Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.
2 Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. 4 So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing. 6 When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”
8 “No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”
9 Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”
10 Jesus responded, “Those who have bathed need only to have their feet washed, because they are completely clean. You disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 He knew who would betray him. That’s why he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”
12 After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. 16 I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. 17 Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them. 18 I’m not speaking about all of you. I know those whom I’ve chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture, The one who eats my bread has turned against me.[a]
19 “I’m telling you this now, before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I Am. 20 I assure you that whoever receives someone I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”
You may have heard me speak about “doorknob stories” in the past. They are those things said at a point where literally or figuratively a person has their hand on the doorknob, ready to leave after a visit. Many times, it reveals something important to the person telling the story in the safety of a last minute. IN the last few years of my dad’s life I did something that changed our whole relationship. My dad was not a very demonstrative person – he held his feelings pretty much to himself. I decided I wanted to let him know how important he was to me. It began with a sincere handshake just as I was leaving. I think it surprised him the first time I did it. But in that very brief moment there was a kind of electricity as he received my handshake and returned it warmly. From there is rather quickly developed into a hug. This became an important part of our weekly get together for dinner. Eventually it grew to, “I love you dad, and he would return that. It began with something safe standing at the door as I was ready to leave but led to a much deeper relationship.
There is a great importance to doorknob stories. Out Lenten Theme for this year is about what Jesus wanted his disciples to know before he left this earth and rejoined his Father. In the Gospel of John chapters 13-17 are one long doorknob story. This was Jesus’ last opportunity (with the exception of the post resurrection appearances) for Jesus to tell them what they needed to know. It reminds me of a little mnemonic I had seen years ago - B.I.B.L.E. -Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Jesus wanted to give the disciples what they needed before he “left.”
If you have your Bibles out, turn to John 13:19 and follow me on this quick journey through these 4 chapters. There are 8 verses in this section that talk about why Jesus was telling the disciples these things. Here they are:
John 13:19 “I’m telling you this now, before it happens, so that when it does happen
you will believe that I Am.”
John 14:25 “I have spoken these things to you while I am with you.”
John 14:29 “I have told you before it happens so that when it happens you will
John 15:11 “I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy
will be complete.”
John 16:1 “I have said these things to you so that you won’t fall away.”
John 16:4-5 “But I have said these things to you so that when their time comes, you
will remember that I told you about them. “I didn’t say these things to
you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5 But now I go away to
the one who sent me.”
John 16:12 “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now.”
John 16:33 “I’ve said these things to you so that you will have peace in me. In the
world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the
You can readily see why I dub this section a doorknob story. Critical things the disciples needed to know were revealed in this section. They are things we need to know as well. In the weeks ahead the themes for the week will include:
The Need For … Cleansing, Belief, Connection, Love, Strength, A Guide, and a Conquering Power.
At this point, turn to chapter 13. We want to begin our journey here in the Upper Room, the immediate setting. In the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – the “Upper Room” preface centers around how the room came to be ready for their Passover Feast. You may remember the disciples being told to go into the city where they would meet the man with the water jar and they were to follow him to the home and tell the owner that the Master had need of their upper room. In the Gospel of John, however, “what’s-about-to-happen” is the defining factor. Look again at 13:1-3. Jesus knows that his time has come, and while they are sharing the meal, he was aware that the devil had already provoked Judas Iscariot. Jesus stands up, removes his outer cloak and proceeds to wash the disciples feet.
The pivotal question is, “Why this wonderful, loving, personal act of care and service on this night when he would both be betrayed and denied - when he would face his “leaving” (13:1) via crucifixion and death?”
The washing of feet was an act of cleansing – a courtesy to the guests in a house. It was common for master of a banquet to have a servant care for the feet of his or her guests. They were dirty from the streets the guests had walked to arrive at the banquet. Here is where tradition is broken. Jesus takes the role of servant himself. From the dialogue in the story Jesus reveals the disciple’s need for cleansing. The question becomes, “cleansing for who and from what?”
Judas Iscariot was among the disciples and had his feet washed just the same. He definitely needed cleansing. Our tendency to think of those “out there” who need it. Judas was obvious. But what about the rest?
Peter? From what did he need cleansing? That’s not so clear.
Jesus says, after he is all finished, “Do you know what I have done for you?” (v. 12) In his expression of humble love and service he invites them to do the same. It points to their need for cleansing.
Luke’s Gospel, in chapter 9 records 3 events that might enlighten the disciple’s need for cleansing. In 9:40 a man petitions Jesus on behalf of his only son, who is possessed by a demon. The man says, “I begged your disciples to throw it out but they couldn’t.” Jesus’ response seems a bit harsh toward the disciples. He seems to chastise the disciples for not relying fully on his unlimited power. Next, in 9:49-50 there is the report of an encounter with someone, “not one of us,” throwing our demons in your name.” The disciples reported that they tried to stop him. Jesus reply of, “whoever isn’t against you is for you” seems to indicate that the disciples needed to needed to see a bigger picture and quit being so exclusive. Finally, in the trilogy in chapter 9, comes 9:53-54. There was a Samaritan village who didn’t welcome them. The disciples asked Jesus, “shall we call down fire from heaven to destroy them?” They needed a cleansing from self-sufficiency, pride, and exclusivity. They needed a humble cleansing.
I believe the reluctance of Peter is something we can connect with. Peter was doing his best to follow Jesus in every way. Jesus affirms that they are already clean, as in they are already disciples (v. 10). But humility and servant caring were a step further. They needed that in order to fulfil the Jesus’ mission after he ascended back to the Father.
Hear our reluctance as Richard Bansemer in his book Praying on the Journey with Christ describes it so well.
“Lord, we can hardly imagine you kneeling before us. All our lives we have knelt before you and the Father in a posture of devotion. We can more easily imagine you dying on a cross for us than kneeling before us, washbasin and towel in hand. After all, if you are dying for us, you are boldly taking on our great enemies of sin, death, and the devil. But if you are washing our feet, you are singling us out for love. You are being so personal, so tender, so momentous, that we can never forget the touch, the act, the look on your face beneath us. Lord, we can’t stand to think of it, even now.
“Is it because we know that if we let you do this to us, we must also do it to others who we feel are beneath us? If we let you do this to us, must we have you haunting us, all the days of our lives, not only as Lord of the cross, but of the washbasin as well? My feet warm just thinking about it.”
Jesus is making it clear – to the disciples and to us - that the gift of the cross is for everyone. We need the loving, tender cleansing care of Jesus in order to face the trials of life, and truly live into the mission of our Savior. Once again, Bansemer seems to put the words in our mouths.
“We want to cry out with Peter, “Yes, Lord, do it to me now.” But our heart is far from our head in this matter. We think we would rather wash another’s feet than have you wash ours. We think we could be more in control of the matter that way. Lord Jesus Christ, follow us all the days of our lives, until we say, “Yes, Lord, do it now.” Do not let us run from you forever. Hound us with washbasin and towel, until we are clean, until we are yours. Until then, we will not know what it means to be all yours. Amen.”
This Lenten Season may allow and even invite Jesus to cleanse us – heart, mind, and soul – that we may more perfectly follow our Lord and Savior. Amen.
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Pastor Paul Grossman