Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
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A Revolution In Humility

John 13:1-17 and 31-35

 John’s Gospel does not record this, but we do know from one of the other Gospels that just before the Last Supper, some of Jesus’ disciples were arguing amongst themselves about “who was the greatest?”  I have to think that after spending three years with these guys, Jesus must have been pretty frustrated by that point.  Were they ever going to “get it?”  Were they ever going to see that the Kingdom of God is not about rank or status?  Or were they just going to keep thinking like the world?

 I think that argument, and others like it, was the motivation for Jesus’ actions that night.  By the conventions of the day, foot-washing was required for “ritual purity.”  Before eating a sacred meal like the Passover, it had to be done.  But it was a lowly and demeaning task.  Roads were either dry and dusty or wet and muddy, depending on the season.  And they would be littered with the “exhaust” of horses and camels and donkeys.  

 Foot-washing was a job for slaves.  If a household was poor and there were no slaves, then the children would be given the job.  If a man didn’t have children, he would make his wife do it.  For some reason, there were no slaves, no children, no wives in the Upper Room that night to do it.  I think because Jesus sent them away!

 A free person, in general, would not willingly touch another person’s feet.  Nor would anyone ask a free person to do it.  There were a few stories of disciples of a rabbi offering to do it out of love.  But those were the exceptions rather than the rule.  And even then, the rules of status were preserved, because a disciple had lower status than his rabbi.  The one thing no one had heard of, until Jesus did it, was a person of higher status stooping to the lowly task of washing the feet of their “inferiors.”  Until Jesus did it.  

 This past Sunday we were talking about the “revolutions” started by Jesus.  One of them was a revolution in humility.  In Jesus’ world, humility was not a prized virtue.  People were expected to “brag” about themselves, to lift themselves up above others.  The trick was not to “over do it.”  There were actually books about how to brag without going over the top and turning people off.  

 And then, something remarkable happened:  The King of the Universe took off his clothes, wrapped himself in a towel, like a common slave, and washed the feet of his disciples willingly.  

 Why would he do such a thing?  Because he loved them.  We spoke a couple months ago about love, in the biblical understanding of the word.  The word for love in the New Testament is the Greek word AGAPE.  It means a self-giving, self-denying form of love that counts others as better than oneself.  Jesus was “superior” to his disciples, but in love, he counted them better than himself, denied himself, and served them.

 It’s a love that we are to imitate.  The early Church did imitate this practice.  Foot-washing remained a part of regular Christian worship for several centuries.  And there were remarkable stories from the early Church about rich, noble people coming into the church’s worship and serving the very same slaves that they owned by washing their feet.  That was unthinkable in the culture of the day, but it happened.  

 Foot-washing is still done in some parts of the Church today.  Several years ago we had an ecumenical community service of holy communion at the Valley Grace Brethren Church in Armagh.  I was there, and maybe some of you were as well.  And in keeping with their tradition, we washed feet.  It was a humbling and meaningful experience.

 But for the most part, it’s not done now in the Church.  Why not?  Some people say that it’s no longer “culturally relevant.”  We wear shoes, not sandals, at least for the most part.  We have paved streets and sidewalks, not dirt roads.  And we drive most of the places we go.  And except for a few places, like Amish country, we no longer have the animal “exhaust” on the roads.  Maybe that’s a good reason not to do it anymore; it’s no longer “relevant.”  Or maybe it’s simply that we find the thought of it “distasteful,” so we don’t do it.  As if they didn’t find it distasteful in Jesus’ day!  

 Whether we do foot-washing or not, this much is for sure:  We must love one another.  We must count one another as better than self and serve one another.  Because Jesus told us to do so.  Jesus told us that this would show the world we belong to him.  So however we do it, we must serve one another and love one another if we are to claim the name of Christ.  

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