On Maundy Thursday, it is traditional to focus on the account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13””and possibly to re-enact this within a service. But in rushing to the final example, we miss the most important lesson, which comes in the middle, rather than at the end, of the passage.
But the key turning point is the puzzling interaction with Peter in the middle of the episode:
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” John 13.8”“10)
Once again, typical of John, Jesus is speaking metaphorically, whilst Peter is taking him literally, just as Nicodemus and others have done before (John 3.4). And, again typically, Peter doesn’t understand now, but will later””after the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit, who will lead them into all truth about Jesus’ meaning. The language of ”˜having a bath’ is similar to the common practice of bathing before a meal. But it has particular resonance with Jewish ritual washing, in a mikveh, which was then adapted to the Christian practice of baptism. Jesus is then contrasting the once-for-all act of baptism and the gift of salvation with the ongoing need to have Jesus serve us in the resource and equipping we need. In fact, unless we allow Jesus to wash our feet, we cannot wash the feet of others.
Christian discipleship is not simply about being nice to others and caring for them, important though that is (see 1 Tim 5.10) and despite what some politicians have claimed. It is, in the first instance, about allowing Jesus to serve us and wash our feet””giving us the spiritual provision we need day by day, above and beyond the service he gives in offering his life for our salvation.
We cannot pray without his empowering us in prayer; we cannot grow in holiness without his forming holiness in us; we cannot lead others to faith without the working of his Spirit; we cannot serve others without the service he offers to us first.
Giving service to others is a hard lesson in our selfish world. But receiving service from others””and in particular from Jesus, day by day””is the hardest lesson of all in our competitive, self-sufficient world.
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