In a few moments, we will do something we only do once a year. We’ll watch, or participate, as Fr David imitates the actions of Christ, by washing feet.
It is an intensely moving moment – and yet it’s one that can have a slightly uncomfortable edge. It’s one that is sometimes resisted or avoided, as anyone who’s tried to get people to sign up to have their feet washed knows.
But what’s striking to me is there’s discomfort right there in the text. Peter doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet – and, to be clear, that’s very different from being uncomfortable with someone representing Jesus, often very imperfectly, people often have good reasons for not wanting to have their feet washed. But Peter’s resistance is different – here, we see him trying to refuse this simple thing that the Lord wants to do for him.
And there are times, too – and this has nothing to do with whether or not you’re comfortable with a stranger touching your feet – when we resist what Jesus wants to do for us, even though we know deep in our hearts that it is what we most need.
But why might Peter, why might any of us, resist Jesus’s offer of help?
There’s one obvious answer that might occur to us, because we’ve seen it time and again with Jesus’ opponents, from the powerful, self-satisfied, religious leaders – the ones who insist, volubly, when Jesus speaks of giving the blind their sight, that they can see perfectly well, thank you. They are not dirty, they do not need to wash.
Jesus is unwelcome to them because he insists on the truth – he sees their proud hearts and their deadly self-conceit, and he names them. And that is very unwelcome to us. Now, we should not believe that everyone who feels that way is beyond the reach of Christ – and in Nicodemus’s story, threaded through the Gospel, we see a very strong hint that he at least found his way to faith and salvation – but John shows us Jesus making the same point again and again. Unless we are willing to admit that we need Jesus’ help, we will remain trapped in the net of our own self-image and pride.
But that doesn’t seem to be what the problem is for Peter. He doesn’t seem to be saying “You will never wash my feet” because he thinks he’s fine. It’s true that, throughout much of his story, Peter has been over-confident, and he will continue to be so, denying Jesus in sheer terror for his life, and bitterly regretting it when it’s too late, but here something different seems to be in play. “What, you, Lord, washing my feet?”
Well, perhaps Peter is offended to see Christ taking the role of a servant. We’ve seen throughout the Gospels that none of the disciples – not even the “beloved disciple” in John’s Gospel – entirely understand what Jesus is about. We see them squabbling about status, they seem to believe that Jesus, yes, is messiah and king – but they think he will be the sort of king they know about. And kings do not serve others, certainly not in a menial, intimate, and uncomfortable way. King are sacred persons, they don’t get their hands dirty.
But Christ is not that sort of king. Christ turns the world’s expectations upside down, because they are not of God but of the devil. Christ is the nation’s king – and maker, and sustainer – but the throne from which he rules is the cross. The urge to grab and assert power over others is a lie. Christ’s power is true and authentic – and so he does not grab. Instead, he shows us the lengths to which God will go to redeem us and make us whole.
And I’m not sure we always like it.
Peter wants a safe distance, and perhaps we do too. His desire to serve Our Lord is sincere, even if his courage is, to put it kindly, a bit wobbly, but he struggles to cope with the idea that the Lord might serve him.
Some people are very bad at accepting help and perhaps it’s particularly difficult because we live in a culture that says it’s good to be self-reliant and bad to need the support of others. You can see it play out in a lot of different. Some of that is the sense of not wanting to burden other people – and some of it is fear of being dependent on others. To be dependant is to know that you are vulnerable – and, sadly, we also live in a world that often treats the vulnerable particularly cruelly. To accept help is to lay yourself open to hurt. But however badly we have been betrayed or hurt, the one we can trust unreservedly kneels before us in Christ. And we are – even, or especially, if we don’t like admitting it, dependent on him. Without him, without God’s loving us into existence and continuing to will and love that we exist, we would cease to be. But, uncomfortable though that might be to admit, it is something that we should rejoice in, because he is the one on whom we can always rely.
However faithless we are, however we betray other people, or ourselves, or him, God remains faithful – remember, he washes the feet of Judas too, in the full knowledge of who he is, and if Judas does not take the opportunity to turn back from his path in response, well, that was what he chose. Christ does not betray us, he is himself Truth and he cannot and will not go against his own nature.
There’s another thing, too. There is a voice that most of us hear at some point, and that some of us hear much more often. Sometimes it’s a nasty, nagging whisper; sometimes it’s a loud and deafening roar. Sometimes, as perhaps it was doing to Peter here, it makes itself out to be the voice of humility – but it isn’t.
It is the voice that tells us that we are not loveable.
It tells us that we are not worth bothering about, it tells us that if people really knew us, they would reject us. And it can encourage us to push people away. It can encourage us, too, to push God away.
But God knows exactly what we are like. And he loves us.
That can be shocking – in one sense, it should be. God loves us so much that he becomes a human being in order, among other things, that he can kneel in front of us, in front of me, in front of you, and wash our feet. And if you think that sounds absurd, then wait til tomorrow afternoon, and see what God is willing to do – or have done to him – then.
Holy Week is all one service, and Christ’s work is all one act, we just have to tease it out a bit in order to see it properly. There is a fairly obvious link between the Eucharist, which Christ celebrates for the first time with his disciples, and gives to his church as a means of grace and hope of glory, and the crucifixion, in which that grace is enacted and the glory revealed. But there is a link too between what he does before supper, and the work of our redemption, they are part of the same divine act playing out in human time and space. The great hymn we have been singing at Mattins this week, “Sing my tongue”, reminds us of this truth:
“He endures the nails, the spitting,
vinegar, and spear, and reed;
from that holy body broken
blood and water forth proceed:
earth, and stars, and sky, and ocean,
by that flood from stain are freed.”
But we are not quite there yet, we are still here in the upper room. Christ, our Lord and our God, the maker of heaven and earth, kneels before us to wash our feet, he bids us to table to sit and eat with him. And our instinct may well be to draw back, to say we aren’t worthy.
But there is nothing about us that God does not know. He knows us through and through, even the bits that we hide from ourselves because we can’t bear to look at them. God’s love has nothing to do with what we deserve. He knows us, and he loves us, and he waits with longing to make us whole, to complete the work of his incarnation, passion, and resurrection.
Indeed, he waits, patiently, for us to discover that in his eyes, which behold all of time and space, it is already accomplished. All God’s acts are one. He has chosen us, and he has cleansed and healed us, and he bids us sit and eat. Amen