The table is set. The pieces are moving. Jesus knows as his disciples gather around for dinner that the hour is quickly approaching. Soon he will be alone. But he is never alone because the Father is with him. He takes a deep breath as he notices the disciples are all quiet and waiting for him to speak. They know something is different. His demeanor has changed drastically since the stride into Jerusalem last Sunday. Tonight has a holy and reverent air about it. The chilly upper room is lit by candlelight, which takes the edge off this wispy Israeli night.
Oh how he loved his disciples. He loved them until the end. (John 13:3)
As Jesus blesses the meal and they begin to eat, the commotion gives him a moment to think. There are a few very important things that must happen tonight. Later this evening he must go to Gethsemane to pray. He needs some time with the Father before the harassment begins. Judas, still seated among them, must also commit his final act of treason and he must be dismissed to do so. But before that, Jesus desires to give an example to his disciples that they will never forget.
He rises from the table, taking off his outer cloak. The disciples begin to hush as they see their master busying himself with a towel. He takes fresh water and pours it in a basin and kneels before his disciples. His disciples begin to feel tension.
Jesus is washing their feet.
This is no small act of service since the feet of these travelers are less than desirable. They have walked for many nights, their feet being entrenched with sand and dust. As these particles meet with the water and filthy mud is created that coats Jesus’ hands. He patiently washes each foot, paying no mind to their astonished looks. Only the servant of the house would complete such tasks as this, and now their Lord and Master is hand and foot serving them.
As he approaches Peter, he meets resistance. Keeping himself from jumping out of his chair with all his might, Peter calmly asks,
“Lord, do you wash my feet?”
“What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand,” replies the Christ.
Finally Peter has had enough. Pulling his feet away he asserts out of submission and honor,
“You will never wash my feet.”
“If I do not wash you, you have no share with me,” the Lord responds.
The arrow has met its mark and Peter feels its sting. Clearly he is in the wrong. How often he forgets whom he is talking to. Jesus has a deeper purpose in all of his ways. It is the mystery of this man that they have all come to love over these last three and a half years. He must humbly repent.
“Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
“If your feet are washed, you have no need of the rest. You are clean. Yet, not every one of you.”
The Lord has finished with Peter and now his basin rests at the feet of another disciple. Judas Iscariot stares into his eyes. The Lord is moved with anguish. This friend of his will soon sulk into the night and report his whereabouts to his enemies. Jesus will be killed because of this betrayal, yet he is not angry. He knows it must be this way.
Judas’ eyes skirt away. He cannot bear to look into the full face of Christ. Something about doing so seems to give you the feeling that he peers into your very soul. And so, in a final act of ultimate love, he washes the feet of the one who has already conspired against him. This is love.
Jesus stands from the floor, washes his hands, and takes a seat at the table. His soul is troubled.
“One of you will betray me.”
You could cut the tension with a knife. The disciples are all appalled. Clearly, they would all die rather than relinquish their Lord to the religious elite for trial. They have all heard the incensed rumors about their presence here. It is no new thing for them to be unwelcomed and even threatened for Jesus’ sake. But for one of them to be the perpetrators, it is unfathomable.
As Judas reaches for some bread his hand meets Jesus’. Jesus clutches his wrist and peers into his eyes.
“What you are going to do, do it quickly.”
With that, Judas disappeared into the night.
None of the others immediately assumed that Judas was the betrayer. Judas often ran errands for Jesus, so to them this seemed routine. (John 13:28-30)
Jesus turns to his disciples. The time has come.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples.”
These are strong words from their Lord. They have called him Lord, these past three and half years. They have seen him do miraculous things. Clearly they have always felt that he was the prophet that Moses spoke of that would be greater than he. But this was different.
Now the Lord was not only forgiving sins, but handing out commandments. And this command had a different tone. It seems covenantal. The disciples cannot help but think of Mt. Sinai as they sit at the table with the Lord. This moment seems to them a holy moment.
And suddenly, the act of Christ seems apparent. He has first washed their feet and then commanded them to do likewise. Peter closes his heavy eyes in understanding. As he opens them his vision is blurred. How can a fisherman be crying like this?
“Where are you going Lord?” Peter asks.
“Where I am going you cannot come, but you will follow me afterward.” Jesus answered.
He spoke in such matter-of-fact terms. His words were laced with nuance and layered meaning. They knew he spoke of his death. Every man’s heart was melted within him. How can this be? Some of them clung to his arms, others wept openly at his feet. Surely the one who raises men from the dead cannot die? Peter cannot accept this,
“Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”
Jesus peers into the confident eyes of his disciple. He loves him so, but he also knows that without humility, Peter cannot fulfill the great things that are in store.
“Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.”
Peter has been smitten. His mind begins to reel. So, it is I? I am the betrayer? It can’t be. I would never do such a thing. Palpable anguish begins to reside in his stomach. Am I capable of such lunacy? I know the Lord. He is MY Lord. I would never betray him. I cannot do it! His tear-soaked eyes meet the Lord’s. Without words, he pleads with him to make him understand.
Jesus’ heart swells to see the contrite heart of his friend. He sees nothing by loyalty and love in the eyes of Simon. A great leader he will be soon enough. Jesus knows that he has wounded his friend, but it was not the wound of anger, but the wound of love. At this moment, Jesus remembers Judas and the proverb is fulfilled,
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend, profuse are the kisses of the enemy.”
Yet, he will not leave his disciples in this despair. He lifts up Peter’s eyes from the floor and embraces him as a friend. This story does not end in death. Death is only the beginning. Many will come to life through his death. Thinking of this Jesus, stretching his arms out at his sides, smiles a broad and fearless grin,
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.”
And with many other words, the Lord exhorted them about life, death, his mission, eternity, his plans, his purpose, and his return.
As you get the chance, read through John 14-17 today. Jesus’ discourse after the events in the upper room is extensive. Our Lord does not let his disciples despair, nor will he let us despair on this Maundy Thursday.
The term “Maundy Thursday” means “Mandate Thursday” and it refers to the mandate that Christ gave before his death to love one another. The genuine, tangible, love of the community of Christ for one another is the most powerful apologetic for the gospel that the church has to offer. More than any program or service we hold, true love cannot be denied.
Today, love someone with the strength of Christ. Find a way to “wash someone’s feet” today. This does not have to be literal, but the posture of the soul must match the posture of our Savior on this night long ago.