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The Foot-Washer

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, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13.3-5).

If there is one word that really strikes me as I read through this morning’s verses, it is that “so” in the first sentence. It isn’t there as an actual word in the Greek but it is clearly there in the way that the Greek sentence is structured. “Knowing that the Father gives all things into his hands and that he comes out from God and goes to God, he rises from the supper and lays aside his garments …” (my literal translation). In other words, when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, his action is springing directly from his self-awareness of his divine majesty. He knows himself to be the “High King of Heaven” and “bright Heaven’s Sun” so … therefore … because that is what he is … he washes his disciples’ feet.

He washes their feet. Every year, on Maundy Thursday, those words are read in almost all the churches in Christendom, and in some of them they are actually acted out as bishops or clergy kneel before selected members of their congregations and wash their (already pre-washed) feet. But hardly ever is the extent of the humility of the act that Jesus performed grasped or understood. It was outrageous beyond all measure. The Torah had stated that “If one of your brothers becomes indigent and has to sell himself to you, don’t make him work as a slave. Treat him as a hired hand or a guest among you” (Leviticus 25.39-40); and the scribes had laid it down long ago that this precluded any Jew from ever being required to wash feet. Given the state of the paths and roads in those days and the open kind of sandals that were worn, feet, by evening time, were not only soiled but often fouled by animal excrement. So cleaning them was a job reserved for Gentile slaves; and the very mark of being such a Gentile slave was to have a towel girded round the loins … a towel such as Jesus wrapped around his waist.

High King of Heaven? Yes. A Gentile slave? The very same! No wonder, in the Greek, John has Peter spluttering. Kyrie, su mou … — “Lord, you — my …”

When Jesus “lays aside” his garments, he is laying aside his life. “The reason my Father loves me,” Jesus said, “is that I lay down my life” (John 10.17) and the word used there for “lay down” is the very one used here for “lays aside”. The action that begins as he shrugs the robe from his shoulders here ends with his crucified nakedness on a Roman gibbet the following day. And there on the cross, the washing away of filth and pollution that begins here is made perfect as his blood is shed for the forgiveness of sins. In this is the Father’s glory; that the Son, the High King of Heaven, freely and gladly and willingly, comes to this earth and washes my feet and the feet of the world.

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