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.