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Pastor’s Desk: Washed, Clean, Forgiven

Posted on Tuesday, April 25, 2023 at 12:33 pm

Reverend James Lanning, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church

John 13: 1-19

The washing of the disciples’ feet: it’s an iconic moment in the Gospel story, and John includes it because it is truly one of Jesus’ greatest lessons to His disciples; a lesson about love, service, baptism, and forgiveness. The following is an excerpt from this year’s Maundy Thursday sermon, entitled Washed, Clean, Forgiven.

Now for a little bit of context as to why Jesus does washes His disciples feet, we turn to the book of Luke chapter 22, which tells us that the disciples were arguing about who would be greatest, again. Luke tell us this: 24A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. Here they are, Jesus’ rag-tag group of misfits, simple fishermen mostly, and a tax-collector, arguing about who will have the highest rank in the kingdom of heaven. I can just hear it:

Peter says – Well Jesus called me the rock of his Church, said He would build His Church on me. Clearly I’m the highest ranking one here already, besides, who else among us has walked on water.

Then James replies – you mean sunk on water, because that’s what I saw you do; you certainly sunk like a rock.

Then John says – I know guys, let’s race for it; I know for a fact I can beat Peter.

As they go on and on in this petty argument, getting competitive as guys tend to do, they don’t notice that Jesus as slipped away from the table. But all their bickering comes to an abrupt end when Jesus walks in among them, dressed as a slave, a towel wrapped around his waist, and a wash basin in His hands.

I can imagine the deafening silence suddenly overwhelming the room as Jesus, their master, began washing their feet. I can imagine the mixture of emotions, some being embarrassed, some being horrified, and some being utterly stupefied beyond any intelligent word or thought. This was not the task of the master, much less that of a king, and absolutely not the job of the long-awaited king, the Messiah, the Son of God. This task was the task of slaves or servants, and for good reason: it was a nasty, filthy job. Though the Roman empire did have some paved roads in certain parts of their territory, most places, including the province of Judea, had typical dirt roads. These roads, especially during times of the year like Passover, were greatly trafficked, meaning that travelers would likely be walking through a combination of thick dust when it was dry and liquid mud when it was wet, and would have undoubtedly been covered in all sorts of manure, from beasts of burden such as oxen, mules, donkeys and horses. Most people wore basic open-toed sandals, which were nothing more than a simple sole held to the foot by a few straps of leather, meaning that by the end of even a relatively short journey, like their journey from Bethany, everyone’s feet would have been caked with filth. This job was not a dignified job, it was the job of the slave, the lowest members of society, and yet Here was Jesus, washing the grime out of His own disciples’ toes. This was so upside down and backwards, that it likely shocked everyone to their very core; it certainly ended their argument about who was the greatest.

The funny thing is, the disciples could have washed their own feet, but apparently, none of them did; I suppose for those who were arguing over who was the greatest, the task was just simply beneath them. But as they bickered, and each one fought for a higher place in the pecking order, the One who was truly the greatest among them, chose to serve them in a role that was supposed to be beneath all of them. How foolish they must have felt; foolish and perhaps even guilty and ashamed. They were fighting over who Jesus would bless with the most honorable and dignified position, a position right below Him in rank, and here He is, lowering and debasing Himself, taking up the role, albeit briefly, of a lowly servant, and showing what it truly means to be a leader.

I imagine that it was probably guilt, shame, and embarrassment that caused Peter to react the way he did. Peter is sitting there, as Jesus is finishing up washing the feet of the disciple right next to him; he looks down at his own feet, noticing all the dirt and filth and just how ugly his own feet are, and he thinks to himself “cursed my own head, why didn’t I clean my own darn feet. I may have confessed Him as the Messiah and the Son of God, and even had the courage to step out on the water with him for a moment, but there’s no way He’s going to want me at a place of honor in his kingdom, not after cleaning my feet.” And then Jesus is there at his feet, his nasty dirty feet, and as Jesus reaches for them, panic sets in and Peter says

“Jesus, you’re not really going to wash my feet are you?”

“Peter, you don’t quite understand yet, but you will when all is reveal to you”

“No Lord, not in a million years; you’re the master and I the disciple; this just isn’t right.

“Peter, If I don’t wash you, you have no part with Me.”

And with these words we realize that this lesson is far deeper and more important than just humble loving service; this lesson, is about eternal life and forgiveness. After Jesus says this, Peter thinks that he has messed up, and maybe he even thinks he’s insulted Jesus, and so he does a complete 180

“In that case Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

Then Peter hears these words from his Lord:

“The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean

Do you see what Jesus is doing for Peter here, and in fact for all His disciples, who will very soon after this abandon Him? Jesus is washing His disciples feet, the very feet that will take to flight in the garden of Gethsemane, and the leave their Lord to be mocked, beaten, and killed alone. And for Peter, his feet, his dirty feet, will carry him to a courtyard where he will publicly deny Jesus 3 times. Jesus is reminding Peter, before he goes through all of this, before he has to look Jesus in the eyes after his three-fold denial, and wait 3 days in despair, that he has been baptized, that he is clean no matter how greatly he screws up, as long as he will let Jesus wash him again. And then, at the ending of John’s Gospel, Jesus does wash Peter again, when He asks Peter 3 times “Peter son of Jonah, do you love me?” and allows Peter to respond “Yes, Lord you know I love you.” Though Peter is hurt, likely feeling guilty and embarrassed by Jesus asking him this 3 times, it is Jesus showing great love and forgiveness for Peter, by giving him a three-fold affirmation to cleanse him of his dirty, filthy, three-fold denial.

“No Lord, you can’t clean my feet, not with how dirty they are; not with where they’ve been”

“Yes Peter, I can and I must; let Me do this for you; let me wash your sinful filthy feet again.”

It really is one of the most touching scenes of redemption in the whole Bible; after this, Jesus re-establishes Peter as the leader of the disciples, and does give him an honored position in the kingdom of heaven, even though he likely thought that he had lost it forever. That is the power and extent of the forgiveness of Jesus.

The forgiveness of sins, and the washing away of all the dirt and filth that pollute our minds, bodies, and souls, is what we are here to receive from Jesus tonight. You and I are washed and baptized members of God’s family, through the love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and so when we stumble in our Christian walk – and we will, everyday – let us remember what Jesus did for us on the Cross and listen to Him as He tells us: “I washed and made you new when you were baptized, and therefore you are clean, but in your Christian walk you will stumble as a sinful human being, and your feet will get dirty. Let me wash your feet with forgiveness when you stumble and fall into sin, and then when your feet have been washed, go wash the feet of your neighbor by forgiving them when they sin.” In the end, that’s what this day is truly about, the forgiveness of sin; from the broken body and the blood shed for you, to Jesus washing away the dirt and filth of our sin each and every day.