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A Servant’s Heart

PSALM 121 ; JOHN 13:1-17, 31B-35

Questions can be a motivating force. Questions can draw us into a story we are reading as we seek to understand why circumstances unfold as they do. Questions draw us into the story of Jesus’ last days on earth. Tonight’s scripture reading gives rise to the question of why Jesus chose to spend his last night with His disciples as He did, eating the Passover dinner, washing the feet of His disciples and giving them important words of teaching and instruction. Questions can also be a motivating factor in studying for an exam.

Every person aspiring to become a pastor or teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) must take written ordination examinations and undergo questioning by committees of the church and Presbytery. I recall that as I prepared for the questions that would be asked of me, I was cautioned to prepare to answer the question of whether foot washing should be a sacrament of the church. In our church we observe two sacraments, the sacrament of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Presbyterians believe that sacraments are God’s gracious gifts to the church to establish and nurture our faith.[1] We believe Jesus instituted two sacraments for all believers. Jesus was baptized and commanded His disciples to be baptized and offer baptism to other believers. Similarly, Jesus served His disciples bread and wine that symbolize the body of Christ broken for us and His blood shed for us. Jesus commanded His followers to eat together a meal in memory of Him and His sacrificial death. But on the same night that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, He also washed His disciples’ feet. Then Jesus told His disciples that they also ought to wash one another’s feet.

Why then do we not practice foot washing as a sacrament? If we did observe foot washing as a sacrament then tonight would be the perfect night for us to wash one another’s feet. We would literally be doing just would Jesus commanded us to do. The elders could bring in bowls of warm water and towels. We could toss our shoes under the pews and offer our feet to be washed and then in turn wash one another’s feet. Before anyone slips out the back door, let me assure you that we do not plan to observe a sacrament of foot washing tonight. But we will consider why Jesus spent His last evening with His disciples engaged in the humble act of washing their feet and what He meant to teach us by His example. Therein lies the answer to our question on the proposed sacrament of foot washing.

Jesus’ act was a teaching moment, filled with symbolism that reflects the close relationship between Jesus and God, a relationship that Jesus is offering to His disciples. Jesus calls His disciples to serve. But before they can serve others, they must allow themselves to be served by Jesus.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, His disciples are continually confused by Jesus’ words and actions. Jesus acts in unexpected and unconventional ways. His conduct and teachings alarm the established religious leadership. For those who had hoped that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, they were disappointed, for Jesus did not fit their expectations. The foot washing was another in a long-line of Jesus’ topsy turvy teachings. In retrospect, however, we see that Jesus was truly Himself, and truly the Son of God when He engaged in the humble act of foot washing.

As Paul described the life and ministry of Jesus in His letter to the church in Philippi, he wrote:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:4-11)    

In the midst of Jesus’ ministry and long before Jesus washes the feet of His disciples, there was one who had washed His feet. The Gospel of Luke tells us that she was known as a sinful woman. Jesus was dining with one of the Pharisees. The dinner was offered in a space open to the public, and a sinful woman entered. Falling at Jesus’ feet, she wept and began to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair and to anoint his feet with fragrant oil. The Pharisee thought to Himself that if Jesus were a prophet, He would know who and what manner of sinful woman she is.

Jesus turned to the Pharisee and said, “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed 500 denarii and the other 50. When they could not repay their debt, the man freely forgave them both. Which of them will love him more?”

Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”

Jesus responded, “You have judged rightly. When I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss my feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint my head with oil, but this woman has anointed my feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”

Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

This woman who had received God’s forgiveness and mercy through Jesus, expressed her gratitude and her love.

Near the end of Jesus’ ministry, we again encounter the practice of foot washing as a symbolic act filled with meaning. It was before the feast of the Passover and Jesus knew that His time on earth with His disciples was short. Jesus gathered with His disciples for a last meal together. John tells us that Jesus knew that Judas would betray Him. In the midst of the meal, Jesus removes His outer garment, wraps a towel around Him, and begins to wash the disciples’ feet. One dirty foot after another, even the feet of Judas who would betray Him.

Foot washing was a common practice in the ancient Mediterranean world. A host would welcome guests with foot washing to cleanse their feet from the dust of the journey. The guests often washed their own feet or the host would instruct a servant to wash the guests’ feet. Foot washing was an act of hospitality and of service.

As Jesus washes the feet of His disciples, He assumes the role of both servant and welcoming host. When Jesus kneels before Peter to wash His feet, Peter protests. But Jesus tells Peter that he will later understand the significance of this act. Peter emphatically proclaims, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus responds that if Peter is not washed by Jesus, then Peter will have no part of Jesus and no part of the ministry that Jesus will entrust to His disciples. Jesus is saying that unless Peter receives the love and life offered by Jesus, in the manner of the sinful woman, Peter will have nothing to give to others.

The foot washing symbolizes a relationship with Jesus that the disciples receive to share with others. It is hard to admit our weakness and sinfulness and our need for forgiveness and grace, hard for us to surrender our will and our desire for control, and harder still to give unconditional love and mercy and forgiveness to others. Unless we receive God’s love, mercy and forgiveness, we have nothing of value to give to others.

