Obedience

Why wash feet?

In a matter of time, the soldiers would come for Jesus. And in less than 24 hours he’d be crucified. This is where the 13th chapter of the gospel of John situates the reader.

Being truly God, he knew what would come. Because he was truly human, such knowledge would be agonizing as we would see in Gethsemane. But, at present, with hours still ahead of him, what Jesus does during the last gathering he shared with those closest to him -the men he’d be teaching for three years, calls for attention. He washed their feet.

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I did not grow up in the church nor in a Christian home. Although my grandmother became a believer late in life and she shared her faith with me as a child, it wouldn’t be until many years later, during my freshman year in college that I would come to faith in Jesus.

At the end of that first year in university, a group of friends travelled to Florida for a week-long Inter-Varsity retreat, where we joined several other university chapters from the south-east region. We studied from the gospel of John while learning to pray for and serve our campuses.

Each day we’d attend expository preaching in the main hall. The study was on John 13-15. Later in the day, we would gather in smaller groups to share and pray about what we’d learned.

One afternoon, arriving to the smaller room assigned to my campus group, I noticed on the carpet a bucket with water and some towels next to it. I thought perhaps the cleaning crew had left it there to clean after we were done with the room.  

Soon after the rest of our group arrived, we opened in prayer, and our Inter-Varsity leader explained we were going to do something different. She took the bucket and said we were going to take turns washing the feet of the person to our right and pray over them and tell them what we were grateful for in their lives. Silence took over the room as we glanced over one another feeling a little awkward.

The experience is forever seared in my memory. It was Scripture in action. It brought home in a most personal way what we’d been studying just a few hours before.

There is a certain vulnerability to the act. Even in warm sunny Florida where the retreat took place, there was a level of discomfort in taking off our sandals and tennis shoes. Feet are not particularly attractive. They are a functional body part which supports the whole, enabling us to stand and to enjoy walking and running. While they are also a body part that gets dirty, smelly, and tired, they accurately embody the limitations of our design. We are wonderfully made, and we are also breakable.

We recoil feeling exposed at the thought of showing them and having someone touch them and wash them unless you are paying for a pedicure or a foot massage. But as an act of intentional affection, it’s awkward. We don’t naturally feel inclined to do it nor welcome it with ease.

In the time of Jesus, washing feet was customary. In a culture that moved mostly on foot, where there were dirt roads, it was a hygienic necessity. For higher class families, it was common to have a slave perform that service for guests. For more modest homes, the host would provide the water and guests would wash their own feet. It was considered the lowliest task. Jesus takes the place of a lowly servant.

Situating ourselves in the chronology of the text, there are only five chapters before Jesus is taken before Pilate, questioned, beaten, and crucified. It’s tempting to interpret that time is running out, and thus imprint a sense of haste to the next actions and words of Jesus. Yet, nothing of the sort is revealed in the text. On the contrary, the passage begins with a sense of completion, a right tempo, to the timing that brings Jesus to this seemingly awkward action:

 “…when Jesus knew the hour had come to depart out of this world, he loved them to the end. (…) knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God (…) he laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13: 1-5 ESV).

This is a man who knew the timing of what would come, and in complete tranquillity of mind and spirit chose his next action with intention: to perform the task reserved for the lowliest servant. As he began to undress that he may have more mobility and not get his outer garments wet, it’s not hard to imagine their shock. To watch him kneel before each man and proceed to wash their dusty, tired feet, as was customary, before eating supper – what was he doing?!

 

Indeed, what was Jesus doing?

Washing feet is getting into the messiness of someone; it’s literally coming into contact with dirt from someone else and rolling up our sleeves to love them. In this passage we behold this extraordinary man, embrace the humblest ordinariness of the human condition. Consistent with his life thus far, he forgoes his rightful place, his glory, and becoming lower than all, takes on the task beneath everyone present. What an accurate prequel to what he will do on the cross a few hours later.

Before John transitions into the next part of the narrative, we read what Jesus said after washing his disciples’ feet. It’s a compelling statement that humbles the soul and calls to action:

“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them,

“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” (John 13:12-17 ESV)

That last line, verse 17, grabs me by the heart. “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” That double conditional invites the believer to share in a promise. You are blessed if knowing what He’s done; you do likewise. It implies action. It’s not contingent on our feelings, but rather a deliberate decision on our part to humble ourselves to love others, in ways which will not be comfortable or natural for us. To do what we’ve seen modelled.

What might this mean for each one of us? A personal example for me was my mentor telling me things that were hard to hear, because she saw my need for Truth greater than her fear of my reaction. It’s not charity work. It’s costly and selfless and otherworldly; like the cross.

