We’ve been doing a sermon series going through the events of Jesus’ life in chronological order. And so, we’re up to the events of the last couple of days of Jesus’ life. Jesus has gathered the disciples to celebrate the Passover meal with him. This is the night of what we now know as the Last Supper.
It seems odd that John’s gospel is the only one that mentions Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. The others all have the Last Supper, but they don’t have this part. But it’s no less important for that, and the lessons it teaches us are no less important, either.
At various times, I’ve asked you to try to imagine yourself present at various Bible events. I’d like you to do that today. You’re in the room with Jesus. All the disciples are there with you. You’re eating a meal. Probably, given the timing of it, the meal you’re eating is the Seder, the ritual meal eaten in celebration of the Passover. It’s a very important meal in Jewish tradition.
You’re all eating this meal, and suddenly Jesus gets up. You probably notice that, but don’t think much of it at first. Then, Jesus starts taking his clothes off! He walks over to where there’s a towel and wraps that around his waist. He goes over to where there’s some water--maybe a pitcher, maybe a bucket, we’re not told where the water came from. Jesus pours some water into a basin. Then he goes around to each of the disciples, one by one, starts washing their feet, and dries them with the towel that’s around his waist.
Are you picturing this? Because to me, one of the most amazing things about this whole deal is that at this point, none of the disciples has reacted at all. None of them has said, “What are you doing?” None of them has said, “Why are you doing that?” None of them has said, “Here, let me help you.” None of them has said, “Jesus, wait a minute, you should not have to do that. We’ll find someone else.” They all just sit there. Maybe they were so taken by surprise they did not know what to say. Maybe they were scared to say anything. Maybe they were afraid they’d look stupid if they said or did anything. We don’t know why. But they all just sit there. Nobody saying anything. Nobody doing anything. They just sit there and let Jesus wash their feet.
Until he gets to Peter. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let me remind you what foot washing was back then. We’ve talked about this before, but think of the condition feet were in back then. People did not wear socks and shoes. Some people had sandals, but a lot of people went barefoot. And they did not walk on paved roads, either. They walked on dirt. Or sand. Or fields with plants on them. And there were animals around, so there were plenty of things to step in, if you know what I mean.
So feet were, for the most part, just plain ugly and disgusting. They were filthy. They were calloused. They had sores and blisters sometimes. Nobody wanted to have to handle feet like that. It was the one of the lowest, dirtiest jobs around. If you were the foot washer, you were about as far down on the list as you could be.
So Jesus is doing this lousy, dirty job. And the disciples just sit there and watch him do it. Until he gets to Peter. Jesus looks at Peter. Peter looks at Jesus. Peter cannot believe what’s going on. He says, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus says, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
Peter still cannot believe it. He thinks, I might not know everything, but I know Jesus--Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God--Jesus is not supposed to be washing people’s feet. So he refuses. He says Jesus will never wash his feet.
Jesus, of course, responds by saying, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” And Peter, on hearing that, responds in the most Peter-ish way possible. He says, “Well, then, not just my feet, but my hands and my head as well.”
John does not say so, but I have to think Jesus would’ve laughed at that. Maybe some of the other disciples laughed, too. It’s classic Peter being Peter. It also shows, though, that Peter still does not understand what Jesus is doing or why. And no one else there does, either.
Jesus goes around, washing everyone’s feet. Then he puts his clothes back on and sits back down. And he says, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.”
Jesus was telling them, and us, think about what I just did. You know who I am, and yet I did not try to hold myself out as any better than you. In fact, I held myself out as worse than you, because I acted like your servant. So none of you has any business acting like you think you’re better than anyone else, either. None of you should think you’re too good to serve others.
Do you remember when we did the sermon series on the Minor Prophets a couple of years ago? What was the thing God was always criticizing the people of Israel for? Arrogance. Thinking they were better than other people. Thinking they were better than God. Thinking they were so good they did not need God any more. They were arrogant, and their arrogance brought them down.
Now, hundreds of years later, it’s still a problem. Jesus is still trying to fight arrogance. He’s telling the disciples that they are not any better than anyone else, and they should not act like they are. They should be willing to serve others, just as Jesus has served them. They should act humbly, just as Jesus has acted humbly. They should show humility, just as Jesus has shown humility.
It is really easy for us human beings to become arrogant. We slide into it without even thinking about it. We slide into it without even realizing it. We slide into it with the best of intentions, sometimes. But we still have it. Any time we think we’re better than someone else, we’ve fallen into arrogance. Any time we think we’re more valuable than someone else, we’ve fallen into arrogance. Any time we think we’re more important than someone else, we’ve fallen into arrogance. Any time we think our feelings, our opinions, our wants, needs, or desires are better or more important than those of someone else, we’ve fallen into arrogance.
Now, that’s not to say that we should not recognize our own talents and abilities. It’s okay for us to realize that we’re better at some things than other people are. God has given each of us certain talents and abilities, and God wants us to use them. But the fact that I might be better than you at something does not mean I’m better than you as a person. You’re better than I am at a lot of things, too.
The point is that, in God’s eyes, we’re all equal. God does not have a rating system for our sins, and decide that some of us are lesser sinners than others. In God’s eyes, we’re all sinners in need of repentance, forgiveness, and salvation. And one of our goals should be to see people as God sees them, to the extent we can. That means we need to try to see all people as equal as well. Of equal value, of equal worth, and equally deserving of our love.
And of course, that includes people we disagree with. It includes people who don’t like us. It includes people who treat us like dirt. After all, this same Jesus who washed the disciples’ feet said that we are supposed to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He said that if someone takes our coat, we should give them our shirt, too. All of those people are equal to us in God’s eyes. And we need to see them as equal to us, too. Any time we don’t, we failing to do what Jesus told us to do.
Is it easy to do those things? Of course not. But look at the people whose feet Jesus was washing. They included Judas, who was going to betray Jesus. They included Peter, who was going to deny three times that he even knew who Jesus was. They included all the other disciples, who were all going to run away and abandon Jesus. And Jesus knew all that. Jesus knew exactly who the disciples were and what they were going to do. And yet, even though Jesus truly was better than any of them, he did not behave that way. He acted as their servant, and washed their feet.
Jesus told the disciples, “I have set an example for you.” He said, if I can do this for you, then you can do this for others. If I don’t consider myself any better than you, then you have no right to consider yourself better than anyone else.
When we’re tempted to think of ourselves as better than someone else--and we all are; when we’re tempted to think of ourselves as too good to do certain things--and we all are; when we’re tempted to feel arrogant and superior--and we all are; let’s remember the example of Jesus. Let’s remember that Jesus, the divine Son of God, gave us the ultimate example of humility.
The Apostle Paul told us that we are supposed to imitators of Christ. This is one of the best ways we can do that. Let’s do everything we can to practice humility. Let’s do everything we can to serve others. Let’s follow the example of Jesus Christ.