In reflection of that timeless and much sought after idea of Christian Service, the passage we just shared, John 13:1-17, seems to give a very practical idea of charity, but the passage does not simply ask the question as to what service looks like or what it is. No, in truth, it actually seems to probe further… deeper. John 13 dares to do something much bolder on the way to defining this concept. It actually inquires and suggests that there is a way to breech upon the very nature of God, and it is in that quest that one finds not only the definition of God’s Love but it’s very being in the person and sacrifice of Christ; in the actions of Christ as He actually stoops down to wash His disciples’ feet. So, as we traverse this passage today, I would like to see what this passage is saying in light of its background, content, and character, and then I would like to circle back around to what that means for the central message of the passage and how that relates to us as we read it today some two thousand years later and the significance as we witness the union of this Man and Wife today.
So, to begin, there are a couple of things about the passage that we are reading that I think will help us understand where Jesus is coming from as he performs this act, and one of those things is the context of the story itself. You see, Jesus, in this story, is on his way to death. We are told that the disciples and Jesus have gathered to celebrate the pass over meal – a celebration of salvation that commemorates the time when God saved the Jews from utter destruction from the hand of their oppressors, the Egyptians. Soon, Jesus will be led to be crucified, and the text tells us that He knows the hour for this is coming soon, and in the chapters to follow, the reader gets a long and detailed teaching on Jesus’ continuing work through the spirit and the nature of the new spiritual reality he is about to introduce.
This is significant because many scholars believe that John, the author of this gospel (hence the title!), is trying to, both here and in the epistles that have his name ascribed to them, combat certain religious heresies that have cropped up in the Christian community at the time of his writing. You see, the lay reader tends to simply think that the account of the bible is meant to be taken as an account for account rendering of the life and times of Jesus. What many fail to realize is that someone had to compile these stories later and write them down, and this process was infinitely harder in the ancient world where one had to find the resources and time to do such a thing. That said, it is believed by many scholars that John is recounting his experience with Jesus decades later. In fact, it is probably sixty or seventy years later. So, it may be true that John, beyond simply trying to get the gospel message out to the world (which is no doubt one driving purpose for the composition of this gospel), John may actually be trying orient or re-orient his congregation and the churches that he is serving to the truth about Christ over and against these heresies.
And, in the city of Ephesus at this time, John is trying to fight one of these heresies which would later become Gnosticism. Now, for our purposes, Gnosticism was essential a heresy that denied the humanity of Christ. This was so because, to the Gnostic, physical reality was evil and heavenly or spiritual reality was holy. So, some of the more famous proclamations were that Jesus was a real man who was possessed by the divine at the time of baptism who left his body at crucifixion since he could not experience suffering or that Jesus was something like an illusion and not really a physical being. This is one thing that I would like for us to keep in the background of our minds as we go through this passage.
Also, don’t forget, this act of washing the disciples feet, of course, was the lowliest position possible in Jesus’ culture. Washing feet, in first century Israel, would have been social suicide, but anyone familiar with the gospels knows that this type of risk was probably of little concern for this revolutionary teacher. Christ chose, in this act, to become nothing to show the “full extent” of his love; he chose to reveal love as service. A lot of people, however, get hung up on the fact that Jesus humbled himself, and rightly so. It is one of the most magnificent and beautiful truths of our faith– the fact that God incarnate, deserving of every glory and every praise, could even be considered to have stooped down to serve someone in such a lowly manner. But, I would argue that, though beautiful this is, the fact that he is humbled is not the focal point of this story but more Christ’s CHOICE to humble himself and specifically the manner in which this becomes an example for his disciples and ultimately an example for the reader.
