Jesus Washes His Disciples' Feet
Becoming an elder over the years has represented many things to different people. For some it is the most important event in their Christian journey. For some it has brought about a real growth in personal faith. For some being an elder has given them a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ. For some becoming an elder has been about prestige in local communities, being well thought of and having a position of influence and greater respect. For some the eldership has been about self promotion and pushing a personal agenda. For some being an elder is a means of opposing and attacking ministers, sometimes for years on end. The eldership has led some to go on to become lay preachers, readers, unpaid local ministers and fully ordained ministers also. Some elders have become moderators of presbyteries, influential members of central Church committees and even moderators of general assemblies.
Jesus' model of the eldership however is best seen in his washing of his disciples feet. It was an act of genuine humility. It was how Jesus was and how he had lived. We admire examples of humility in life and it seems that there are far fewer of them than there are of human pride and arrogance. Here are some examples of humble service.
Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, whose family came from Langholm in the Scottish Borders was a very humble man. Even though he had every reason to have an astronomical ego, he went about his job with a quiet strength and confident competency. And he did it all for £8 a day, in addition to a $17,000-a-year salary. He explored the moon, but when he returned from his journey, he kept his feet firmly planted on the earth. He refused to become a celebrity. James Clash said of his legacy: “ In a world where everything is about ‘me, me, and me,’ he was a rare throwback to a time when humility and character counted, when people routinely risked their lives not to get rich or self-aggrandize, but for their country, science, and exploration.”
Some of you will remember the wonderfully named Chesley Sullenberger, III. He is a retired airline captain and aviation safety consultant. He was hailed as a national hero in the United States when he successfully executed an emergency water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River off Manhattan, New York City, after the aircraft was disabled by striking a flock of Canada geese during its initial climb out of LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009. All of the 155 passengers and crew aboard the aircraft survived. Captain Sully exemplified humility as few could. In an interview after the crash, he was modest about his acts of courage, attributing his poise to his training over the years. He said, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”
On the contrary there are many examples of egotism. In a recent TV interview President Barack Obama said he was the “fourth-best president” in American history. Every time he speaks Obama displays extraordinary self-pride. Donald Trump the American businessman and presidential candidate has said, “Show me someone without an ego, and I'll show you a loser - having a healthy ego, or high opinion of yourself, is a real positive in life!” (The opposite of Jesus). Bill Shankly the former Liverpool Football Club manager used to say of the Scottish international player Graeme Souness “If he was made of chocolate, he would eat himself”.
But our Jesus was not like that at all. As we heard read to us Jesus washed his disciples feet at that last supper. Having taken off his outer garment, Jesus was left with his tunic, a shorter garment like a long undershirt. Slaves would be so dressed to serve a meal. Jesus tied a linen cloth around his waist with which to dry their feet, obviously not what one would expect a master to do. This is something a gentile slave could be required to do, but not a Jewish slave. On the other hand, foot washing is something wives did for their husbands, children for their parents, and disciples for their teachers. A level of intimacy is involved in these cases, unlike when Gentile slaves would do the washing. In Jesus' case, there is an obvious reversal of roles with his disciples. The one into whose hands the Father had given all now took his disciples' feet into his hands to wash them.
Slaves were looked down upon in the ancient world, and Peter could not stand the thought of his teacher doing the work of a slave. He thought that it would have been appropriate for one of the disciples to have washed Jesus' feet, but the reverse was intolerable for him. However Jesus' patiently explained. 'You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand'. As with most of what Jesus has said and done, the disciples will fully understand this event only after the cross and resurrection and the coming of the Spirit, who will lead them into all truth.
In response to Peter's rejection (v. 8) Jesus says 'Unless I wash you, you have no part with me'. If Peter is to have a share with Jesus in his community and the eternal life that comes through faith in him, then he must be washed by Jesus. Since this is Peter's greatest desire he responds, 'Then, Lord, . . . not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!' Here there is still a strong element of self. Peter is not simply receiving with humility what the Lord is saying and doing. This is really a manifestation of the unregenerate self rather than of genuine discipleship. He has not discovered the depths of his own brokenness and selfishness. His denial of Jesus, soon to be predicted by Jesus, will tear down his pride and clear the way for the genuine humility that is necessary for any real spiritual life.
So Jesus must further correct Peter and thereby give more insight into his scandalous act: 'A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you'. People would bathe before going to a special meal, but their feet would get dirty on the way since they wore sandals. Here, Jesus is addressing Peter as an individual, but by implication he is also addressing each of the disciples. Jesus must wash him, or else he is not clean and has no share with him. What does this washing refer to? Many, both in the ancient church and today take this washing as baptism. It also means the sanctification of the Holy Spirit in actually changed Christian lives.
Although Jesus is speaking to Peter he is also speaking to the disciples as a group. After Jesus finishes washing their feet, he puts his outer garment back on and returns to his place, asking, 'Do you understand what I have done for you?' They will not completely understand until they have seen the cross, but they can at least grasp his act as an example of humility. The humility he is exemplifying is not a false humility. True humility is always grounded in the truth.
Jesus then spells out the implications for their own lives of what he has done: 'Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you'. What does Jesus have in mind? Some have established a foot washing ceremony, either as a separate service or as part of the Maundy Thursday service. The Church has been good at turning Jesus' example into liturgy rather than actually doing the thing he asks itself. Jesus, however, does not say to do "what" he did but "as" he did. . The disciples are to pass on the same teaching that he, their teacher and Lord, has done by conveying as he has, both in word and deed, the selfless love of God. The community Jesus has brought into being is to manifest the love of God that he has revealed through serving one another with no vestige of pride or position. There will be recognised positions of leadership within the new community, but the exercise of leadership is to follow this model of servanthood.
Jesus has been submissive to the Father, and the disciples are to be under the authority of Jesus. The pattern of life exemplified in the foot washing is true blessedness, contrary to what the world, which is centred in pride and selfishness, thinks. Accordingly, he says, 'Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them'. (v. 17).
Eldership is primarily a call to service. Most of what we do in the Church is about helping and serving others. Being an elder is a spiritual calling with high status in Christ's Church in the world. Elders of the Church of Scotland are very well respected throughout the whole of Christianity. Over the centuries they have built up a reputation for integrity and quality of personal Christian life and living. Not all have done so and at local level there have been and are bad elders in congregations. But the overall picture is an admirable one still. Elders serve Holy Communion to members sitting in their pews. You do not come to the front to kneel and receive communion from us. Elders visit homes even if they are not always made welcome. Some do special tasks. Brian accounts for the money. If he receives a large bag of pennies, he has to sit and count it – which he loves doing. Willie looks after our property. If there is a drain blockage he goes down on his knees and uses his hands to clear it. Jean does lots of fetch and carry jobs as well as organising the Kirk Session. Elders as Carne puts it 'cadge money' for the Church.
If we keep in mind Jesus' washing his disciples feet, we will not become disillusioned and we will not grow weary in our Christian service. If we are in it for ourselves, we will not last as elders. If we are clear in who we are serving, who we are following, who we are imitating, even Jesus our Lord, we will rejoice in the humble tasks as well as in the spiritual moments of fulfilment which come along throughout our years as elders of Christ's Church. It is a closer walk with God. It is a blessed aspect of our path to eternal life.