John 13:1-20, Footwashing
Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 8, 2007
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good holiday week for you. I’m afraid that one of my daughters had a brush with some poison ivy around her eye. Apparently it was because I made her weed the flower gardens and mow the yard. Had I let her watch movies all day the way she wanted, she would not have suffered. It does rather challenge one’s sense of justice in the world and adds to the perennial guilt of parenthood. I want to give a shout out to the Rev. Hal Cole who is recovering from a near fatal rupture in his aorta. We thought Hal was going to his heavenly reward, and are grateful to God for allowing Hal to be with us a little longer.
Friday was the anniversary of the martyrdom of John Hus, who was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. The witness of Hus led to the formation of the Moravian Church as a separate community of faith 550 years ago. Many Moravian churches, including Home Church, will be celebrating Holy Communion today in memory of Hus who took seriously Jesus’ teaching that his followers must be willing to follow him in suffering and death. Like Jesus, John Hus was betrayed by a friend and murdered by an Empire.
Intro to the Passion: Last week we completed the first portion of John’s Gospel. Like the TV show 24, the remainder of John’s Gospel focuses on the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life. Last week we saw that Jesus went into hiding with his disciples before the Passover feast. During their final supper together, the teacher gives his students some of the fundamental teachings of Christianity, as he prepares them for his arrest, trial, and death. The first thing he does is wash his disciples’ feet. This is one of the most important stories in the gospels, but it is found only in John’s Gospel.
This is surprising, but we should note that some of the statements of Jesus here in ch. 13 have parallels in the other gospels, particularly Matthew 10. It is possible that Matthew recorded the teachings associated with the footwashing but omitted the footwashing itself. It is also possible that John used the footwashing as a way to illuminate the teachings of Jesus. In other words, this was an illustrative story. It is impossible to be certain whether the footwashing was historical or was a literary device of John since it only appears in John’s Gospel. But it is such a surprising story it seems unlikely John would have made it up. Still, it is quite possible that this footwashing occurred earlier in Jesus’ ministry and John placed in the context of the Last Supper for dramatic effect. We have seen that John probably did this with other stories.
Love versus the Devil: The first sentence of ch. 13 a clear transition from the Book of Signs to the Book of the Passion. It says that Jesus loved his disciples to the end or to completion. It is difficult to accurately translate the Greek here, because “telos” refers to both time and reaching a goal. Jesus loved the disciples to the end of his life, but this could also mean that he loved them fully or that he showed them the full extent of his love. The ambiguity is typically John in that both are true. By loving the disciples until he laid down his life, he showed them the full extent of his love. This love of Jesus for his disciples stands in marked contrast to Judas, who is mentioned in verse 2. The text says that the devil had induced Judas to betray Jesus. This is not simply foreshadowing, as some commentators suggest. Jesus is about to give his most important lesson on the meaning of love, but the devil is inducing Judas to betray Jesus.
Over the centuries, the church got too interested in the mythology of Satan and created all kinds of outlandish pictures of the devil with bifurcated tail and a hayfork. These images from popular superstition were magnified in Hollywood so that mention of the devil brings to mind Rosemary’s baby. Let’s leave all of that for Halloween. In the Gospel of John, the devil has no physical form. The devil is what turns a person’s heart away from Jesus, away from the way of truth and life. The devil looks like Judas, indeed like every disciple who departs from the path of love and betrays the teacher. The devil is the contrast to love and truth. It is John’s word for hatred. Christians need to remember that the devil cannot be defeated by his own weapons: hate, fear, and lies. Incidentally, with the last Harry Potter book appearing in a couple of weeks, let me point out that J.K. Rowling has a good sense of what the Gospel of John is teaching. John’s strategy for confronting the banality of evil is self-sacrificial love. John introduces the story of the footwashing with a statement about betrayal to highlight the significance of Jesus’ actions.
