April 2, 2015
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
I've seen a picture on social media of a birthday cake, baked and decorated at Walmart. The inscription on it was a basic birthday wish to the birthday person, but along with the words "Happy Birthday," the decorator also included a message that went something like this, "underneath this write, 'we love you!'" The person decorating the cake confused the instructions with the inscription. The heading given to this picture is "First Day on the Job." It is a picture that has gone viral on all forms of social media. People love it because it makes them laugh. I admit, the first time I saw it, I laughed too. I laughed the second time as well. But lately I've been thinking about the person who made this now infamous error. Maybe it was his or her first day on the job. Maybe this person was trying desperately hard to do a good job on the cake, because while this Walmart job may not be so good, it's the only work available. Maybe this person just didn't know any better. Maybe this person can't read, but is too ashamed to admit it. So in order to keep the job they've learned to copy words, but don't understand what they are copying. The scenarios are endless, but what is certain is that the unfortunate person who did this is known for a mistake; known and mocked.
As I said, I laughed the first time I saw this picture. I shook my head and wondered how anyone could be so dumb. I know if I had been the one to place that cake order, I would have been furious when I opened the box and saw the mistake. I mean, how hard is it to get an inscription on a cake right? Right?
Then I come to this passage in John's gospel, and I come to this week and to this night, and these familiar words – words we hear and read every year on this night – sound different to me. I see my dismissive mocking of that silly mistake on a silly birthday cake in a different way. Maybe there was an opportunity for love there, but derision and mocking happened instead. I didn’t take this picture. I don’t know who did it or where it happened. I didn’t post it to social media myself. But I laughed. I shook my head. I scorned someone I don’t know and may never meet. I was complicit in the ridiculing of another human being. Maybe there was an opportunity for love there, but derision and mocking happened instead.
Scorn is not a part of this passage in John’s gospel. While I know that John is heavy on metaphor and layers upon layers of meaning, this seems a far more straightforward passage than most. It was Passover and Jesus was sharing what we know as the Last Supper with his disciples. Jesus knew the time had come for him to leave the world. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” It was the end, and according to John, Jesus knew and understood how all of the events leading to his crucifixion would play out. Judas Iscariot was poised to betray him. Soon, very soon, Jesus would be arrested, tried, and executed. Some might have tried to hide or escape that fate. Some might have sought to preemptively strike before being struck. But as I said on Sunday, my unofficial theme for this week is “expect the unexpected.” What Jesus did next was certainly unexpected. He took off his robe, put a towel around himself, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the feet of the disciples. He did what a servant would do for a master, what one who was of low birth would do for one of a higher station. He, their rabbi, the one whom they followed, turned all expectations and social conventions upside down and washed their feet.
Jesus told the disciples that this was an example of what they should also do. He washed their feet; therefore they should also wash the feet of others. And as we read at the end of our passage, Jesus equated his washing of their feet to love. He gave them a new commandment – love one another as he loved them. As he demonstrated by washing their feet, loving one another meant serving one another.
Without doubt, this was all unexpected. We know from Peter’s response that for a master to wash the feet of servants, or a teacher the feet of students, was unheard of. Peter, in his own impetuous way, first protested the washing then asked for more than was necessary. While the disciples found all of this unexpected, I do not. I know the story. We know the story. None of this is unexpected. Except. There is one aspect of this story that I have never considered before. Jesus washed the feet of all the disciples. Every one. Even Judas. Jesus knew who would betray him. He commented that not all of them were clean. If we were to read on in verse 18, Jesus made it clear that he knew the one who would turn against him, but that one had been chosen to fulfill scripture. But Jesus still washed Judas’ feet.
I suppose Jesus could have waited until Judas did what he was chosen to do. I would have. I suppose Jesus could have put off washing their feet until after Judas took the bread Jesus dipped in wine – Jesus’ sign of the one who would betray him. I probably would have. Jesus even told Judas to go and do what he had to do quickly. Jesus could have held off on washing the disciples’ feet until after Judas left. “Hey guys, he’s gone. Now let me give you this new commandment.” I doubt any of us would question the story had Jesus made that choice. But Jesus washed Judas’ feet too. He washed the feet – he served in love – the one who would most obviously betray him. I suspect that Jesus did not wash Judas feet perfunctorily. Instead I imagine he washed his feet with love and with tenderness.
Of all that is unexpected in these verses, that reality surprises me the most. I am perfectly willing to serve others. I do not see myself as any better, or any worthier than anyone else. I can even accept that I am called to love and serve others who are unlovable. I don’t want to shy away from loving the other, the stranger, the hurt, the poor, the weak or the needy. But to wash the feet of one who has hurt me, harmed me, willingly betrayed me – that challenges everything I think I know. Jesus washed Judas’ feet too.
Yet what I find even more profound is not just that I am commanded to wash the feet of those who have harmed me, but that others might wash mine. When I began my preparations for this evening, I thought about that cake decorator at Walmart, the one I willingly jeered. I thought that if I should ever meet that person, an act of love and remorse would be to wash his or her feet. I believe that this would be an act of love and contrition, but would I be able to let that person wash my feet? Would I be able to look at someone that I have harmed – directly or indirectly – and be awash not only in water, but in cleansing love?
Jesus commanded the disciples, and it is our commandment as well, to love one another as he loved them. He showed them this love by serving them, by doing what would have been considered most lowly. In one way or another, they would all disappoint him and fall short of their calling. But still he washed their feet – all of their feet. Can we give that same tenderness, that same love to all of God’s children? Can we wash the feet of those who have harmed us, betrayed us, used us, and disappointed us? Can we also recognize the Judas in us, and accept the love and forgiveness of others? On this night when we remember Jesus act of love, his commandment to us to do the same, and prepare our hearts and minds for the even greater, more unexpected act of love to come, may we find grace, forgiveness, and love in washing and being washed. Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”