John 13:1–17, 31b-35
We all know what it feels like to be hungry. Unfortunately, many in this world know the feeling more acutely than others. But even those who haven’t ever had to worry about where their next meal was coming from have felt their stomachs rumbling from time to time. As long as we have access to food to eat, physical hunger isn’t hard to satisfy.
But, it’s not just our bodies that feel hunger. We have hungry hearts, too. We are spiritually and emotionally hungry. We want to give love and know that it will be received and returned. We want to be accepted, in spite of all our faults, and to know that we are important to other people. We want to know that our lives mean something. We long for security. We want to live without fear—fear of meaninglessness, fear of abandonment, fear of death. We hunger to feel close to God, and to know that God loves us.
I imagine that the disciples felt those same hungers. In fact, on that night when Jesus was betrayed, those feelings may have been especially intense. They loved Jesus, but they had heard him speak of his own death. They had followed him for three years, but the events of the past week—a week that began with the “hosannas” of a triumphant parade but also included plots against the lives of Jesus and his friends—must have made them fearful. They had travelled with Jesus as a group all this time, and yet Luke tells us that even at the dinner table that night, they were squabbling over who would be the greatest in the coming kingdom. Surely their hearts, like ours, hungered for love and intimacy and security.
That is what Jesus offered that night—not when he served them the bread and the wine, but when, during the meal, he began to wash their feet. I imagine a hush falling over the upper room as he suddenly stood up and began to lay aside his outer garment, in the same way he would later lay aside his life. I imagine them watching as he picked up a towel and deliberately tied it around his waist. Perhaps they exchanged puzzled glances as he filled a basin with water and knelt before the first disciple, whoever it was, and began to wash his feet—carefully dipping each foot in the water, gently rubbing the calloused heels and soles, and then tenderly drying each toe in turn, as lovingly as a parent caresses the toes of a beloved and cherished child. In that act, Jesus offered the disciples the two things that could satisfy their hungry hearts: relationship with God and community with each other.
In the ancient world, it was the responsibility of every host to offer guests the opportunity to wash away the dust and grime of the road. Jesus was the host of the dinner, of course. But he was also making it clear that he was welcoming the disciples not simply to a meal but into his home—the eternal home he shared with God. He is not merely a guest in the house of God. God’s home is his home, and Jesus is the host—the one who welcomes us into his home.
But Jesus’ actions that night were much different than the expected actions of an earthly host. An earthly host would fulfill his responsibilities to his guests either by offering a basin and towel so that the guests could wash themselves, or by commanding a servant to do it. Instead, Jesus knelt to the work of a servant himself. It was Jesus who engaged in that intimate act of washing the disciples’ feet—an act that removed any distance between them.
By serving as the host in God’s home, Jesus demonstrated his unity with God. In the intimate act of washing the disciple’s feet, he offered them the unity of relationship between the disciples and himself. It was a physical revelation of what he would pray for later in the evening when he said, “As you, Father, are in me and I in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
The way that the world will come to see that Jesus’ disciples—that we—are in him is by how we love one another. Too often, this passage is reduced to an instruction to be of service in the world. And, certainly, we do offer that service as we seek to live as Jesus lived. But on this night and in this act of foot-washing, Jesus challenges us to something much more radical: to love one another as he has loved us. We are to enter into the same kind of relationship with each other that Jesus invites us into with him. Having been welcomed into his home, we are to welcome and serve each other. We are to love each other in the same way that caused the Romans to say of the first Christians, “See how they love one another.”
That is not an easy thing to do, sometimes. Even among the disciples there were disagreements and misunderstandings. Even as they ate together, Jesus knew that one of those sharing the meal would soon betray him. Even knowing what was in Judas’ heart, Jesus knelt at Judas’ feet and washed him, just as he had washed the others. By grace, Jesus invites all people into relationship with God through him, and then challenges us to enter into that same kind of relationship with each other.
When we allow him to wash our feet as we enter his home, and as we come together at his table, our deepest hungers are satisfied. We know ourselves to be loved by God in spite of all our faults. We know that our love for Jesus will be lavishly returned. We know that we are accepted and our sins forgiven through Jesus’ gift of his own life for us. We are freed from the fear of death, secure in the knowledge that the home Jesus welcomes us into this very day is a home in which we will dwell with him forever, now and after our deaths. Then, having been given and accepted our share in Jesus’ life, we offer to each other that same hospitality, and in it we find the earthly community we seek.
On the night when Jesus gave himself up for us, he asked two things of the disciples. Tonight, as we remember that night, Jesus asks two things of us: first, that we place ourselves entirely in his hands, and second, that we love one another as he has loved us. For it is only in accepting his invitation to live in unity with him and with each other that our hungry hearts can be satisfied. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young