Passover: There is one important historical question related to this account in John that we should discuss before reading the lesson. John 13:1 clearly states that this supper with the disciples was before the Passover festival, but the other gospels state that the Last Supper was a Passover meal, called a Seder. Also, according to John, Jesus was executed on a Friday, the 14th day of Nisan in the Jewish calendar, and was buried just before the Passover festival began. But according to Mark, and the gospels that copied him, Jesus was executed on the 15th day of Nisan, the first day of Passover. They agree it was a Friday, by the way, but not on the date. Since we do not have copies of the calendar to verify the date, we cannot resolve this. In fact, we don’t even know for sure what year the crucifixion was. Scholars are divided over whether Mark or John has the correct date. A few scholars have gone to great lengths to argue that both are somehow true according to different calendars, but the fact remains that John says the Last Supper was before Passover rather than during Passover. Does this matter? Perhaps not, but it does shows that the four canonical gospels disagree over an important historical date. Does that undermine their reliability as religious texts showing us the way to salvation? No.
Personally, I think John is correct and that this is another example of the historical accuracy of John’s Gospel. It is highly unlikely that the priests would have had a trial during the Passover festival or that the Romans would have executed someone then. The rush to get Jesus’ body off the cross by sundown makes more sense if the Sabbath was the first day of the festival. It is more likely that Mark used the Passover Seder as a way to interpret the death of Jesus. Some have suggested John moved the date of crucifixion to correlate the death of Jesus with the slaughter of the lambs for Passover, but John does not make that connection.
Read I’ll be reading John 13:1-11 in Raymond Brown’s translation.
Footwashing: One of the most remarkable things about John’s Gospel is that there is no story of Jesus instituting the Eucharist, the central ritual of Christianity. Nowhere in John does Jesus take bread and wine and tell his disciples to eat and drink in memory of him. The washing of the disciples’ feet stands in the place where the institution of Holy Communion is in the other gospels This does not mean that the church of the beloved disciple did not celebrate Holy Communion. As we saw earlier, John 6 is full of allusions to Holy Communion and might have originally narrated the institution of this ritual, but in the final version of the Gospel, the footwashing stands as a climactic moment.
It might be helpful to know a few things about footwashing in the time of Jesus. Times were different then. People wore sandals and roads were dusty. When you entered someone’s house, it was polite to wash the dirt off of your feet. Householders would routinely provide pitchers of water for this purpose. Wealthy people might have slaves wash your feet because this was one of those acts of personal hygiene that would be humiliating to perform for another person. There is evidence that disciples were required to wash the feet of their teachers, just as Buddhist monks must act as servants for their masters. When Jesus girded himself, he literally took on “the form of a servant,” which was shocking to the disciples, as was represented by Peter’s response.
Normally the washing of feet took place when you entered the house. It was never done while you were sitting at the table. So, when Jesus got up from the table to wash the disciples’ feet, it was clear that this was a prophetic action – a teaching acted out. Though nothing supernatural was involved, we could refer to this as a sign in the Johanine sense. It was a physical action of Jesus that pointed to a deeper spiritual meaning. The footwashing was a revelation of the true identity of Jesus and a call to a new way of life for the disciples. Read in this way, the footwashing stands alongside the other signs in John: the changing of water into wine, the healing of the blind person, the feeding of the multitude, and even the salvation of the adulterous woman. This was a revelation.
Baptism: You may remember that John’s Gospel does not have an account of Jesus’ baptism, nor does it mention baptism. This has led many scholars, since the early days of the church, to speculate that the footwashing is related to baptism in some way. Certainly Jesus’ statement that “unless I wash you, you have no share with me” sounds like a reference to baptism. The trouble is that washing feet is hardly the same as baptism. As far as we can tell, early Christian baptism was based on bathing. The word baptism means to immerse something in water for the purpose of washing. Incidentally, in the eastern Orthodox churches, infants and adults are both baptized by immersion. It was only in the Western church that the sprinkling of water on the head replaced immersion for baptism. Along with that came an emphasis on the baptismal font. Holy water was kept in the font so people could ward off evil spirits as they entered the sanctuary. It is possible, if unlikely, that the church associated with the beloved disciple used the washing of feet in this way.
Is this account a rejection of baptism or a confirmation of baptism? It is hard to say for sure because there is some ambiguity in the conversation between Jesus and Peter. Simon Peter asks Jesus to wash his hands and his head as well as his feet, which sounds like a request for a full baptism. We can note in passing that Peter’s request is similar to the ritual ablutions in Islam, which include washing of the face, hands, and feet. But Jesus refuses to accede to Peter’s request because those who have bathed do not need to wash. It is not clear why Jesus contrasts bathing and washing here. It is quite likely that this passage had a meaning for the original readers that is lost to us now.