Peter responds to Jesus with exuberance, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” Peter misses the point of Jesus’ act of foot washing. Jesus is offering a relationship with Jesus and through Jesus, with God, and not the cleansing power of water. If the water alone had the power to cleanse, then Judas would not have betrayed Jesus.

Jesus does share with His bewildered disciples an explanation for His actions. Jesus explains that He has offered them an example. Jesus, their Lord and Teacher, has washed their feet. His disciples are to wash one another’s feet. Jesus gives to His disciples the commandment to love one another, even as Jesus has loved them.

Jesus is not commanding that we carry with us a basin and towel and obey Him literally by washing the feet of friend or stranger or even just members of our church community. Jesus is not creating a sacrament of foot washing. Jesus is commanding something far harder. Jesus is telling His disciples to receive with gratitude His love, forgiveness and mercy as well as the gift of a purpose, a mission and a calling to serve others with humility. As Jesus washed the feet of Judas so we are called to serve even our enemies or those we would prefer to forget or ignore. We are given the privilege of living a life with greater significance and purpose than humanly possible.

It was 20 years ago this month that the horrific genocide in Rwanda claimed the lives of an estimated 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Our own dear church members, Ebralie and William Mwizerwa and their five children, escaped by the grace of God. But many of their beloved family members and friends did not escape and were killed. During our church’s 2013 mission trip to Rwanda, William visited the woman who killed his mother. William told her that he forgave her for taking the life of one so dear to him. Then he washed the feet of the woman who killed his mother.    

Entering into Jesus’ life and following Him is much harder than simply washing dirty feet. It means forgiving and loving our enemies. It means daily seeking with earnest and diligent prayer our calling from God, how we may serve Him and His people, wherever we are and whatever our circumstances. It means being led into situations and encounters with people we would rather ignore or leave for someone else to help. It means letting go of our will and our desire to control. It means allowing ourselves to be weak and appear weak to others so that God’s power and strength may shine in and through our lives. It means asking the difficult question of God again and again, “Is this where you would have me? How can I best serve You? What am I to do and say in this situation?”

Jesus’ ministry is filled with examples of receiving and then giving. There is the story of Jesus healing the mother-in-law of Peter who was ill with a fever. Jesus healed her and immediately she arose and served Jesus and His disciples. Her response to receiving healing was one of gratitude as she generously offered hospitality.

Sometimes we are led to do something that seems so small but can make a great difference in God’s economy of blessing a little to feed the needs of many. British philosopher Edmund Burke once said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”

In Adam Hamilton’s wonderful book, Why? Making Sense of God’s Will, he tells the story of his older daughter, Danielle, who served for a time in South Africa at a hospice center for persons dying of AIDS.[2] One day Danielle and a colleague decided to take the residents who could travel to a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken for ice cream. The residents were grateful for the outing. Danielle and her colleague had very little money, but they had enough to buy each patient a single ice cream cone. The hospice residents sat eating their ice cream cones when an African man approached Danielle and said, “What you are doing for these sick people is beautiful. I would like to buy them chicken if that’s okay.” This man who did not appear to have much money then purchased fried chicken for each of the hospice residents. Generous gifts allowed these people to have for the last time the joy of fried chicken and ice cream.

Sometimes God’s will and His calling can seem so simple and so small but when blessed by God, the impact on human lives is great and deep as we become a part of God’s greater story. Sometimes washing the feet of others looks like buying fried chicken and ice cream for dying hospice patients. Sometimes washing the feet of others looks like spending the night at the Cannon Center of First Presbyterian Church as we welcome 14 homeless men to enjoy dinner and a warm bed on a cold night. Or sometimes washing the feet of others is working on a Habitat for Humanity home or volunteering to teach a children’s Sunday school class or taking soup to a sick neighbor or taking the time to talk with someone who is lonely.  

Maundy Thursday is a holy day for Christians. We remember not only Jesus washing the feet of His disciples, but also the institution of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as Jesus gathered with His disciples and the events that followed. We remember the betrayal of Jesus by one of His disciples, and Jesus’ agony in the garden as He struggled with the will of God that would lead to His suffering and death. We remember the arrest of Jesus and the unfaithfulness and fear of His disciples as they fled and the denial of Jesus by Peter three times. We remember and see ourselves in each of the unfaithful and fearful and denying and betraying disciples Jesus chose to follow Him.

Maundy Thursday is an appropriate time to remember the ways we have betrayed our Christian calling, to ask for God’s forgiveness and to receive God’s forgiveness and love. This evening is also a time to pledge with the help of God to allow His Holy Spirit to transform and use us and to recommit our lives to our Christian callings however we understand them and wherever they call us. The great theologian John Stott wrote these words near the end of his life, “God wants His people to become like Christ, for Christlikeness is the will of God for His people.”

Jesus’ message is deep enough for the most brilliant and learned theologian and simple enough for a child. Jesus’ message is to serve and love one another with humility as we have been loved and served by Him. All it takes is a servant’s heart transformed and led by the Greatest Teacher, the Greatest Servant the world has ever known.

I offer to you this Franciscan benediction: “May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.”[3]

Through the grace of God and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, deeds of love arising from a servant’s heart, just might make all the difference in the world.  


[1] Donald McKim, Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2003), 79.

[2] (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011), 67.  

[3] Richard and Renee Stearns, He Walks Among Us (Nashville: Countryman, 2013), 31.

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