Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. 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.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” John 13.3-8.
Today is Maundy Thursday, the day on which Jesus shared a last supper with his friends before going to his death on the cross on Good Friday. He does so, as this morning’s reading makes plain, in the sure and certain knowledge that the Father has “given all things into his hands” … which is to say that Jesus comes to the last supper aware that he is Lord of lords, that universal sovereignty has been conferred on him, and that his is the Kingdom, the power and the glory. So what does he do? In the face of a squabble among the disciples about which of them was the greatest (Luke 22.24-27), he gets up and washes their feet.
Actually, he does something more than that … something that the act of washing their feet did not require at all. A women could wash her husband’s feet without doing it. A child could wash his father’s feet without doing it. But Jesus washes his disciples feet and does do it … he takes off his outer garments and ties a towel round his waist; and by doing that, he presents himself to his disciples as a slave.
The astonished spluttering protest of Peter as Jesus comes to him with his basin of water says it all. In the Greek it is “kyrie, su mou nipteis tous podas;“. In English it is “Master, you — my feet you wash?” There is a sheer incomprehension at what is going on, so Jesus tries to reassure him. “One day, you will understand what this is all about, Peter. One day … after the cross, after the empty tomb, after the Holy Spirit comes and fills you and enlightens your heart and mind.” But that is all in the future. For now, the assurance falls on deaf ears, and Peter tells Jesus bluntly, “You shall never wash my feet.”
But then comes this all-important response by Jesus. “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” What does he mean? It is meros met’ emou not meros en emoi. That is to say, it is no “share with me” rather than no “part in me” as some (RSV for example) mis-read it. It is not that I cannot belong to Christ if I do not let him wash me. It is that I cannot have a share with him in something … but a share in what? The answer lies in the word “share” itself — meros. It is the word used by the prodigal son for his share in the property that would come to him on his father’s death (Luke 15.12); but before that it was the word used for the territory each Israelite was allotted in the Promised Land. And here it surely brings both thoughts into one. It refers to the “all things” that the Father has put into Jesus’ hands. Jesus has inherited the Kingdom from the Father, and he wants to share it with those who belong to him.
“But unless I wash you,” says Jesus; “… unless you allow the cleansing from sin which this washing symbolises and which will become a reality as I shed my blood and meet my death on the cross tomorrow to extend to you … you cannot share with me in that inheritance.”
Just as I am, without one plea,
but that Thy blood was shed for me,
and that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
Just as I am, and waiting not
to rid my soul of one dark blot,
to Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!