What would you do if you knew that you only had twenty-four hours to live? I couldn’t find a single scholarly study about how most people would answer this question, but I did find a magazine that asked one hundred people in an informal poll. Their responses weren’t too surprising. The most common ones were spending time with loved ones, saying goodbye, expressing gratitude, apologizing for any harm they had been done, and putting their affairs in order.
I’ve been thinking about this because Jesus was in exactly that situation on the night we remember this evening. Well, it wasn’t exactly the same; he had less than twenty-four hours left of his earthly life. And, he knew that many of those hours would be filled with cruelty and abandonment, grief and great pain. And yet, he knew what he wanted and needed to do in those last few precious hours. He spent time with loved ones, he said goodbye, he expressed gratitude, and he put everything in order.
We don’t witness Jesus doing all these things in the passage we read. John takes five chapters to describe the hours that Jesus spent with his disciples before leaving for the garden of Gethsemane that night. But, even in the few verses we read, we see what Jesus intends to do in his last earthly hours. As John tells us, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. All that he does and says in the coming hours will be evidence that, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
According to John, Jesus had gathered with his disciples on the Thursday before the Day of Preparation for Passover, which would begin at sundown on the next day–Friday. This wasn’t a Passover gathering; the lambs for the feast wouldn’t even be chosen and slaughtered until the next day. It was, instead, a farewell meal. Jesus was gathering with the ones who loved him, and whom he loved, so that he could make his final preparations before his death.
Jesus shares a meal with them, and then he does something very unusual. In the middle of the meal, he gets up and starts washing their feet. Imagine the disciples’ confusion and consternation at this. Foot-washing was a common practice. Guests were always welcomed with the opportunity to wash their feet when arriving at someone’s home. They may even have had their feet washed for them by a servant. The host would provide the opportunity, but the host never did the washing himself. And the feet would be washed upon arrival, not in the middle of a meal. But Jesus, who’s clearly the host of this gathering, puts on the garb and role of a servant, and he does it right in the middle of supper.
I think he chose to do it when and how he did so that there would be no mistaking what it meant. This wasn’t just an expected routine act of hospitality. This was a teaching moment. The physical washing wasn’t the point. It wasn’t even a metaphor for a spiritual cleansing. It was an invitation and a welcome into Jesus’ home—the home he shares with his Father. To be welcomed into his home meant being welcomed into a relationship with him—one that would endure beyond his earthly life.
Peter doesn’t get it. The rest of the disciples probably didn’t get it either, but Peter is always willing to speak for the group. Jesus anticipates their confusion: “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Allowing Jesus to wash their feet was an act of the greatest intimacy. It was an invitation for them to place themselves, literally, in Jesus’ hands. Allowing Jesus to wash their feet was an acceptance of this invitation. Refusing it was to refuse him.
This invitation is for all of Jesus’ disciples. It’s not limited to the twelve men whose names we know. There are many more disciples. Anyone who believes in Jesus is a disciple, even if their understanding is incomplete, so we don’t know how many were gathered in that room. That means that we might have been in that room. We might have been one of the people Jesus knelt before, with his towel around his waist. Ours might have been the feet that Jesus tenderly took into his hands, and ours might have been the eyes he looked into as he said, “I wash you as a sign that you have a part in me and a place in my home with my Father.”
Peter knew he was unworthy to have Jesus wash his feet. And, he was right. We are unworthy of Jesus’ gift of love. But think of the people whom Jesus gathered around his table that night. They included the beloved disciple, who had learned the key to following Jesus. He stayed close to Jesus, physically lying next to him, practically in Jesus’ arms as they reclined around the table. But, also among them was Judas, whom Jesus already knew would betray him. Among them was Peter, whom Jesus already knew would deny him. Among them were those whom Mark and Matthew tell us would desert Jesus and flee from the garden as he was being arrested. Among them were all the acquaintances whom Luke tells us would stand far away from the cross, watching as Jesus died.
And yet, in what he knew were his last earthly hours, Jesus invited them to his table. He ate with them—all of them. He washed their feet—the feet of all of them. In his last earthly hours, Jesus showed all of them how deeply and perfectly he loved them—the people who loved him imperfectly.
We are among those disciples, too. We love Jesus, but we love him imperfectly. We follow him, but we follow inconsistently. We know him, but we know him incompletely. Still, his invitation to a relationship with him is as much for us as it was for the people gathered around that table in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. Jesus continues to ask us to place ourselves—the whole of our being—into his hands.
Jesus knew that, soon, his human hands would no longer be able to caress the feet of those he loved. He knew that those he left behind would go through a time of great sorrow and fear. He knew that, later, they would face many challenges as they spread the good news of his resurrection. And so, he gave them what they would need to find comfort in their sorrow, strength in their weakness, and courage in their fear. He gave them each other.
“Wash each other’s feet,” he said. “Remind each other of the relationship I have invited you into. Remind each other of how my washing your feet is a sign of the welcome I extend—a welcome into my Father’s house, which is also my own. In your caring for each other as I have cared for you, you will find blessing.”
“Love one another, just as I have loved you,” Jesus said after Judas had left. Love each other in the self-giving way that I have loved you throughout my earthly life.” The disciples would soon see just how far that love would extend. And yet, that radical kind of love for each other was what Jesus would call all of his disciples to—a love that would sustain them and bind up their hearts after his death. Loving each other as he loved them would keep his love always before them.
Jesus’ foot-washing was a sign that pointed toward Jesus’ oneness with his Father and his desire that his disciples share in it. Signs always point to something beyond the immediate physical world to something greater. They reveal something about Jesus and his relationship with his Father. When our lives are shaped by a Christ-like love for each other, we become signs that point to the love of Christ and the reveal his desire for a relationship with us and with every person. When we, as his disciples, love each other as Jesus loves us, our own lives become a sign of his love for the world.
Over five chapters, John describes how Jesus did what most of us would do if we knew that we were facing our final hours. He says words of farewell to his friends as they are all gathered together. He speaks words of comfort and instruction, and he offers last words of advice and wisdom. He also prays for them. John’s report of Jesus’ prayer doesn’t specifically include the word “thanks,” but we can hear his gratitude to God—gratitude that his disciples had received the words he had given them and that they know in truth that he was sent by God.
Most of us won’t know the exact day and hour when we will die. I’m not sure whether that’s a blessing or not. But in what Jesus did and said in the last hours before his death, he showed us how to live in however many hours or days or years we may have left to us. He showed us how to live with gratitude to God for the gifts we’ve been given. He showed us how to treasure those around us, even the ones who have hurt us. He showed us how to love each other as he loves us, in humble service to each other. As we live the rest of our lives as Jesus lived his last hours, we become a sign that points to the greatest love of all: the love that Jesus has for us—the love that led him to the cross. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young