Maundy Thursday is the night we remember Jesus last supper with his disciples as well as the time he spent praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. The night began, however, with Jesus setting an example for his disciples and for all who would follow him.
Jesus got up from the table and washed the feet of his disciples. While the focus of the story is clearly on our need to follow this commandment of love and service, there is a conversation with Peter that has always intrigued me.
When Jesus comes to wash Peter’s feet, Peter’s first response is to say no, and that I totally understand. Have you ever had someone wash your feet? I’m not talking about in the hospital or at home as you might be recovering from surgery, I’m talking about someone washing your feet as an act of service and love in the context of worship or fellowship. I had never experienced this or seen anything like it growing up in my home church but when I got to college I attended a dinner that our Christian Fellowship served during holy week. I wasn’t really thinking much about it but when I showed up, the leaders of our group were on their knees washing the feet of all who attended.
I immediately felt like Peter. I was uncomfortable and embarrassed. The man who was most responsible for not only teaching me about Jesus but whose life in so many ways reflected the life of Christ to me was on his knees with a basin of water and some towels. I immediately said no. It didn’t feel right. He was so spiritual and I felt like nothing and there was just no way I wanted him to wash my feet. I think we can all understand what Peter is thinking in this moment when he says to Jesus, you shall never wash my feet. Jesus was too good for this job. This just wasn’t right.
Jesus’ response to Peter was to say that unless he washed Peter then Peter would have no part of him. Now what we have learned from our study of John this Lenten season is that John is very symbolic and that there is often more going on than what we see on the surface. On the surface what Jesus is saying is that if Peter wants to stay and eat the Passover meal he has to let Jesus wash his feet, but clearly there is something more that Jesus is saying.
When Jesus says, unless I wash you, you have no part with me; Jesus is talking about being washed clean of sin. Water is an ongoing symbol in the gospel of John and it points us to baptism and the cleansing of sin from our lives. It is only Jesus that can wash us and make us clean. It is only Jesus who can forgive sin and cleanse our hearts and souls and truly set us free from sin. Apart from Jesus there is no forgiveness of sin. Jesus is the only one who can wash us clean and if we want to be part of who Jesus is and what he is doing, then we need to allow Jesus to wash us. We need to allow God to forgive us.
Peter is so eager to be seen as a committed follower of Jesus that he says, then don’t wash just my feet but wash my hands and head as well. Wash all the exposed parts of me, Jesus, because I want to fully give myself to you. You have to love Peter’s enthusiasm for wanting Jesus to know that he is fully sold out to him and that he wants to give Jesus everything he has and all that he is, but once again Peter gets it wrong. Jesus corrects Peter by saying that if someone has already had a bath then they don’t need to wash their hands and head, only their feet. It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want Peter to follow him enthusiastically, he just wants Peter to understand what it means to follow him.
The first thing that following Jesus means is that we need to listen to him and be willing to obey h is word and God’s plan. Twice Peter has failed to let Jesus do what Jesus wanted to do. Twice Peter thought that he knew better than Jesus; once by saying that Jesus shouldn’t wash his feet and once by saying that Jesus should wash Peter’s hands and head as well. Both times Peter means well and while Jesus doesn’t rebuke Peter he is firm and says that Peter needs to listen and follow his commands.
I often think about how we act the same way Peter does when God comes to us. When God wants to forgive us and wash us clean from sin but we resist and say that we aren’t worthy enough to be forgiven, we are acting like Peter. When we resist God’s love or say that it’s good for others but not for us then we are telling Jesus that he will never wash us. When we hear a call to serve or are asked to get involved in ministry and step out in our faith and our initial response is, I can’t do it – I’m not good enough or worthy enough then we are like Peter telling Jesus that he will never wash us. While we may think we are being humble, we are actually telling God that we know better than he does. If God wants to forgive us or if God wants to use us then we need to allow God to have his way with us. We need to listen and surrender ourselves to God
Have Thine own way Lord, have Thine own way, Thou art the potter I am the clay. Mold me and make me, after Thy will, while I am waiting, yielding and still.
When Peter wants Jesus to wash all of him he is once again telling Jesus how things should be done instead of letting Jesus be in control. Sometimes in our desire to love and serve God we do the same thing and put our plans in front of God’s plans. When our focus is on what we can do or what we think is right or best instead of on Jesus, we set ourselves up to fail. Peter would experience this failure in a few hours. When Jesus said that he was going to be arrested and handed over to the authorities to be crucified, Peter said that he would lay down his life for Jesus – but by early morning Peter had denied Jesus three times.
As Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, he is not just giving them an example of how to love and serve others; he is also showing us what it means to accept Jesus as our savior. In humility we have to allow Jesus to wash us – that means acknowledging that we are sinners and need to be cleaned. Just as Peter had to submit his dirty feet to Jesus, so we need to submit our sinful lives to Christ and ask God to forgive us. We can’t be so arrogant that we say we don’t need to be forgiven, but we also can’t say that we are too sinful to be forgiven. That is a type of arrogance in itself. We need to submit ourselves to Jesus and ask for him to wash us, cleanse us of our sin and forgive us.
Being part of Christ also means walking with Jesus and not getting too far ahead or thinking we know the way on our own. Are we willing to follow God’s plan and embrace God’s will for our lives? Are we willing to do what God calls us to do and go where God calls us to go? In humility we need to give ourselves to God’s plan and not our own.
There is another truth we can learn from Jesus when he says that those who have had a bath only need to wash their feet. While we are washed clean when we place our faith and trust in Christ, there will always be times when we will need to return to God and ask for forgiveness. We will all fail to be obedient and there will be moments when we will focus too much on ourselves and our own way. It’s not that we have completely failed Jesus or turned away from him – we don’t need to be washed clean from head to toe but we do need to be cleaned up.
Forgiveness of sin and humbling ourselves before God so he can wash our feet needs to be an ongoing part of our lives. We don’t get baptized over and over again because we have been washed clean through Christ, but we do need to acknowledge our dirty feet and allow them to be cleaned. We need to confess our sin and allow God to forgive us.
Tonight is one of those nights for us to do just that – to take time to say – Wash Me Jesus – not all of me, but wash my feet – forgive my sin – make my heart and mind and life pleasing and acceptable to you once again.
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We confess the things we try to hide from you and the things we try to hide from others. We confess the heartbreak, pain, and sorrow we have caused that make it difficult for others to forgive us and the harm we have done that makes it hard for us to forgive ourselves. We have not loved you with our whole heart and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. Forgive us, we pray. Wash us clean so that we may delight in your will, and walk in your way, this day and every day. Amen.