March 9, 2008
“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 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. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. “I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture: ‘He who shares my bread has lifted up his heel against me.’ “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He. I tell you the truth, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.”
As we continue our series on “breaking through the wall” in our understanding of faith, we come to the question of “internal conflict” – not the sort of conflict that is external (war, terrorism, etc.) but rather the sort of conflict that we experience when faced with difficult choices. In our drama today we saw such an “internal conflict” acted out – a person was asked to something – a good thing – but struggled with the choice for a whole variety of reasons. Internal conflict is nothing new and we see exactly this problem in the narrative of John 13, part of which forms our Gospel reading for the day.
The build up to the passage is as follows: the setting is just before Passover – just before the betrayal and crucifixion of Jes – and the disciples are eating together. Most likely they were participating in a Seder meal, remembering the Passover and the liberation of the people from slavery in Egypt. Right in the middle of that ritualized celebration…
• Jesus takes off his garments and wraps himself in a towel
• Jesus begins to wash the disciples’ feet
• And Simon Peter protests…
The passage reads:
“So he came to Simon Peter. Peter said, Lord, are my feet to be washed by you? And Jesus, answering, said to him, What I do is not clear to you now, but it will be clear to you in time to come. Peter said, I will never let my feet be washed by you, never. Jesus said in answer, If I do not make you clean you have no part with me. Simon Peter said to him, Lord, not my feet only, but my hands and my head. Jesus said to him, He who is washed has need only to have his feet washed and then he is clean all over: and you, my disciples, are clean, but not all of you.”
Part of the difficulty in understanding the passage comes from the use of two different Greek words often translated by the same English word:
• Wash … nipto – “to wash a part of the body”
• Wash … louo – “to bathe all over”
Peter asks to be washed all over – he asks for “louo” … when Jesus is asking to wash his feet – “nipto”! Why is this?
The image of being “washed all over” comes from Exodus 29:4
“…Aaron and his sons come to the door of the Tent of Meeting, and there let them be washed with water…”
Washing (all over) with water was a symbolic cleansing, as with priests. But washing the feet was everyday business – done by slaves upon entry into the house!
And then “Jesus said to him, He who is washed (louo) has need only to have his feet washed (nipto) and then he is clean all over: and you, my disciples, are clean, but not all of you.
With this symbolic language Jesus shows that the disciples are already “consecrated” (“… but not all of you…”). The foot washing is not intended as an act of consecration but rather as an act of servanthood.
There is, however, a problem. Judas is present! The text reads (Verse 11) “He had knowledge who was false to him; that is why he said, You are not all clean.”
And then in verse 12, Jesus asks if the disciples understand his symbolic action: “Then, after washing their feet and putting on his robe again, he took his seat and said to them, Do you see what I have done to you?”
The explanation begins with a statement of authority:
Verse 13: You give me the name of Master and Lord: and you are right; that is what I am.
Verse 14: If then I, the Lord and the Master, have made your feet clean, it is right for you to make one another’s feet clean.
And then speaks of the action as an example:
Verse 15: I have given you an example, so that you may do what I have done to you.
Once again, we see Jesus challenging conventional wisdom (subverting the conventional worldview of 1st-century Israel):
Conventional wisdom: Humility = weakness
Subversive wisdom: Humility = strength
The challenge is made clear in verse 16:
Verse 16: Truly I say to you, A servant* is not greater than his lord; and he who is sent is not greater than the one who sent him.
*doulos = slave
Verse 17 goes even further in extending the subversive wisdom of Jesus: “If these things are clear to you, happy are you if you do them.”
Subversive wisdom: Humility = strength … which leads to contentment (blessedness).
In verse 18 we return to the problem of Judas: “I am not talking of you all: I have knowledge of my true disciples, but things are as they are, so that the Writings may come true, The foot of him who takes bread with me is lifted up against me.”
Here, the reference to the Writings comes from Psalm 41:9b in which King David laments his betrayal by a trusted friend, “Who did eat of my bread, has lifted up his foot against me.”
In Verse 19 we come across one of the references to Jesus using the words “I am” in a way that invokes reference to the LORD, “From this time forward, I give you knowledge of things before they come about, so that when they come about you may have belief that I am he.”
We see here a strong echo of Isaiah 43:10, “You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have taken for myself: so that you may see and have faith in me, and that it may be clear to you that I am he…”
Although this may not be so clear in English translations, in Greek we see the parallel clearly:
Isaiah 43:10: [God speaking] – hina pisteusete … hoti ego eimi
John 13:19: [Jesus speaking] – hina pisteusete … hoti ego eimi
Just as verse 16 began with the words, “Truly I s
ay to you…”, so verse 20 ends the passage with the same words: “Truly I say to you, He who takes to his heart anyone whom I send, takes me to his heart; and he who so takes me, takes him who sent me.”
In this passage we see the subversive wisdom of Jesus written out before us:
• Humility = strength … which leads to contentment (blessedness)
• Humility facilitates servanthood
• Servanthood brings about the Kingdom of God
• Jesus self identifies with God in word and deed
In our skit tonight, we heard these words, “You’re just too proud to be seen as anything less than perfect. And since you know you’re not perfect, then you don’t want them to see you”.
It seems that if you expect to be seen as perfect then your standards are higher than those of God! In Micah 6:8b we read, “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God”! We see the connections:
… expectation of perfection
… experience of internal conflict
… expectation of servanthood
… experience of contentment (blessedness)
It seems our internal conflict has a lot to do with pride and yet Jesus calls us to humility. And just as pride leads to internal conflict, so humility leads to servanthood, and servanthood leads to contentment (blessedness). Sitting among us are some of the folks whom we sent forth as servants a week ago on “Alternative Spring Break” mission and outreach trips. Just ask any one of them if their experience was one of humility, one of servanthood, and one of contentment, and I think you’ll see the point that Jesus was making.