Tonight we meditate on the final evening of Jesus’ life on earth, and famously known as the last supper.
Jesus had lived his life to a heavenly timetable. Nobody had dictated where he should go or what he should do.
Three times in John’s gospel, chp 2, chp 7 and chp 8 we are told that Jesus’ hour had not yet come but now, in v1 of John 13 we are told Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father.
Even though Jesus was about to enter the most turbulent time and trial of his life, he was still the complete master of the situation. He knew what was coming. But he also knew who he was and where he was going and that the battle ahead was the Father’s will. We saw on Sunday that Jesus willingly goes to the humiliation and mocking of the cross for our sake. Jesus as committed to living out his life under the timetable of the Father and nobody else’s.
But before the turmoil of the next 24 hours begins and before Jesus leaves his disciples, He gives perhaps one of the most powerful lessons he possible could have given. And this lesson was meant for every single follower of Jesus throughout all time. Sadly, while it is one of the most important lessons Jesus gave the Church, it is also one of the most neglected.
As Jesus reclined and began to eat this passover meal he was aware that there was a competitive spirit in the hearts of his disciples. Luke’s gospel tells us that during the last supper a dispute arose between the disciples about who was the greatest.
The church has always had these battles over who is the greatest. I have been shocked and saddened at how often people have fought over and for power and authority in the church. It never ceases to amaze me that Christians actually strive for status and influence within the body of Christ. The amount of times people have tried to get onto leadership teams or vestry’s in order to get the church to do something their way is astounding.
It is astounding because of what Jesus so clearly teaches us in this passage.
Jesus gives the disciples and the future church an unforgettable lesson in humility and at the same time sent a stinging rebuke to his disciples selfishness and pride.
It is said that humility is not thinking meanly of yourself – it is simply not thinking of yourself at all.
Imagine church like that – where people did not think of themselves at all. Imagine a church that really put Paul’s words in effect in Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Sadly, as one theologian has written, The church is filled with a worldly spirit of competition and criticism as believers vie with one another to see who is the greatest.
Christians so often grow in knowledge but they do not grow in grace or humility.
Andrew Murray from the 19th century has written that humility is the ONLY soil in which grace takes root. The lack of humility is the sufficient explanation of every defect and failure.
It is a lack of humility and his desire to be the greatest which causes Peter to respond to Jesus’ remarkable actions of rising from the table and beginning to wash the disciples feet.
As you all know, what Jesus did was reserved for only gentiles slaves. Washing feet was so lowly no Jew servant would ever do it, not would he be expected to do it. Peter’s response is quite violent. “You shall never wash my feet.”. In the greek language this is called a double negative. You could render it as You shall by no means wash my feet, no, never.
In todays language it would come out as Don’t you dare do that to me.
The reason Peter is so insistent that Jesus should not wash his feet is because Peter’s pride would never allow him to do what Jesus was doing. It’s almost as if Peter is thinking, if Jesus is willing to do this then I am going to be expected to do it and I won’t!
So he tries to stop him.
But Jesus is about to teach something very important to Peter, the disciples and all of us.
The word that is used in this passage for wash in all but one instance is the word nipto which means to wash a part of the body. The exception is in the verse which says He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet. Here John uses a word that means to wash all over the body.
This distinction is so important. Jesus was teaching his disciples the importance of a holy walk for which humility is vital.
When we trust in Christ we are bathed all over and our sins are washed away. However as we walk in the world it is easy to pick up dirt and become defiled. We do not need to be washed all over again but we must wash that part which gets defiled.
The feet are a great illustration. In the first century you would arrive at a house after a long journey with very dirty feet. Hence the ritual to wash feet when people arrived at places. They did not necessarily need a bath but they would need their dirty feet cleaned.
Jesus’ point is that without being cleansed of our sins, our pride, our worldly spirits, our critical natures etc, we cannot have communion with God.
Notice what he says to Peter – “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” This is incredible language! In other words Jesus says, If you do let me wash you clean of that competitive spirit Peter – if you do get rid of that pride, you can have no part of me. The word No part in me refers to participation – having a share in someone’s future. Peter, and the disciples, were in danger of not being in fellowship with Jesus, because of their pride and competitive spirit.
When we believe and trust in Christ we are bathed all over – but our communion with Christ depends on our keeping ourselves unspotted from the world and its values. If we allow unconfessed sin in our lives, if we do not deal with attitudes which are damaging, such as gossip, or critical spirits, or pride or competitiveness, we hinder our walk with God – and that is when we need to have our feet washed.
The whole point here is that Peter was having a difficult time receiving this from Christ BECAUSE his heart was not in humility and he was speaking out of his pride and desire to be the best in the room.
It takes humility and grace to serve others but it also takes humility and grace to allow others to serve us.
The amazing thing about this night is that Jesus was their master. He had every right to command them to serve him.
Instead he served them in complete and utter humility.
Jesus said that ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If the master becomes a servant where does that put the servant?
Yet what is incredible is that by becoming a servant Jesus did not push us down but raised us up – to be with him. Not above, or better than him, which is how we act sometimes – but with him – a servant of others.
The Romans had no use for humility because they saw it as weakness – the Greeks despised manual labor as they saw that as beneath them – right here Jesus combines the two and tells us that this is what we are to be. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
After reading this passage how on earth can Christians vie and fight for positions of authority? How can leadership teams and vestry’s be a place of conflict and anger. How can churches be filled with people who dislike each other when you see what Jesus does and says here?
Because they are fileld with people who, like Peter who say in their heart “You shall never wash my feet.” People know that if Jesus washed their feet, instead of being critical and angry and competitive they have to wash feet too and they are too prideful to get on their hands and knees, whether physically or spiritually, to serve and minister and help others.
Ultimately, without humility and grace we cannot enter the true work of the cross. Jesus knew that unless Peter and the disciples understood this they would find the next few days even harder than they did.
As we prepare ourselves to come to the cross, let us continue to give ourselves to the Lord that he would clean those areas we need cleansing from. That we would seek to serve, on our hands and knees if necessary, and we would do so not in a place of pride or competitiveness but from love, knowing that if that is where Jesus ministered, so must we.