As Holy Week approaches each year, I turn to my favorite part of the Gospels, John 13-17. Many other passages seem rushed. They leave me longing for more sensory detail and pondering the meaning of Jesus’ cryptic sayings. In these five chapters, the author slows the pace almost cinematically. After all, it’s the group’s last supper together.
One by one, the key disciples make an appearance in John’s account. Peter picks an argument with Jesus and then quickly yields. John raises the question everyone else is afraid to ask. Judas Iscariot abruptly leaves the room. Philip and the other Judas quiz Jesus on some matters of theology.
All the while, Jesus remains in the spotlight. Tenderly, he calls the disciples “my children.” They pepper him with questions: Where are you going? How long is a little while? Can we come too? Often the twelve have exasperated Jesus, but this night he listens and responds with boundless patience. Aware that the time has come for him to leave this world, several times he reflects nostalgically on his life “before the creation of the world.”
Yet Jesus is now living within the confines of space and time on a cantankerous planet, and although he urges the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” it’s apparent that he himself is troubled. He knows the betrayal, arrest, torture, and execution that await him, and knows too that some of these, his closest friends, will face a similar fate. “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves,” he once warned them, and now the wolves are growling at the door.
For two millennia Christians have reenacted one of the scenes from that intimate evening, the sharing of bread and wine. Few denominations, however, take literally Jesus’ command to wash each other’s feet—except perhaps on Maundy Thursday itself. Here is how John introduces the scene: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet…”
I’ve participated in a few footwashings, and they can seem more awkward than sacred. Everyone makes sure to arrive with clean feet and respectable socks, so the washing itself is redundant. And apart from childhood or injury, we’re not accustomed to having someone else remove our footwear.
Though not part of modern culture, footwashing was an act of everyday hospitality in first-century Judea. In Colorado, I greet guests with a handshake or hug, and offer them a glass of water and a seat. Visitors to Japan learn to remove their shoes at the door, and always the host presents a pair of indoor slippers for them to wear. Hospitality means making our guests comfortable and, in a hot climate, scrubbing the accumulated grime off sweaty, calloused feet both honors and refreshes the guest. (See Luke 7:44-46 for Jesus’ rebuke of a Pharisee who did not extend such hospitality.)
In my reading this year, I noted one often overlooked detail in John’s account. Jesus “got up from the meal to wash the disciples’ feet”— which shows that no one had offered the group common hospitality, and none of the disciples had volunteered to wash the others’ dirty feet. Little wonder.
We may miss the demeaning nature of the task in Jesus’ day. Peter certainly understood it, which is why he loudly protested Jesus washing anyone’s feet. The messy, undignified role of footwasher was beneath his master, and should be reserved for servants.
Correcting that spirit, of course, was the point of Jesus’ object lesson. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you,” he said. The kingdom of God he was inaugurating would advance not by power exercised from the top down but by acts of service from the bottom up. Jesus elevated the most menial acts of service, for whatever we do for “the least of these,” we do for him.
Although in the modern West we rarely wash others’ feet, we have many avenues of service. Daily, I hear from my friends in Ukraine who are housing refugees, making dangerous runs to the border to evacuate children and senior citizens, and providing meals and essentials to those who have lost everything to Russian missiles. Other acts of service take place out of view. I think of a friend who serves as a chaplain at a memory-care facility, or another who conducts an aphasia choir for stroke victims. And could any church function without the volunteers who print bulletins, sanitize the pews, and shovel snow from the parking lot?
Rachel Remen, of the Commonweal Cancer Center, draws a distinction between service and helping. “Service is not the same as helping,” she says. “Helping is based on inequality, it’s not a relationship between equals. When you help, you use your own strength to help someone with less strength. It’s a one up, one down relationship, and people feel this inequality.…Helping incurs debt: when you help someone, they owe you. But service is mutual. When I help I have a feeling of satisfaction, but when I serve I have a feeling of gratitude.”
Remen adds, “A server knows that they’re being used and has the willingness to be used in the service of something greater.” When Jesus stooped to wash Peter’s feet, Peter felt the indignity of his Lord and Teacher assuming an “inferior” role that was beneath him. After three years with his master, he still missed the calculus of grace: it always flows to the undeserving and, though costly, comes as a free gift to those with open hands.
Greek and Roman authors almost never commended humility as a virtue, applying the word instead to abject and unworthy people. Christianity reversed that trend by ascribing humility to God’s own Son. In a poem thought to be a hymn of the early church (Philippians 2:5-11), Paul describes the mindset of Jesus, who did not cling to the prerogatives of deity, but took on the very nature of a servant. More, “being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
Then the hymn takes an abrupt twist:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
That same twist occurs in Jesus’ final words to his disciples at the last supper. After predicting his betrayal and death, and warning them of persecution to come, he announces, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Even as he pronounced those words, soldiers were buckling on swords to intercept him in a garden. How empty that declaration must have seemed to the disciples over the next few days as they watched him tried, tortured, and killed. How empty it seems to us at times, when our world appears more overcome by evil than by good.