It might be doing something we consider beneath our station, because God is more interested in our character and obedience, than He is in our position.

Who has washed your feet by embracing your mess though costly to them? What’s been the result in your life? Whose feet is God asking you to wash? Pray and ask Him to show you.

Why wash feet? Because we want to be imitators of Christ, that we may know him, and others may see him. And because there is blessing in obedience.

Allegiance, Obedience, and Submission- All Synonyms

“This above all - to thine own self be true...” William Shakespeare

The Bard was not wrong. Being true to oneself is indeed important, that we may live congruent lives. The question is, consistent with what? Being true to myself is to remain loyal to who I am. It’s an issue of allegiance to my own heart’s convictions and desires. As a believer, to what are we called to be true?

Let’s look at Jesus. The uncomfortable, off-putting and the often omitted truth about faith in Jesus, is that it’s not about us. And nowhere do we see this clearer than in Jesus himself, who being God made man, did not act on his own accord or preference. In his own words-

“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. (…) I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 5:19, 30. ESV) Jesus was true to the One who sent him. God’s will was above his own.

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I love words. Since English is my second language, to study their usage helps me to grasp their deeper nuances. I like the word allegiance. It comes from the Old English word “liege.” It connotes loyal service to a superior. It is synonym with obedience. Hence, whatever has our allegiance or loyalty is what we obey.  

Most of us genuinely desire to live lives that are aligned with what we hold at the core of our being. Usually, that is us. At my core is my preference, my will, my way. That is what sits there. And my natural inclination is to make it comfortable, to affirm it any way I can.  

Not everything that sits at the core of who we are is bad per se. A mother’s love for her child prompting her to care for him when sick is good.  But not everything that sits at the core of who we are and feels natural is good either. Think of any time last week when the last thing you felt like doing was to be kind to that person who got on your nerves or was rude to you. The reactions and preferences that spring naturally are very much true to our core, and not always aligned with the way we are called to live. Sin is at our core and thus prevents us from acting rightly even when we know we should.

Allegiance to the kingdom where our ultimate citizenship rests can be confusing amidst the noise of the world. For those of us who are disciples of Jesus, our chief concern is to remain faithful and steadfast to the Truth of the gospel. Said Truth, just as it includes to show compassion for others, and treat with dignity all image bearers (not just the ones we like or those who agree with us); it also includes a call to pick up one’s cross and follow a man of sorrows.

That is not an invitation that any of us want to accept with gladness.

In today’s complicated socio-political climate passions run deep over the causes where we place our loyalty. Race, a political party, gender, and even language are issues that determine where our obedience will take us. How are we to navigate what calls our loyalty to action?

Again, I think the answer is to look at Jesus. How did he live his life?

Reading the gospels is at once sobering, convicting, and encouraging. Jesus never affirmed anybody. Yet he also never denied their plight or personhood. He never questioned or denied when someone struggled. He always brought the Truth to light.  A Truth which invariably pointed to the core of the person.

With the rich young ruler we see the young man leave sad because giving up his preference was costlier than he was willing to give. We see the woman caught in adultery leave his presence with her dignity and physical well-being protected, and the mandate to “go and sin no more”. It was a revolutionary behaviour, where the only thing affirmed time and again is the loving and just character of God, speaking in the same breath dignity and compassion while also lovingly confronting with a question or directive, what is wrong, and to turn from it.

So, what are we to do when we feel our allegiance called to action? I think the answer is profoundly simple. If Jesus being God made man, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [and]…humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6,8), why should we – his disciples, be any different?

There is an allegiance that supersedes all others, to which all other loyalties submit.  Since what we are loyal to is also what we obey, submission, however dirty a word in our present day, is the very picture of our salvation. It was submission to the Father’s will that made the cross possible. Jesus’s natural inclination was not to die a horrible slow death. We know this from his agonizing prayer in Gethsemane . Submission made possible the gift that saved you and me.

Submission is a shift of obedience. We are loyal mainly to ourselves until we give our loyalty over to the Man of Sorrows. That is the beginning of dying to ourselves and truly living. And like any other death, it is painful. There is no natural inclination in us to do so.

What enabled Jesus in the flesh to willingly walk to Calvary? His utter dependence on the Father. Trusting that a good God would see him through the unspeakable nightmare that awaited him. It is an insane idea. But one that holds together the how and the why of instructing us in turn, to pick up your cross and follow him.

The choices that we make every day are in turn making us. While our politics, causes, and reactions may vary from one person and culture to another; they will speak of the allegiance to which all our loyalties succumb to, and where we put our trust – us or Jesus? The only way to remain true to Him above ourselves is to let Him do what you can’t; change your heart at the core.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
— John 3:16