An unwelcome kindness: A Sermon for Maundy Thursday

by Kim on March 19, 2008

John 13:8: Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.”

“Kindness,” wrote the French mathematician and Christian thinker Blaise Pascal, “Kindness is welcome only to the extent that it seems it can be paid back.” If you want a one-sentence explanation of why our first reaction to the Good News of Jesus Christ is one of recoil and refusal, this is it. The Gospel is unwelcome because it is a kindness that can never be paid back. And we don’t like that. We are embarrassed by an absolutely free gift, we only feel comfortable if what we receive is something we think we are owed, or something we think we can in some way return. This was the case in an honour and shame culture like first century Palestine, and it is the case in a culture like ours too, where social bonds are regulated by contracts, and personal relationships by mutual consent, a transactional culture that privileges our autonomy and protects us from dependency. In such cultures, Peter’s protest against the kindness of Jesus, a kindness that can never be paid back, a radical kindness that demands nothing – at least nothing that we can calculate – I’ll come back to that – Peter’s protest becomes entirely understandable: “You shall never wash my feet.”

Of course Peter thinks that his demurral is an act of courtesy and respect, done out of deference; but at bottom it is his vanity and pride that are speaking. Peter does not want to be beholden to Jesus, to be in debt to him, to be utterly dependent on him. We are often told that such self-reliance is a virtue, but it is certainly not a Christian virtue. Because a Christian is one who accepts that he is always beholden to Jesus, always in debt to Jesus, always utterly dependent on the Lord. William Temple wrote: “Every disciple and every company of disciples begin by wanting to give service. But every disciple and every company of disciples need to learn that their first duty is to let Christ serve them. Our first thought must never be, ‘What can I do for God?’ The answer to that is, ‘Nothing.’ The first thought must always be, ‘What would God do for me?’”

But, yes, we resist: it’s a thought that is not part of our native human grammar. There is a good illustration of this resistance – and one that resonates with Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet – in an old Peanuts cartoon (and remember its author Schulz was a Methodist lay preacher who knew his Bible). The dog, the beagle Snoopy, comes up to Lucy and gives her a great sloppy “lick of love” on the ear. “Get away from me with your ol’ wet tongue!” Lucy cries in disgust. So Snoopy turns to Lucy’s brother Linus, the kid who’s always got the security blanket. “Hey!” he also cries, “Cut it out! Do you have to be licking people all the time?! If you’re not licking somebody’s hands you’re licking somebody’s feet! Stupid dog!” So Snoopy turns away, forlorn, musing (in the cartoon bubble above his head): “They all resent me because I’m so devoted!”

Just so Peter actually resents Jesus washing his feet – because Jesus is so devoted, selflessly, self-sacrificially devoted. Jesus strips himself and lays aside his garments to wash his friends’ feet, like a slave, even as he will be stripped of his garments and lay down his life for his friends, on a cross, again like a slave. For John, for sure, the foot-washing by Jesus prefigures the crucifixion of Jesus. And, true to form, Peter protests in just the same way at the foot-washing here in the upper room as he did at Jesus’ prediction of his crucifixion at Caesarea Philippi: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” he said then (Matthew 16:22); “Lord, you shall never wash my feet!” he says now. The appearance is humility, the reality is the desire to be in control and secure the social – and political – order of things.

Remember the film Gandhi? There is a scene in it where Gandhi meets with his fellow workers for Indian independence. They meet to talk tactics, but Gandhi, who is both a political and a spiritual leader, goes deeper than tactics, goes to the heart of the matter. He speaks to them of what he calls the “secret of service”, the “religion of service”. And he doesn’t just speak, he acts. Like Jesus when he washes the feet of his friends, Gandhi acts out a parable of service – by stopping a domestic who is serving the tea and taking his tray from him. Gandhi insists on serving his friends himself. And, of course, this takes his colleagues aback – they are horrified at this reversal of roles, at their leader acting the servant – just as Peter was with Messiah Jesus acting the slave. Because it is a humble and humbling thing to do, and – further – because it is done as an example to follow: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15). They too should act the humble servant, theirs too should be a leadership of service, to the point of … – But that’s just it – there is no knowing where it may lead, this foot-washing and tea-serving, this self-offering, this servanthood, this radical being there for others. Yes, nothing is being demanded of me that I can calculate – but that is precisely what is so staggering, so frightening, so life-threatening, because what is being demanded of me is – me!