This could mean that the disciples have been bathed in the waters of baptism already and the washing of the feet is a lesser baptism. Over time, this idea was connected with the Catholic doctrine that baptism washes a person clean from original sin and penance cleanses one from post-baptismal sins. Oddly enough, penance never included washing. It is possible that the washing that Jesus here refers to is not a washing with water at all, but is speaking of spiritual purification. That might make sense of his statement that the disciples were clean, except for the betrayer. Washing the feet of Judas did not turn him away from his intended betrayal; therefore it is hard to claim that the washing of the body cleanses the soul of sin. The sacraments do not magically transform a person; neither does preaching.
Throughout the Gospel of John, we have seen that individuals play a role in their own transformation. Here in this tender scene of a teaching washing his students’ feet, the focus is on Jesus’ action in washing rather than on the water. We have the ultimate sign of grace. All Jesus asked was for the disciples to place themselves in his hands and accept his work for them;, to let him remove the dirt, to let him touch them with hands that had given sight to the blind. But Peter can’t do this without a struggle, and Judas can only pretend to love and be loved.
Sacramental Action: It appears that some of early Christians, particularly the churches associated with the Beloved Disciple, practiced footwashing, but most did not. As the church became part of society, the practice died out except for special settings, such as monasteries. Footwashing was a special ritual of humility, not a sacrament. The Pope, for instance, washes feet on Maundy Thursday. In the 16th century, the Protestants rethought the sacraments and rejected Catholic dogma. According to Martin Luther, a sacrament is a ritual that Jesus commanded his followers to perform in his memory. Because of Luther, most Protestant denominations have only two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. Jesus never gave a commandment to confirm people or ordain them as priests, for instance, so those are rites rather than sacraments.
In the 18th century, a number of radical Protestant groups questioned the conclusion that there were only two sacraments. In John 13, Jesus instituted footwashing and clearly commanded his followers to follow his example. Why spiritualize this and not spiritualize baptism? Only a few small churches adopted footwashing as a third sacrament alongside baptism and the eucharist. The churches that do so, such as the Church of the Brethren and the Primitive Baptists, do view this as an act of obedience to the commandment of Jesus and a way to learn experientially the meaning of discipleship. Why don’t all churches?
The answer is fairly simple, I think. It is one thing to baptize a person, particularly a baby. It is another thing to wash everyone’s feet in church. Logistics alone get in the way. It is one thing to eat a piece of bread in common with people you may not know. It is something else to let others see your feet and touch you. Footwashing is so intimate that it is threatening. I’ve led footwashings in the past, and it has always been a deeply moving and very uncomfortable ritual. Some people refuse to participate; others break into tears. I can appreciate Peter’s explosive reaction to what Jesus was doing. We think it would make us feel important to have someone kneel before us and wash our feet, but in fact it makes us vulnerable. The act of washing reminds us that we are not clean. An act of loving service shows us how little we love.
It may interest you that the Moravians were one of those radical churches that practiced footwashing on a regular basis in the 18th century. As with Jesus’ original footwashing, there was no single meaning to this ritual. Sometimes it was used to restore someone who had rebelled against the community or had sinned grievously. Sometimes it was used to remind everyone that the servants of Jesus are not greater than their master. Sometimes it was used to welcome people into the community and show them that they were loved and valued. Often it was used to prepare people to receive Holy Communion, as a way to focus their hearts and minds on Christ. Not everyone liked this ritual. Count Zinzendorf and the Countess had a big fight over her initial refusal to let peasants wash her feet. As time passed, the ritual lost its impact. Teen-agers approached the ritual with giggles and impiety. As we became more like our neighbors in America, white Moravians grew uncomfortable being touched brothers and sisters with darker skin. Gradually our church dropped footwashing as a ritual action and became more like all the other churches. The question is whether we also lost the lesson Jesus was trying to teach.
The footwashing scene in John is not incidental to the Gospel; it is central. It is a visible expression of the entire teaching of Jesus. Those who claim to be Christians are called to be washed by Jesus, to be loved by Jesus, and to respond by serving and loving others. Faith is a single event that cannot be separated into conversion, evangelism, or social service. It is one action to be born from above, to form a fellowship of love, and to kneel in humble service. The disciples will discover the full depth of this humility and love in the events that will take place the following afternoon.