And the first place I would like for us to focus on, as we ruminate on this idea, is the portion that depicts Peter’s response to Jesus as he tries to wash his feet. Initially he rejects the idea that his master and Lord would humble himself enough to wash the feet of the disciples – surely Jesus is the one who deserves to be served, not the other way around. And yet, Jesus insists. I think it is funny that, as he relents, Peter’s actions are such hyperbole swinging from one extreme to the next – “oh no you will never wash my feet” to “well you might as well get the hose out then!!!” I think, what is actually happening is that Peter is confused about what Jesus is doing. To illustrate, I would like to talk about one of the greatest cinematic gems of all time – “Analyze This” (or maybe it is “Analyze That”...there are two... I can’t remember). If you have never seen the film, the basic plot is that Robert De Niro’s character is a mafia Kingpin who is suffering from depression after leading a life of violence and crime. So, at the behest of his friends, he decides to see a therapist – the unwitting and unwilling character played by Billy Crystal. And, as you might imagine, many comedic antics ensue. But, there is a scene where Crystal’s character, obviously a Jew, is following DeNiro’s character into church for mass, and as they come to the basin of holy water, they both simultaneous dip their hands into the water. However, as DeNiro’s character makes the sign of the cross, Crystal’s character begins to wash his hands vigorously and I think even takes a finger to get behind his ears.
The water meant different things to them. For DeNiro, it was that sign for him to remember his baptism, but for Crystal it was that water which you dipped into in order to make yourself ritually clean before you entered the synagogue and the presence of God’s word, and there were similar rituals that took place in Jesus’ time as well when one wanted to enter the temple area. And, I think something similar is going on in Peter’s mind, here. I think he has his sanctity in mind. I think, he thinks that Jesus is performing a ritual, and while we cannot fault him for wanting to participate fully in this, Jesus lets him know that this is not what he is trying to do.
In fact, as Jesus is addressing him in verse 8, before Peter asks him to wash his head and his hands, he says that if he doesn’t let him was his feet, then he has no PART with him. Now, “part” is the Greek word meros [meros] which in its most basic meaning means exactly that – a part of something. However, in context this word, especially as it is used in the Septuaigint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), is often used to refer to a part of an estate or an inheritence. It makes me wonder whether, as soon as he heard this, Peter’s heart didn’t start racing or he didn’t get a lump in his throat from anxiety. I wonder if, when Jesus says this, he isn’t thinking that he is on the cusp of losing his stake in the eternal kingdom. I mean, he has invested years, at this point in the story, essentially campaigning for the fact that Jesus was the Messiah – the One the prophets had told about! The one who would bring unity and peace and dominance and salvation back to the Jewish people! Now, of course we know that Jesus’ specific purpose of being a sacrifice for sinners kind of flew in the face of Peter’s expectations (and truly the Jewish mindset at the time), but nevertheless, this is probably what is running through the mind of Peter as Jesus is performing this act.
All of this, however, leaves the question as to what Jesus was actually doing in this passage. Verse 1 tells us that he did this to “show the full extent of his love” and in verse 15 Jesus himself says that this is to be an example for the disciples, and presumably us as the Christian body, to follow. Does this mean that we are mandated to literally stoop down and wash each other’s feet? I don’t think so. I think one key think to note is how the text says that Jesus took off his robe before he did this and then explicitly makes note of him putting it back on when he is finished. Some scholars have tied this passage in with John 10:17-18 where Jesus says that the Father loves him because he freely lays down his life only to take it up again. You see, some scholars think that as Jesus lays down his garment he is actually, symbolically showing the reader that he is about to lay down his life. It is like those movie poster outside a theater – they always catch your eye, but they are meant to be signs to get you to the main event. The foot washing is the poster, and Jesus’ impending death and resurrection is the main event. 
Well, that is all well and good, and some of you might even be rolling your eyes a little right now because, if you have gone to church for any length of time, you probably feel that you have been through this lesson a thousand time – yes, yes. Jesus died on the cross to save us from sin. Awesome. Let’s all go have coffee and donuts in the foyer and get the heck outta here! BUT WAIT! Though one can see this symbolism in the text, this isn’t the central point of this passage! In fact, the point of this passage is US centric. It has to do with us. You see if Jesus is talking about his ultimate sacrifice on the cross as the example that he is setting for us, there is something much deeper and profound going on in this passage than simply another lesson on Christian charity or our service of each other. It does take these things up as a dimension of its message, but it takes them up in relation to our POSTURE within them. The message, in that case, is transformed into something like that old hymn sings – “come and die!” Come and follow me even unto your death! Come and serve the church, the world, your enemies, even if it costs you your very life! This act is aided by the fact that the word for “example” in the Greek is the word upodeigma which some scholars note is associated, in the Septuagint and some of the contemporary Jewish writings, with someone giving an example of how to die, as in how to die honorably in something like battle or in reference to having been martyred honorably.
