This Thursday, known as Maundy Thursday, Christians around the world will commemorate Jesus celebrating the Passover with his disciples, as recorded in John 13. But something happened before the meal: Jesus gave an important lesson. It was a lesson for the first disciples surrounding Jesus at that table, and it’s a lesson for us today if we would call ourselves followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. What happened on that very first Maundy Thursday? Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.
We’ve been hearing and learning a lot about hand washing lately, a nonnegotiable necessity to maintain physical health amidst our coronavirus pandemic. But what do you know about footwashing? What we learn here will actually have crucial ramifications for ours and others’ spiritual health and wellbeing—again, something we ought to be giving particular attention to during our current crisis.
The Hour Has Come
The passage begins with John noting that “Jesus knew that his hour had come”, a phase used to refer to Jesus’ crucifixion and death. In the gospel John has made a point of saying various times that the Jesus’ hour had not yet come, building suspense throughout the narrative. But now the moment has finally arrived! It is clear that John wants us to pay particular attention to what happens. Are you watching closely? Are you leaning in?
Then it happens—perhaps the most anticlimactic thing imaginable. Jesus performs one of the most menial tasks of the day: he washes his disciples’ feet (v. 5). Though the practice of footwashing is no longer an aspect of our culture or society, we can well understand the revulsion of the disciples. Peter protests—“You shall never wash my feet!” (v. 8)— because a task so menial should not be taken up by his master. In the First Century, footwashing was almost exclusively performed by slaves, and normally only Gentile slaves at that. Though Peter’s response is somewhat characteristic, in this instance he no doubt reflected how all the disciples were feeling. Jesus’ actions are completely inconsistent with the norms of the day, yet at the same time they are completely consistent with the character of the Messiah and Suffering Servant.
And isn’t that the whole point? The hour has finally come. The moment of salvation is here. And what will it look like? Not as powerful as many people were expecting. Victory will come through crucifixion, not coronation. Jesus will display His power and glory by mounting a cross, not a throne. It’s the paradox that makes up the essence of the Christian faith. And so it makes perfect sense for the culmination of the long-awaited redemptive hour to be symbolized by something as despised as footwashing. In fact, the only way we could ever understand what Jesus is doing here is through the light of the cross. So Jesus says to incredulous Peter, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (v. 7).
An Example of Humility
Beyond foreshadowing his coming death, the act footwashing also served as an example for the disciples: “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (v. 15). Jesus is not setting down a practice to be mindlessly mimicked, but rather a pattern of humble service that could (and should) take a variety of forms.
On Maundy Thursday—and this Maundy Thursday, in particular—it is good for us to ask, “How might I humble myself in service to others? What will it look like for me to wash the feet of others?” In our current predicament, the greatest act of service we can do for others is likely to stay home, follow health protocols, and help stem the surge of the pandemic. But there will be other opportunities for more hands-on service: offering to brave the grocery store for someone who is at risk. Perhaps it will mean taking a hit to your wallet to help a small business that is in greater need.
In what way might you put yourself at the feet of others?
It’s helpful to keep in mind that what Jesus is teaching his disciples here is very closely related to the “new commandment” that He will speak of shortly: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (v. 34). Incidentally, that command to love one another is where we get the term Maundy Thursday (derived from the Latin mandatum which means “mandate” or “command”). The command to wash one another’s feet is interpreted by the command to love one another, which is later revealed to find its ultimate fulfillment in the act of laying one’s life down for another (15:12-15). Again, the lesson taught on Maundy Thursday only makes sense in light of the cross.
The Theology of the Cross
If we are to cling to the cross, we also must accept Christ’s teaching here. We can’t claim Christ and have it any other way. Jesus says as much: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet…Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (14, 16). The teaching is clear: if it is not beneath a master to humble (even humiliate) himself for the sake of others, neither should it be beneath his servants.
As we engage in similar practices of humility, we pursue cruciform living—a life that is shaped by Christ’s sacrificial love and conformed more and more into His likeness. The ancient pastor and theologian Ambrose of Milan said, “The mystery of humility is good because while I wash the filth of others, I wash away my own.”
Of course, Ambrose was not suggesting that forgiveness comes through our own works and actions. He was saying that it is through our humble submission to others that we most reflect the perfect character of our God and Savior. In this way, he foreshadowed the teaching that would be popularized by Martin Luther as a “theology of cross.” This is in distinction to a theology of glory, which says the purpose of life and the way to God is through power and prestige. The theology of the cross says the opposite: one grows closer to God through weakness and smallness and suffering and humility.
Just as God approaches us through the humiliating cross, we approach God through humbling ourselves and taking our place at the filthy feet of others. Now, perhaps more than ever, the world needs the church to recover a theology of the cross.
Jonathan Landry Cruse is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the author of The Christian’s True Identity and What Happens When We Worship (RHB, forthcoming). He is also a hymn writer whose works can be found at www.HymnsOfDevotion.com.