It’s said actions speak louder than words. And yet actions can sometimes be ambiguous without some words of explanation. That was true when Jesus started to wash the feet of his disciples (John 13)—they didn’t know how to take it. And so he explained what he was doing.
Pay attention to what the text says about when Jesus washed their feet. According to verses 2 and 4 it was, depending on your translation, either during or after supper. I’ve heard sermons in which the preacher said that Jesus washed their dirty feet—that he did what a servant should have done for them, but for some reason didn’t. And some people, taking this to its logical extreme, say the symbol doesn’t work now, because we don’t come in sandaled feet caked with the dirt of the road—they say we should wash hands, or polish each other’s shoes, or do some other practical service.
But Jesus didn’t do this before they sat down to supper. He did it after they’d started eating. Dirty feet were washed when the guests arrived, before they reclined on the couches to eat. But Jesus did it later, showing clearly it wasn’t about dirty feet. He wasn’t demonstrating hygiene to them. He was engaging in a symbolic action–and he explains it, to make sure they understand.
On one level, it’s a lesson in love and humility: he’s telling them yet again that they shouldn’t argue about who is superior to whom, but should kneel and wash each other’s feet.
But there’s more to it than that. In verse 8, Jesus says to Peter when he objects: “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” Peter then says to him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” And Jesus responds, “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.”
It’s a lesson about the necessity of forgiveness. Without forgiveness of our sins, without the washing of baptism, we can have no part with him. But once we’ve been baptized, once we’ve been washed, we don’t need to go through it again. It’s enough to have our feet washed.
I think we abuse baptism when we rebaptize people every time they have a new experience of God’s love. We cheapen it, and belittle it, and rob it of its significance. Baptism is the beginning of our walk with Christ. It’s our death and rebirth. It makes us a child of God. Now, as we go forward in that new life, we may stumble and fall—but these don’t negate our experience with Christ. We don’t need to be rebaptized. We just need at such times for our feet to be washed, and to get up and continue on our way.
We come to this ordinance now, remembering our baptism. Remembering that we are children of God. But we coming confessing we are sinners. We have stumbled. We have sinned against him and against each other, by things we have done, and things we have left undone. We have not loved him with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We need to hear the twofold message of 1 John 1:8-9
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
That’s the meaning of this first part of this service. It’s a time to confess our sins—to God, and, if we need to, to people here. And it’s a time to hear afresh the good news: we are washed. We are cleansed. We are forgiven. By the blood of Jesus Christ, and by the washing of water.
[The second part comes after returning from washing each other’s feet]
Jesus gathered with his disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover, the great feast remembering God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt. As celebrated by the Jews through the centuries, Passover is not a somber commemoration. It’s a feast of victory. It’s a time to rejoice in God’s salvation. It’s a time to tell the story of his mighty acts, and to praise his name. There is singing and feasting and joy.
We don’t know what all they did and said in those days—the Passover as celebrated by Jews today was developed in the Middle Ages. In Jesus’ day it was probably a simple ceremony, fulfilling the basic requirements of Scripture: eat the lamb with bitter herbs and unleavened bread, telling the story. While they were eating he took the bread—the bread of affliction—he blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them saying, “Take and eat; This is my body, given for you.” And after supper he took the cup, gave thanks, and said, “Drink from it all of you; For this is my blood of the new testament, shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
They didn’t know what this meant. They couldn’t believe what he said about having to suffer and die. It was only in light of his passion and his death and resurrection that they understood.
“Do this in remembrance of me,” he said. And the disciples did that in years to come. But when they came together it was not as it had been that night. It was not to mourn and sorrow and mutter in confusion—for the darkness of that night was dispelled by the light streaming from the empty tomb.
That’s the light that illuminates what we do here and now. We remember his death, his gift of himself. But he is not dead. Christ is risen, and is here with us. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” He is here to bless and to forgive. He is the host of this supper, at which all are welcome. Are you a visitor today? Do you believe in Jesus? You are welcome at this table. It is Christ’s—it is not for us to say who can or cannot partake. Do you wonder at whether you are worthy? None of us is. We come here only because he has forgiven us. And he will still do so. Don’t doubt. Believe his words. Believe his promise. “This is my blood, shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.”
We are gathered here not as they were that night, fearful for the future—we gather in hope, knowing that the Jesus who died, who is risen, will come again, and will gather us to himself, and take us to his father’s house, and set before us an eternal banquet, the marriage supper of the Lamb. We gather in the joy of his forgiveness and the hope of that day, and so we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”