So, what does this mean for us? Well, perhaps this is a little confusing, so let me give you an example through a personal story of mine. I am not sure if any of you know, but I lived in Juarez Mexico for two years doing a missions internship. This was one of the most profound experiences of my life. It shaped me in ways that I am still, a couple years later, trying to flesh out in my life and my spiritual walk. I mean, when I think back on the friendship I made and the great times I had there, I can’t help feel a certain sense of joy come over me. There wasn’t a week that went by that I and my fellow interns weren’t at some church fiesta eating amazing Mexican food, or at hanging out at someone’s house in the community just...doing life. I worked in a soup kitchen, and I have countless stories of some of the guys, Gerardo, Francisco, Noe, clowning around or pouring their lives out to the people there. Or, there was sweet little Annabel, who was a master at making tortillas, she had come to Christ after escaping (literally with just the clothes on her back) the sex-slave industry. She had been duped by her first husband and his family, and they used her as a sex slave. We worked in a women’s shelter doing programs and things for moms who were escaping poverty and abusive relationships. That was one of the most amazing place to be sometimes because the kids were so joyful and curious and you could tell sometimes the moms just needed a break! And, so we were able to get the kids out of their hair and put on programs for them. I still remember little Pollo with these huge ears would say the craziest things sometimes! I mean, even with a language barrier ... kids are kids!
I say all that because, the truth is, Mexico was also one of the hardest times of my life. Almost, everyday I battled an urge to just LEAVE – get out of the chaos! Sometimes, my spirit was just so broken by some of the things that I saw. I mean, regularly, my team and I would see crazy things – gang beatings, corrupt policemen, someone once set a car on fire outside one of the churches I was working at (only by the grace of God did it start raining, because the flames were close enough to church that you could see it lipping up over the side of the roof!), our house was constantly robbed from or vandalized, I once saw a woman holding, I presume, her dead mother on the street after a hit a run. Extortion was a common occurrence. I once met a woman who was so poor that the only thing she had to feed her baby was instant coffee... this baby had been drinking only instant coffee for two days. My wife and I were carjacked, once. I mean, one of the men cocked a gun and held it to her head... life in Mexico wasn’t always easy. The majority of the time, I found myself struggling with a sense of defeat, with a sense of loss. That isn’t to say that God didn’t prove himself over and again, but more often than not I really had to battle a sense of hopelessness.
I can remember distinctly, one evening, after a particularly hard day, I was sitting outside my little barrio home on the porch, watching the sunset, and I could see in the distance one of the ministries that we worked with called Juventud con Vision “Youth with a Vision.” I could see the three crosses they displayed on the crest of their roof as the fading rays of the days’ last light slowly engulfed them. And, I began to go over this passage, John 13 and another passage in John 20, in my mind. In John 20, Jesus has already been crucified and buried, and there is a moment, in the book, when all seems lost for the disciples. It is at this point that the reader is introduced to a bit of a funny story. You see, John 20:3-9 (you don’t have to turn there, I will just relate to you what is happening) tells the story of Peter and the “Beloved Disciple,” who many think is actually John (the author of the Gospel) trying to offhandedly paint himself into the narrative, in a bit of a foot race to the tomb. Mary Magdalene had gone early in the morning to the tomb and had found it empty. She then immediate reported this to the disciples. So, in John 20:3, we see Peter and John racing to the tomb to see for themselves, and... John beats Peter there. Now, all my life I have heard this passage preached as a bit of a quip. It is almost an anecdote to show the rivalry that existed between these two apostles in the early church as if this was John’s way of taking a pot shot at Peter – “look at you Peter! You can’t even win a foot race!” But...I don’t think so. I don’t think that is what is happening in this passage.
