
The story of the Passover is told in the Book of Exodus. The Children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for over two hundred years. God promised to release them from slavery, but not before Pharaoh had refused their release and God had visited ten plagues on Egypt to demonstrate God’s power. It is a celebration of freedom, not just in Biblical times, but throughout history. Jews believe freedom to be one of the basic human rights. Jews living under oppression often use the Passover as an expression of their own desire for freedom.
Like the Christian celebration of Lent, Passover marks springtime. It is a time for the Jewish people to do some serious Spring cleaning. It symbolises hope, new life and the importance of starting afresh. It is a pilgrim festival, one of the three occasions in the year when, according to the commandments of the Torah, Jews were to go to the Temple in Jerusalem.
So it is little wonder that Jesus and the disciples decided to celebrate by eating the Passover meal together. They made arrangements for a place, a room in the upstairs of a house. The traditional meal was laid out on the table. But before the meal began Jesus took a bowl, a jug full of water and a towel. He went down on his hands and knees before the disciples. He washed all of them, one by one, lovingly and thoroughly. As he washed their feet he looked with eyes full of love and tenderness at the faces of those whose feet he was washing.
It was an unexpected gesture, for here was the rabbi, the teacher, doing the work of the slave. Washing their feet was Jesus’ final lesson to his disciples. It was the only way to teach them the reality of the gospel. He washed the feet of the ones who loved him unquestioningly. He washed the feet of the ones who would run away when times became difficult. He washed the feet of the one who would deny that he even knew him. He especially washed the feet of the one who would betray him.
He needed them to know that for them authority was to be a form of service. No one should be allowed to rule who had not first proven that he could serve. He did not demand that they look up to see God. He knelt in front of them so that they looked down on him. He put himself in the posture of the powerless, unliberated and helpless. He needed them to know that it was down on the floor in service that they would see God. Down there on the floor in service was where they would be the Church.
In that gesture, Jesus washed the feet of all of us, believers and unbelievers, old and young, saints and sinners, pimps and women of the street, bishops and lay people, rulers, rich and poor, filled and hungry, dressed and naked. He looked us in the eye, each one of us, calling us to be his hands and his feet in the world. He gave us a model of what we should do to each other, washing each other’s feet, breaking bread together, sharing with all of humanity, until he is with us in God’s realm.
What can turn the tables on us? What can help us to live out our call? Our Diocesan Bishop, Colin told the story of his daughter Rachael, serving as a nurse in South Africa. The day before her twenty-fourth birthday she spent the night holding a child dying of AIDS. She prayed, she said, trying to think of the prayers that her father might pray in such a situation. She prayed out of love and compassion so that a dying child would know in those last few hours of her life that she was loved. She did it because she knows that we are all called to servant ministry. She did it to be Christ in a world of tragedy and suffering.
What kind of a world would we live in if we lived with that kind of compassion. Whose feet would we wash? What if the wealthy washed the feet of orphans and widows, if the powerful washed each other’s feet? If we were servants, as Christ served us and gave himself for our sakes? Is that how we too will bring the gospel to the world?
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