Washed by Grace

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For the four weeks leading up to and going beyond Easter, we’re looking at the life of Peter.  Because he’s so often at the center of both the brightest and darkest moments in the Gospels, he has always been a source of hope and inspiration for those endeavoring to follow Jesus.

In Bible times, the foot was literally and symbolically the dirtiest part of the body.

In the era before Crocs and sneakers, dust, muck, and manure from scores of creatures would cake one’s feet on a daily basis. 

The bottom of the foot came to represent something profoundly disrespectful.  A conquering king would be said to “put his enemies under his feet.”  Sometimes monarchs and generals actually stood on the necks of their foes, who were groveling in the mire.  To this day in certain Developing World countries, showing the underside of one’s foot might be received as a grave insult.

When a male guest entered a home or attended a gathering in Jesus’ day, he could expect to receive typical Middle Eastern hospitality.  That would include a basin of cool water and a towel.  

One scholar has written that foot-washing in the ancient world was a “despicable, slave-worthy task.”  No righteous Jew would ever ask another Jew to wash the grime off his feet.  That would have been dishonoring.  Typically, the household servant with the least status – ideally a Gentile, or one of the Not-Chosen People – would be assigned this task.
It’s hard to imagine a modern equivalent.  Perhaps it would be receiving the assignment of Permanent Cat Box Cleaner.  Or having a spouse who says, “If Johnny throws up on himself at 3 am, you’re on call.”      

On the night before his death, while his dozen spiritual apprentices are reclining at the low table where their Passover meal (Jesus’ Last Supper) has been prepared for them, Jesus wraps a towel around his waist, pours water into a basin, and begins to wash the grit and manure from between his disciples’ toes. 

This is almost certainly a shattering moment for the Twelve.  If Jesus is really the King of kings and Lord of lords, how can he lower himself to such a dishonorable task? 

For the outspoken and emotional Peter – whose bravado frequently exceeds his wisdom – this is simply too much.  

“Lord, are you actually going to wash my feet?” he asks (John 13:6). 

Then he makes his feelings crystal clear.  Most translations of John 13:8 say something like, “You shall never wash my feet.”  The original Greek is far more dramatic.  Here’s the literal word order and emphasis:  “Not NOT will you EVER wash MY feet – forever!”  The word “forever” is actually “into eternity.”  Peter is making it clear that under no circumstances will he ever let Jesus stoop (in any sense of the word) to such humiliation. 
Whereupon Jesus drops a second bomb.

“Unless I wash you, you can’t be part of what I’m doing.”  In other words, “If I can’t forgive your sins, if you won’t let me love you, you will never be able to experience my presence.”  

Most of us have felt what Peter felt at one time or another:

“Lord, don’t bother with me today; please help someone who’s really in need.”
“Lord, I’m doing fine; I don’t need any special grace right now.”
“Lord, I’m good; I’ve got things under control” (warning: you most certainly don’t).
“Lord, I’m terrified to let you get any closer to me” (now we’re getting nearer to the truth).

Martin Luther pointed out that it’s usually not our sin that gets us out of relationship with Jesus.  It’s our sense of personal righteousness.  To put it bluntly, we imagine ourselves to be too humble or too “together” to let him love us.  

But Jesus will have none of it.  If I can’t wash you, you can’t have me.    

Peter, swinging like a pendulum, immediately replies, “If that’s true, then not just my feet, but my hands and my head as well!”  Lord, if you’re really going to wash me, throw me into the dunk tank. 

But it’s actually enough to make a single, simple choice:
As Easter approaches, let us humbly open our hearts to receive God’s free gift of love.