Of course human nature rebels and resists – of course – because it means the ultimate overthrow of all human notions of authority and the dangerous backlash such subversion inevitably entails. Matthew 20:25-28 is the perfect commentary – the perfect sermon, if you like – on John 13: “You know that, among the Gentiles, the powerful lord it over them, and the big shots throw their weight around. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Well, our Lord couldn’t have spelled it our any better, though tomorrow he is going to pour it out even more – his life, I mean – totally, in fact – in the ultimate act of self-giving, self-offering, body and soul, where it all ends, where it all ended, really ended. So I’ll shut up. But there is one more thing Jesus will to do tonight, to see his friends through the weekend: as well as clean us, with his body and blood he will feed us.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }


DH 03.19.08 at 2:57 pm

Kim you say “Our first thought must never be, ‘What can I do for God?’ The answer to that is, ‘Nothing.’ The first thought must always be, ‘What would God do for me?’”

How does this statement relate in conjuction with the passage “If you love Me you will keep My commandments.”? This coming from the Word of Christ. or Paul’s “I press toward the mark to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward by Christ Jesus.” To me true love IS resiprocated because God calls toward a relationship with Him that necesitates us to be obedient to Christ under the power of the Holy Spirit. Your statements seem to downplay God’s desire for our Sanctification after Salvation. God desires us to serve and God serves us but God also requires us to look to Him as our authority. Remember that discussion between “Lamb of God” and “Lion of Judah”? That was in a different context but applies in this context as well.


DH 03.19.08 at 3:02 pm

When we accept Christ we enter into a new covenet between Christ and us. However, it is one that we can never pay back but at the same time the covanant requires us to be obedient to Him and His Word not out of obligation but because “we love Him because He first loved us.” Like a Father to a son and vice versa. Your post seems to contradict the obvious obligation of response between God and us.


ScottC 03.20.08 at 4:04 pm

Thank you for this meditation. What strikes me most is the truth that while we may be comfortable receiving and acting with kindess in the context of carefully spelled out rules of etiquette that we understand, we are profoundly uncomfortable with Christ’s offer & demand of unconditional servant love which does not come with a clearly defined and carefully limited set of rules. Legalism is, in some ways, much easier than love.

Of course our response to Christ ought to be a decision to follow Him in discipleship (Love one another just as I have loved you), His gift and our response are on different planes, just because He gave first and unconditionally.


Bruce 03.20.08 at 8:49 pm

This is a great sermon. Muchas gracias.

DH, I think you’re missing how grace works. When we trust in the love that God offers to us (when we are branches rooted in the vine) we will, as a matter of course, bear good fruit. And it will not happen because we had to make some kind of special, obligatory effort. When you are enveloped in love, you yourself begin to love.


DH 03.21.08 at 3:15 pm

Bruce, I somewhat agree, However, I don’t agree that I misunderstand how Grace works. Scriptrue commands us to love and do the works for Sanctification as well. When we put our Trust in God by Faith in Him it IS a covenant as well a Grace we don’t deserve. The fact we even have the only Wat for Salvation is Grace because we don’t deserve it. When one reads the Epistles as well as Christ’s commands you can see that it is both not just either/or as you suggest. We can’t help but do good works but at the same time we are called to be obedient to God’s commands from His Word as a a matter of covenent as well. Grace didn’t do away with the covenant it just changed the way we enter into that covanant.

The fact remains is that Scripture even in the NT tells us what we should do and not do as well as show us how to bear good fruit that is a combination of “Can’t help as a matter of couse” but at the same time will be our own choosing by Faith in Him to do that from our own freewill. It is a combination of our own choice as well as God helping us where we can’t help but do what God says.

His gift made available requires us to respond if we want to enter into the Gift made available. Just because a person has a package doesn’t mean they have received it. They must by Faith in Christ alone open that passage to obtain enternal life. “He that has the Son has life. He that has not the Son has not life.” Some have the Son and others don’t to have the Son requires Faith in Christ alone. “Abraham had Faith and it was accounted unto Him as righteousness.” If he didn’t have Faith he would have never had the righteousness no matter how much love he had. There is love and there is Love if you get my drift.


Kim 03.21.08 at 4:40 pm

Hi DH,

I’m a good enough Calvinist to believe that there is a place for what the Genevan reformer called the tertius usus legis, the law as a teacher and guide for the believer. But I am even more a good Barthian, so I would insist that the law itself is, above all, a gift, an expression of grace, not a do-it-or-else demand. That is, it is as an act of gratitude that the believer is obedient to the law and does good works. William Blake: “A thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.” Or as Bruce - who perfectly understands me - might put it- if we know that we are loved, unconditionally, we will love, without limit.


DH 03.24.08 at 2:34 pm

Kim, I agree to a point what you say however, Jesus says He that has the Son has life he that has not the Son has not life. Not everybody has the Son in their life. There IS a choice one makes to accept or reject life. God doesn’t condemn people people condemn themsleves by choosing to rejct Christ. I do agree that it is an act of gratitude that the believer is obedient but that doesn’t take away that being obedient is commanded by God in His Word. The fact remains there are consequeces for sin and God loves us so much that He doesn’t want us to face those consequences. Hense the commands of Jesus.

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