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Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
18I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ 19I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. 20Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”
The other gospels speak of the bread Jesus broke at this dinner, saying “This is my body, broken for you”, and the wine he shared, saying, “This is my blood, poured out for you and for many.” But John has explained the implementation of the sacrament of Holy Communion earlier, with Jesus’ speech, in John 6, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the world is my flesh.” Now, he turns to another teaching at this dinner. Jesus is teaching the disciples to love and serve one another.
Now, it was the custom, in a land where people walked just about everywhere they went, where they wore sandals rather than closed shoes, and where the roads were dusty, to have a servant wash a guest’s feet when he came into a home. But for this dinner there were no servants – perhaps some of the women who followed Jesus had prepared the meal, or perhaps they had gone home to their families for the holiday meal. Perhaps the disciples themselves had prepared the food. But, in the absence of servants, a basin and pitcher would have been set beside the door to allow guests to wash their own feet. It would appear, however, that the disciples had not washed their own feet, much less served one another. In fact, they may have walked past the basin, thinking “If I stop and wash my feet, I may be obligated to help the next person; I may even be stuck with washing everyone’s feet. Then I will end up seated at the foot of the table instead of in a place of honor near Jesus.” Of course, I am just surmising here, but it seems that is the sort of attitude Jesus is fighting here.
Of course, Jesus is watching this – but he doesn’t say anything. He waits until they are all seated – actually, reclining, at the table, and then he gets up, takes off his outer robe, and ties a towel around his waist, dressing himself like a servant. And he washes their feet, and dries them with the towel he has wrapped around himself. He, who is leader, Teacher, and Master, acts like a servant to the others. I would imagine they feel ashamed that they had not served him, or one another. He says to them, “you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
Serve one another. It is a simple command, based in love. Where can you do that today? (We will continue with this passage in the days to come.)