By Will Vucurevich
A few weeks ago, a member of our Redemption Community was injured while working in his garage. His back went out. As someone who has struggled off and on with back issues since college, I was filled with empathy and compassion. We began praying for him, and various folks in our community reached out to him regularly. I was texting him daily to see if there was anything I could help out with. He always denied, but thanked me for the offer.
Thankfully, he has been healing and regaining his strength and mobility. A few days ago, we were at his house, and he was showing me some work he had done the other day. A simple task for the small business that he and his wife own took him over two hours to complete because of lingering pain. I responded quickly and sarcastically, “Man! Imagine how fast we could have completed that if you had let me know, instead of being prideful and never letting anyone help you!” Definitely not a loving or pastoral response, unfortunately.
My sharp words, spoken half-jokingly and half in hypocritical judgement stuck with me into the next day as I was reading and thinking through the passage we will consider here.
“He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”… When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:1–15).
This picture of Jesus as a humble servant washing feet has always been a potent image for me. The creator of the universe, embodied in flesh, taking the role of a servant to wash the stinky feet of his followers is a beautiful and disorienting model to follow. There is a sense of flattering intrigue in the fact that we serve an all-powerful God who not only desires a relationship with us, but also loves us sacrificially. We will see this sacrificial image continue to play out in this section of John. First, Jesus dramatizes the sacrificial love of God here in the foot washing of the disciples. Next, it will be symbolized or memorialized in the giving of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, in which coming generations of God’s people will continue this formative feast. Finally, we will see the love of God embodied in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
With all of these demonstrations we are called to respond and replicate a “cross-shaped” or cruciform life, a life of sacrificial love for the other. These are the basics of the Christian life: love God and love other people. Such a simple commandment to read, yet unbelievably difficult to enact!
What has been striking me deeply in this passage, and what has brought a sense of conviction over my harsh words to my friend, is this simple phrase, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” This statement runs so contrary to my typical ways of thinking. I would expect Jesus to say something like this, “I have washed your feet, now you wash my feet.” After all, that is how I (embarrassedly) operate most of the time. I do something nice for you, now you do something nice for me. This would have set up a self-centered and individualistic religion. We would all be jockeying for position to wash Jesus’s feet, seeing our brother and sisters in the faith as barriers to worship. This, thankfully, is not the response of Jesus.
Instead, Jesus reimagines not only what leadership looks like, but also how power is to be used in his Kingdom. “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” As a response to the sacrificial and loving display of Jesus, we are to do the same to one another. Our love for Christ is to be displayed in our love for others. We cannot love God well in isolation.
Here’s the catch that exposes all of my people-pleasing idolatry: if we are to wash the feet of one another, that means that, sometimes, I have to allow others to wash my feet. This takes humility. Even scarier, this takes vulnerability. If I am always the one washing others, I am always the one in control. I am always the one seen as “humble” and “such a servant.” These are the kind of words my flesh loves to hear. The kind of words that the enemy uses to stoke the lie that my identity is in what I can do for others, and not found in Christ and what he has done for me. When I allow others to wash my feet, I acknowledge that there is only one perfect, all powerful God who loves and serves, and I am not him. I am imperfect. I do not have all the power, all the answers, or all the abilities to meet all the needs. Only God does. In having my feet washed, I allow others to respond to this command of Jesus in obedience as well. In calling out my friend’s unwillingness to let me serve him, I am reminded of so many times when I have done the same. I would rather rely on my own strength than Christ’s strength seen in his community around me.
We need each other, not only to be faithful to this commandment, but, if we are honest, we also need each other to make it through the brokenness of this life. As much as we are called to serve and wash the feet of others, sometimes it is our own backs that go out. We get sick, lose a job, get the dreaded diagnosis, or face any other of life’s daily hardships that unexpectedly strike. In the midst of these most vulnerable times, if we are willing to press into to the commands of Jesus and reach out to his godly community, we can find Jesus himself, clothed in his followers, willing to love, bless, and care for us. He’s God in flesh, loving us through the sacrificial love of his people.