The theologian N. T. Wright opened his Maundy Thursday reflection this year with a scene that has gone viral on YouTube. It begins with a Ukrainian woman dusting off black powder from her white grand piano before sitting down to play a Chopin etude. As the camera pans wider, it shows the debris of her home, wrecked by a Russian missile. Wright observes, “All around her, the smashed doors and windows, the dirt and rubble on furniture and floor, the fires burning in the street outside, tell their story. And she continues, defiantly, to tell hers. A small piece of performance art, an act of new creation amid the ruins.”
Wright concludes his meditation, “The footwashing scene brings into unexpected focus the good news that the world’s tyrants and bullies are held to account and overthrown; that a different way to be human has been launched upon the world. The church, empowered by Jesus’ Spirit, must speak the truth to power, the truth of God’s new creation. … The bread and the wine of the Eucharist proclaim powerfully to the wider world that in Jesus’ death and resurrection God himself has sat down defiantly at the keyboard, to play, even amidst the rubble, the unstoppable music of new creation.”
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Philip, I read and re-read your books and look forward to your blog every month. Your wisdom reassures and sustains me. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Philip! Highly relevant! Calling for a paradigm shift! I live pretty close to that Ucraine war (Hamburg/Germany). And people from the Ucraine will live in our house of the Schmilinsky foundation where I live…
This is such a timely and beautiful message, for me personally and I know for many others. Some weeks back, as I could barely stand to see what the Ukranians were going through, I was once again asking as I do at times, “how could a good and loving God allow such suffering”. God sent me helps in the form of a friend at church who reminded me that there is evil in the world and it’s okay to rail against it even in prayer. And I learned a new word for me – theodicy. Which means “a vindication of God in allowing the existence of physical and moral evil”. This word was coined in 1710! It helped me to realize others have been dealing for a very long time with the question that comes up for me.
And now your gifted writing on Jesus washing the feet of the apostles was another help. He humbled himself and yet could say, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” That is such a victorious statement! He is with us in this broken world. Putting that with the quote from N.T. Wright, “God himself has sat down defiantely at the keyboard to play, even amidst the rubble” is a beautiful picture in my mind. As was the video of the woman actually playing the piano in the middle of a devastated home and city.
I agree with the other lady who said “this was my Easter”.
Thank you, thank you Philip.
John 13-17 are the most striking chapters of the Gospel of John. I have never been as intimidated to move out of my comfort zone and serve, as I am when I read and re-read the portion of our LORD washing the feet of HIS disciples. Not hesitating to do ordinary, simple, humbling acts is so much like our LORD.
Music amidst rubble is juxtaposed as strikingly as THE LORD’s Decision to be a Servant King. Beautifully written,
GOD bless you Philip
Always the right words, in the most appropriate context, at the right time. I thank God for you, and the living, active inspiration that your pen brings.
Thank you Philip. From Tasmania, Australia. A gentle and beautiful account of our saviour’s last night here on this troubled earth.
I was brought up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church which always followed the footwashing ceremony (Ordinance of Humility) before Communion. I can attest that it was a source of awkwardness to most of us teenagers at the time, but as years went by I came to appreciate the example of Jesus, and the beauty of service.
Now, that is a word picture. Thanks Philip!
Once again, you have opened up scripture to me in a new and beautiful way. Once again, your words written through the Holy Spirit, have brought me to tears. Thank you for yielding to Him and for your obedience.
A wonderfully appropriate and timely PhilipYanceyBlog! The Easter season is my favorite time of year and these 5 chapters in the Gospel of John show the importance of the week!
Perfect!! Thank you for your words that touch so many hearts with His truth.
From someone who was caught up with my children and grandchildren and festivities this past Easter weekend, your blog today became my “Easter”! Thank you for your post that created in me the desire to stop and reflect on my Saviour.
I loved that meme!
Thank you, Philip, for once again reminding us of the amazing God we serve who daily serves us and loves us beyond anything we can imagine!
I’m here in Chelm, Poland doing laundry and cleaning bathrooms for Ukrainian refugees. And yet there’s a selfish motive in that following Jesus brings me a little closer to him.
Oh my word, what a powerful video! A message to us all to be the hope
among the rubble! The world is evil, yes, and has always brought out the despair and dark. But however we can as Believers in the One who came to earth to bring us hope, we can’t not but be the hope the people need and seek. Thank you for sharing your insight into one of my favorite passages, too, as well as this video of hope.
Now may I be hope to someone in my space today.
Beautifully crafted words of reality & hope. May I serve Him today in unexpected ways.
Thanks so much for your reflection!
Excellent article – well done!
Thank you for yet another timely and thoughtful message that stirs the heart and moves us to follow the Lord who gave everything in humility and love. Please don’t stop sharing your desperately needed insights.