John 13:1-17, 31b-35
A guest post from Lindsey Funtik, Coordinator of Volunteer Ministries, First United Methodist Church, Ashland, Ohio.
While living overseas, I got the opportunity to hike through a desert canyon. My friends and I wanted to get out of the city to explore and the hiking guide promised we had chosen a "beginner" trail, so we went for it. The vista was sun-bleached and magnificent, with the rocky, wild terrain broken up by bright blue and green streams of water that persisted where dryness otherwise prevailed. As we approached, I scanned the scene for a clear trail, but there was nothing but uneven wilderness. The "beginner" designation, it would seem, was extremely subjective. This was wild territory. Despite my apprehension and inherent clumsiness, however, there was no going back. My friends and I strapped on some helmets and proceeded to embark on six of the most difficult and rewarding hours of our lives.
When I finally hobbled those last few strides of the day and collapsed in a throbbing heap on my couch, I somehow found the energy to bend over and take off my hiking sandals. Without going into too much detail, I will just say that the dusty, grimy, starkly-tanned state of my feet was unmatched. I had spent the day walking through the desert and it was time (if for no other reason than for the sake of my poor roommate) to wash it all away.
The experience of looking down at the mess of my feet always comes to mind when reading the lectionary passage for today, John 13:1-17, 31b-35. While Jesus was spending one last evening with His disciples as He prepared to walk the road to the cross, He got up in the middle of the meal and knelt down to wash each of the disciples’ feet. This was shocking to the people around the table because their leader and rabbi was taking on the role of a servant, and it is shocking to me because I once trekked across the desert and had to deal with the unfortunate aftermath. Make no mistake, eah foot that Jesus was cleaning that night was dirty.
I have sat and meditated on this image countless times. It is one of my favorites in all of Scripture. This time around, when asking the Lord for some insight into what He would have for me to share about this scene, He zeroed in on the toes. Those calloused, desert digits in all of their grimy glory were carefully crafted by God on high. They were knit together in each respective mother’s womb, fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139). As I thought about Jesus kneeling before His friends, the Lord brought to mind how much God reveled in the creation of their toes. Strange, but true.
Even more, I believe that it was not with reluctance that Jesus set about this act of servanthood, but joy. I believe that as He looked down into that bowl of water growing ever more murky, He loved the creation God had put before Him and delighted in wiping away the dirt. Yes, Jesus had a heavy heart at this moment. Yes, this is the speculation of a sentimental theologian. But I believe we can confidently say that Jesus bent down because He wanted to make His beloved creation clean, and that that centered Him on the beautiful purpose that would run as an electric current to propel Him through His next few hours.
Once He had finished making the rounds, Jesus said in verses 14-15,
"Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you." (NIV)
And the passage at hand finishes with verses 34 and 35:
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (NIV)
Jesus sets this example for us: serve one another in love. Do not be afraid to get your hands dirty for the sake of the other. Because Judas also sat at that table, we can even go so far as to wash the feet of our betrayers. Through Jesus’ example, we know what it means to look at anyone and everyone as bearers of the Image of God. He made my toes and He made your toes.
We each share this magnificent dignity, but we all could use a spit shine every now and then. We are crafted in God’s own image, but we are coated in dirt. Through serving as Jesus served, we take on His mission of brushing away that grimy coating of sin to reveal the treasure beneath. What a powerful thing that we can do for one another in His name!
In a way, Jesus' purposes in His earthly ministry were summed up as He knelt down: "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Matthew 20:28). He came to be coated in the dirt of our existence and to kneel before those who were more helpless than could ever be realized. He came to walk miles, eat fish, pour tirelessly into others, and ultimately defeat death. Jesus does this with humility and grace, not fearing the sight of precious toes which have spent a little too much time entrenched in the mire.
May we be like Jesus. May we be people with towels around our waists and hope in our hearts as we preach the good news of the God who wiped us clean.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)