John 13:1-17

John is the only Gospel writer to record this ‘parable in action’. How are we to understand it? Is it a lesson in humility? It certainly is. Is it an illustration of how we are to serve each other? Without doubt. But, is that all?

Have we focused on the method to the exclusion of the purpose of the ‘footwashing’ Jesus was talking about? Is it simply about the humility we need to display in ‘serving’ one another? If that is the conclusion we have come to, and many biblical scholars have made the same mistake… so, don’t feel too guilty about it… we have missed the main point of this ‘parable in action’.

Because the footwashing took place during the meal, and not when the group first arrived, we are not meant to see it merely as an act of courtesy, or a rebuke of the disciples’ pettymindedness. Consistent with John’s usual approach, this incident has a deeper significance than many seem to see.

Knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, suggests that the Son was in full control of the coming events, and was working in close cooperation with the Father in what was about to take place.

Jesus’ mission was about to be brought to culmination as he prepared himself for his return to the Father. The cross was an essential part of the work of providing forgiveness and reconciliation with the Father for all who believed in what he had come to do.

To reinforce this point, Jesus acted out a parable whose message was that there is no place in his fellowship for those who have not been cleansed by his atoning death…, the ‘bath’ that he refers to when he says to Peter, Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet (v10). Jesus is talking about a cleansing that follows the ‘bath’. In other words, once we have experienced the cleansing that removes the rebellious,, wilful, sinful nature that has always opposed God’s right to rule our lives, there will always be an ongoing need for cleansing: that of the feet. What is the significance of the feet as opposed to the whole body? The feet take us through life with all its temptations, its failures, its pollution, its questionable practices. Nor are we always aware of the impact of these experiences on our own spiritual life. Those who have been given responsibility for our spiritual growth and development might notice things that are damaging to us, that we may not be aware of. They have a duty to point things out to us for our good.

This is when certain problems can arise.

1. Our reluctance to receive advice or correction.

Fellowship within the body of God’s people requires willingness to receive from Him, as well as readiness to give to others. As Archbishop William Temple once said, man’s humility does not begin with the giving of service; it begins with the readiness to receive it. For there can be much pride and condescension in our giving of service.

Peter is seen in this story, as a person who is willing to serve the Lord, but not to receive from him. Even when Peter begins to understand the message of the enactment, his response to Jesus’ correction is still an expression of Peter’s self-will: Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head! Having come around to accepting the lowly service Jesus offers him, he is still imposing his own conditions on what he receives. Peter’s self-will had to be surrendered if he wished to be part of the fellowship of those who have been cleansed. He had to be prepared to throw in his lot completely with Jesus. Judas failed to do this, and for him the symbolic act achieved nothing.

In 13:12ff, we have the implications of the parabolic action, concluding with the statement, he who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me. Discipleship involved willingness to accept from God... through Jesus Christ... through those whom he sends, whatever he has to say to us.

Sometimes people who have not been given the responsibility for caring for others, or are specifically directed by God, feel entitled to correct others. This can cause a great deal of damage if it’s not done by the right people and in the right way.

2. Our reluctance to advise or correct another person.

How many times have Church leaders been reluctant to correct a member who has shown signs of doing the wrong thing or going astray, only to see that person drift completely away from the life of the Church and communion with Christ because no-one made the effort to help a fellow-traveller to stay out of trouble! It isn’t a pleasant task. Everything within us shrinks from confronting someone else with a correction or a warning. We are all aware of our own short-comings and proneness to fall into sin ourselves.

I remember talking to a pastor’s daughter in Russia about what kind of care is exercised with new believers in her Church. The leaders didn’t see it as their responsibility, she told me. They believed that was the responsibility of the Holy Spirit. That is serious negligence of the duty-of-care Church leaders have been given.

In the story of the ‘footwashing’, the disciples recognised Jesus’ exalted position as Teacher and Lord, and this recognition Jesus accepted. If then, as exalted Lord and Teacher, he has stooped to wash their feet, an act of the most menial kind, they, who were all equals, needed to learn to serve one another. Obviously, they would not be able to ‘wash’ one another’s feet in the sense of providing the kind of once-for-all cleansing that Jesus was to accomplish on the cross on their behalf, i.e. the ‘bathing’ (v10). However, in the day-to-day soiling of their feet in their pilgrimage through life, they were to be concerned for each other’s cleanness, or spiritual well-being, and be ready to exercise and receive a ministry of cleansing, from each other. To the extent that they were prepared to serve one another, and to receive service from one another towards this end, they stood in his place in their ministry towards others (v20).

The thought that the servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him, is repeated, with minor variations in several other places in the Gospels, indicating that Jesus must have reiterated this teaching on a number of occasions. If you know these things…, adds to the suggestion that they had heard Jesus say these things before, but had not put it into practice.

3. HOW is this to be exercised?

1) & 2) tells us WHAT the main focus is of this ‘parable in action’. We now need to notice HOW that responsibility is to be exercised. Many commentators focus on the HOW for their explanation of this event, and completely neglect the WHAT Jesus wanted his disciples to understand.

To get this message into perspective we have to step back a little and think about the timing of this event. It was just prior to Jesus’ leaving his disciples. Yes, he was going to come to them from time to time over the forty days after his resurrection (Acts 1:3), but he was not going to be with them any longer in the way he had been up to now. We need to understand what he was saying to them in terms of the on-goingness of life from now on. They were going to experience his saving work in their lives, but they would also face the polluting influences of the world. He had already prayed,

My prayer is not that you [God] take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. (John 17:15).

There was God’s responsibility for them, and there was man’s part in that care and protection. The disciples were to care for each other in their daily walk with Christ. But it was to be done with humility. This is HOW this responsibility was to be carried out.

It was in humility they were to carry out this responsibility and it was with humility they were to accept this ministry to them. They were to have a mutual concern for each other. A concern where pride and self-righteousness had no place.

The present-day Christian community has come to accept withoug question that humility has to do with serving others. We talk about having a ‘servant nature’ or a ‘servant attitude’. What we have failed to consider is the nature of the specific service Jesus wanted his disciples to understand in this particular context. Jesus was not talking about some vague idea of ‘service’. He was referring to the specific service of helping each other stay out of trouble, and stay clean.