Holy Thursday, 2013
Text: John 13:1-17, 31b-35
There always have been different theologies about why Jesus came to this world and how we interpret Jesus’ words and actions. There is no exception to the foot washing story on Holy Thursday. Some people think that Jesus came to this world primarily as a new law giver and an example of love. They would be more than willing to point to this story where Jesus says, ‘For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.’ So, you would not be surprised to see some churches even make it a sacred rite to literally wash each other’s feet. Today, the newly elected Pope washed the feet of prisoners in a youth detention centre. Don’t get me wrong. I am not denying, rather, I am affirming that Jesus commands us to love one another and He is the perfect example of such a love. There is no doubt that we should learn from Jesus to love one another. The question here is, is this the only interpretation of this text? Relating to this, what is a true love? As an introductory summary of this text, the first verse of this story says, “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” This verse sets the tone and the context of this story. What’s this context? “Now” Jesus said, “is the Son of Man glorified.” The context is the night when Jesus was betrayed. The hour of glory for Jesus is the hour of the cross. Gospel of John talks about this hour in several places. The tone is Jesus loved us to the end. So, the story of footwashing is about Jesus’ love to the end, which was His death and resurrection.
People usually over-estimate their abilities to love and misunderstand the essence of a true love. They think loving one another means helping each other, trusting each other, honoring and respecting each one, and tolerating each other’s point of view. They even make rules and demand others to love in a certain way, whether it be at home, in a church, or in a society. Otherwise, they would be very angry. They would not tolerate, in fact, they despise those who don’t love them in this way. It’s like Peter, who demanded and said to Jesus, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” But what did Jesus say to him? He said, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.” Feet are an end of a human body. In the time of Jesus, feet were the dirtiest part of human body and the last part to be cleaned after someone had bathed. Similarly, the sins committed against us by others are regarded as the dirtiest part of that person, thus, making forgiveness the last thing we would do to someone who hurts us. So, foot-washing is a symbol of forgiveness. That’s why Jesus said to Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Jesus’ foot-washing is a symbol of having a share with Jesus by being part of His forgiving and cleansing love that brought Jesus’ life to an end. Forgiveness of sins is key to understand true love and Jesus’ foot-washing.
Think about it, honestly. How many times do we love others in our terms and in our ways, but only to find us getting angry when others won’t appreciate it and love us in return? How many times do we forgive others in “small things”, but only to find us not being able to forgive “big” sins that hurt us so great that in the end we would say, “I will forgive him anything but this one.” How many times are we able to love when everything is fine? But when things go ugly, when things turn dirty, that will be a different story. There will be no “for better for worse,” no “until death do we part,” and no love to the end. Jesus commands to love one another and learn from Him, not to wash others’ feet literally, but to forgive others’ sins, which are the dirtiest end of their soul. When it came to forgiving others, we failed. Like Peter, who over-estimated his love and boasted “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you;” but in the end denied Jesus three times; we failed. We failed to love Jesus and one another to the end.
Thanks be to God. It’s Jesus who laid down His life for us and loved us to the end. The word “end” in Greek “τέλος,” also means “purpose,” or “goal.” So, “to the end” in Greek can be also understood as “for a purpose,” or “to the goal.” When Jesus said, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end,” He certainly means He loved them to His death, but it also means that Jesus loved them for a purpose, to a goal. What’s the purpose? What is the goal? Do you still remember the context? The hour? The foot-washing happened in the darkest night when Jesus was betrayed, “when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, to betray Him.” It was during the last supper, when the Holy Communion was instituted, when Jesus said, “This is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Then it was followed by the arrest, the trial, the crucifixion, the burial, and then the resurrection. The context is Jesus’ Passion that we have been talking about during this Lenten season. The end, the “telos”, the purpose and goal of Jesus’ love for His own is forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Again and again, we stress the idea of context. Like reading any good books, interpretation of the Bible is not to be isolated from the immediate context and the context of the whole Bible. The context of the whole Bible is God’s salvation plan for the humanity. The immediate context here is Jesus’ death and resurrection. Even more immediate context is the institution of the Holy Communion. Recently Pr. Mark has been teaching 5th and 6th graders about the Holy Communion. I am so glad and proud that my older boy Jonathan is one of them. He together with other kids will come forth to this altar to receive the body and the blood of Jesus. I attended the class with Jonathan. In the class, Pr. Mark led us to discuss this question, “What are the benefits of the Sacrament?” The number one, the most important answer comes from Luther’s small catechism. “That is shown us in these words: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins; namely, that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
The meaning of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is not about making a show of our piety to love others by doing the foot-washing rite. It’s about forgiveness of sins. It’s about Jesus loving us to the end. This story has both law and gospel. Jesus is not a new law-giver. He WAS the law-giver when He as God said in the Old Testament, “you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul; you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We cannot even perfectly keep OT commands. As a Christian, we ought to learn from Jesus to love one another. But in the end, at the end of your day and at the end of your life, Jesus is more than an example. He is your redeemer and savior. That’s why He came. As Jesus says in Matthew 20, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The telos, the end and the purpose of Jesus’ foot-washing of His disciples is forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. By receiving all these benefits in faith, you will be enabled by the Holy Spirit to love one another, to forgive one another just as God has loved and forgiven you in Jesus Christ.