“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” John 13:1
In an ordinary world, we would be having Love Feast this Thursday evening. In the tradition of the Church, the Thursday before Easter—Maundy Thursday—is reserved for the commemoration of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. The Church of the Brethren—holding to the deep authority of Scripture—has always taken Jesus words in John 13:8 pretty seriously: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Whether you want to take these words of Jesus literally, or search for a more symbolic meaning, that’s up to you. But the reality is that the washing of feet has had a powerful place in the liturgy of the Church since the beginning.
Foot washing as a Christian ritual is laced with meaning. Recently, some theologians have been exploring the priestly role that Jesus takes on when He takes the towel and the basin of water and washes the disciples’ feet. Traditionally, particularly in the Church of the Brethren, we’ve foregrounded the service aspect—where the foot washing stands symbolically for our willingness to serve others. But the aspect I’d invite you to consider today is the element of humility.
In first-century Palestine, washing feet was the most menial task imaginable. The lowest of slaves or servants would have performed this work. And, we can assume, there was no one willing to take on this debased, humiliating job that evening, when Jesus and His followers gathered for what would be the last time before the crucifixion. Rightfully, if there was no slave to do it, the lowest or least of the disciples—a “junior” member of the group—might have washed everyone’s feet. At the very least it would have been a disciple, not the teacher. But unfortunately Jesus is still trying to teach a bunch of guys who just can’t get out of their own way. John is a little more gentle in dealing with the disciples than the Synoptics: Matthew, Mark and Luke each include an argument among the disciples about which of them is the greatest. The disciples regularly choose vanity over humility.
The tension between vanity and humility is readily evident these days. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the news coverage of all this Coronavirus stuff has been shifting from recommendations from health officials to a bunch of finger-pointing and laying blame. The anxiety of the situation—both from the impact of the disease and the social and economic impact of the only reasonable responses we have—seems to be leading to a lot of lashing out, trying to pin the situation on this person, or that failed policy, or whatever lack of foresight or planning that seems to have contributed to the problem. What is essentially a natural process (face it, viruses have been around as long as we have, and we’ve always been in a struggle with them) has been politicized—the latest weapon in another battle for power and control.
I’m not really interested in deconstructing our national debate over the proper response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I just have been noticing that when we’re stressed, we don’t always respond in a Christ-like manner. Our natural human vanity and pride comes to the front, our unwillingness to admit that we don’t know, that we might be wrong, that we could have some reason to repent, takes over and we start shifting blame to others. Problems become someone else’s responsibility, because there’s no way we’re wrong. It may be so habitual, we aren’t even aware that we’re acting out of vanity and pride. We may even—like Peter—reject outright the example of humility Jesus places before us.
So peel this out of the whole Coronavirus context and look at it from a wider angle. What Jesus does that night when He gets up from the table, wraps a towel around His waist, and washes the disciples’ feet, is an act of humility. It’s what Paul was talking about in Philippians 2, when he said that equality with God was not something that Jesus needed to hold onto, but that taking the form of a servant was His ultimate choice. He “emptied Himself”—the Greek word is kenosis—and when Jesus says in John 13:14 that we should do as He had done, He’s calling us to the same self-emptying, that same attitude of humility that He perfectly models. It is not Christ’s way to demand or coerce compliance. It is not His way to badger others or blame or shame. Any time we insist that another person act a certain way, or say a certain thing, or live up to our expectations, we are flirting with that dangerous edge of vanity. It is not the way of Christ, it is the way of anti-Christs—the ones who denies the sovereignty of Jesus by usurping His authority as Master and Teacher. And as our Master and Teacher, it is Christ’s way to wrap the towel, and take the basin, and serve with humility. And if we would be like Christ, we will remember: it’s not so important to be right, and for others to be wrong. It is important that we strive to be like our Master—humble and loving to the end.