And during supper Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
I have often wondered what it must have been like to be Simon Peter, in that Upper Room during dinner. More specifically, I wonder about one specific moment – that pregnant pause right after Jesus has begun to wash his disciples’ feet. I imagine the room as completely silent, save for the sound of the splashing of water, and the cold hard “click” of pottery against the floor. What would it have been like for Peter in that moment?
Peter had been with Jesus since his brother Andrew had told him that he had found the Messiah; when he first met Jesus, the Lord had said he was to be called Cephas – Rock – and that was pretty much that. He followed after Jesus. And then almost immediately, Peter saw so many things he never would have imagined. A paralyzed man was made to walk in Bethesda; and 5000 people were fed from from five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus had walked across the Sea of Galillee to them in the midst of a storm, he had restored the sight of man who was blind from birth, and not a week before, he had spoken to Lazarus and Lazarus rose from the dead.
Having seen all those things – having been with Jesus through all that time – what, then, would have been running through Simon Peter’s mind on this night, in that silence, with only the sound of the splashing of water, and the cold hard “click” of pottery against the floor of the room?
I can’t speak for Peter, but his words make it very clear he was uncomfortable. “You will never wash my feet,” he insists. It feels like the right answer, the holy answer. He has a sense of how great the one in front of him is. It is only in that moment when Jesus looks him and says that “unless I wash you, Peter, you have no share with me” that Peter gives in, overcompensates, even, asking Jesus not just to wash his feet but his head and hands also. When Jesus says to the disciples: “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand,” it must be true – they can’t know what he is doing in that moment. After all, I’m not sure that even here and now, some two thousand years later, we really can comprehend what Jesus was doing in that instant. Do we understand what he is doing? What Jesus is showing us? Even now?
To have one’s feet washed is a profoundly uncomfortable experience. For most of us, it is infinitely easier to wash another person’s feet, to take on the mantle of service and abasement, then it is to sit in the chair and let ourselves be served by another person. And in Peter’s case, this service came from not just any other person, but from Jesus Christ himself. And it begs the question – have we ever truly sat in Peter’s place? Have we allowed ourselves to be in that room, in that chair, in that silence, with Jesus washing our feet?
Jesus tells the disciples the meaning of his actions in the silence of that night in the upper room. He says – both to us and to the disciples – “You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” It is this charge and commandment that gives tonight its name – the word Maundy in Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin mandatum – commandment: “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” But dare I say it, hearing and receiving this new commandment is often the easy part of the good news on this night. Just as Peter was eager to spring to action and wash Jesus’ feet, as Christians, our first instinct is often to get up and do things – to start another program or another ministry, to pick up another volunteer opportunity, to keep doing more, and more, and more. And in our excitement and enthusiasm – even as we seek to follow after Jesus – we often fail to sit and listen, even as he commanded Peter to do.
First, the gospel says, we must sit. Sit in our disquietude and discomfort as Jesus moves about in that silent room, where the only noise to be heard is the sound of the splashing of water, and the cold hard “click” of pottery against the floor of the room. We must sit, and listen, and obey the Jesus who fed the five thousand, and cured the blind, and raised the dead as he takes on the role of servant – and then, only then – take up the servant’s mantle, wash the feet of others, and reach out our arms in love in the pattern of our Lord. For it is in that moment of discomfort – that moment that we want to shout, “You will never wash my feet!” – it is there, when we look at Jesus, that we see just how powerful a thing it is to be in the presence of the Word made flesh. Because when we look down at Jesus, the servant, we see one fully God and fully human. And it is only then, as we see God taking on an act of service that we will never, ever be able to repay, that we are truly able see in Jesus the faces of our neighbors. It is then, as Jesus washes our feet, that we see the love of God fully expressed for all of humanity. It is in that moment that we understand how love transforms service into something bigger and greater than we ever could imagine. And it is from that moment we are propelled and sent, called to truly be servants of all, as Jesus first was servant of all.
On this night, Jesus Christ calls us to wash one another’s feet, just as he has washed ours. Jesus compels us to reach out our arms in loving service, even as his arms of love were stretched on the hard wood of the cross. Jesus commands us to follow the example that he has set. But first we must simply be still and listen. We must be present and sit in the still and uncomfortable silence of the Upper Room, with only the sound of the splashing of water and the cold hard “click” of pottery against the floor, and come face to face with Jesus, our God who serves.