There is a sense here, I think, that John is actually a little hesitant to enter the tomb. He is the BELOVED disciple! Would he not have the courage to go and be by his master’s side?! I think, he is the last person the reader would suspect to be hesitant to enter the tomb, and yet, the text is very clear that John did NOT go in to the tomb. But, here comes that little chubby, out-of-shape, fat boy Peter trudging behind him. At this point, the reader would suspect that it would be PETER who would be afraid to go into the tomb, because given the fact that Peter, in ALL the gospels, is portrayed as a person who is profoundly concerned and steeped in the Jewish thinking of his day, one would expect that, since they both know that Jewish law prohibits them from coming in contact or being in the presence of a dead body, Peter of all the characters would protest to entering the tomb because it breaks Jewish Law. Yet, lo and behold, it is PETER NOT JOHN who enters the tomb first! See, I don’t think that John is badmouthing Peter so much as showcasing the resolve it took for him to enter the tomb first, over and against his own inhibitions. It is Peter who is willing to follow his master even into the darkest of places.
And, as I am thinking on this and on John 13, on my porch, in Mexico (don’t forget that is where we started with this illustration), and the last rays of the sunset slowly slip past the hillside and the crosses atop that building, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be Peter at that moment. It is so obvious in chapter 13 that Peter is desperate to “get it right” to “play by the rules” that he misses completely the fact that Jesus is asking him to give of himself, not for his own glory or his own sanctification, but simply because it brings praise and honor to God. But, here in Chapter 20, I get the sense that, with all of that in the background, with all of that as a precedent, Peter has to choose. Will he be overcome by the religious impulses that drive him to an ingenuine faith, or...will he follow his master? Will his devotion to his pride in “being right” win out, or will he charge ahead to chase after the Lord that he loves. You see, the ultimate point of this passage is a call to service, yes, but more it is sign of God’s beckoning call for us to chase after him unabashedly through that service.
Now, I would hate for any of you to walk out of here thinking that this passage doesn’t promote Christian charity. That is not what I am saying at all. But, the thing I think we need to remember – that is CRUCIAL to remember – about this passage is that that is not where our obligations end. Anyone can feed a hungry person to satisfy their own compulsive needs to feel prideful or accomplished or to pat themselves on the back, but Jesus, as we have seen, is showing us in this passage that the extent to which we serve and sacrifice ourselves ultimately and necessarily needs to emulate Him as he is dying, as he is crucified. This passage is profound because it speaks to our posture in service – that we do this FOR THE GLORY OF GOD and not our own petty self-interests. And, not only that, but Jesus’ example here calls us to follow him even into the darkest of places...even unto death.
Now, the good news is that most of us are not called to be martyrs every day, nor do I think this passage is telling us to go and flippantly get ourselves killed for the faith. No, in truth, though some are destined to be martyrs, and one might think that John’s audience was familiar with this threat, this passage speaks to our posture in serving. Why do we serve? Do we do it for the great feeling it gives us or because “we are supposed to”? NO! Romans 12 says it well when it calls us to be “living sacrifices” and that is what this passage, I think, is saying to us too! Every aspect of our very lives is meant to be lived for the glory of God; we serve each other because, by this, we serve God. And, the keen message here is that sometimes, in serving God by serving others, we may be called to necessarily lay our lives down.
With these thoughts in mind, I must take this opportunity to charge Man and Wife, to choose, and the choice is of each other – the choice is forever. This day- these vows- mean nothing without that choice. Man and Wife, Christ convicts us to love the world through service – let that begin in your own home as you wash each other’s feet. Christ demands that we follow Him even in to the darkest places – let your love for each other be that discipline which would bear you on such a steady course. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God – let your marriage be that unfailing example which would proclaim such a message unto the world.
And since the savior has given us this example of His love, Man and Wife, serve each other, love each other from the will as well as the heart, and on that cold day when sun and warmth seem like fairy tales and joy farther than the reaches of the cosmos, choose love –choose each other!
Brown, Colin ed. “Meros (Meros),” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology
5.1. LaserD. CD-Rom. Michigan: Zondervan, 2005.
Howard-Brook, Wes. John’s Gospel and the Renewal of the Church. New York: Orbis, 1997.
Hughes, R. Kent. Behold the Man: Expository Studies in the Gospel of John 11-21. Illinois:
 Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 46-56.
Brown, Colin ed. “Meros (meros),” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology 5.1. LaserD. CD-Rom. Michigan: Zondervan, 2005.
 Wes Howard-Brook, John’s Gospel and the Renewal of the Church (New York: Orbis, 1997), 45-50 .
 Wes Howard-Brook, Renewal, 45-50.