by Michael J. Klassen
The occasion began in relative silence. Men gathered at one end of the room while the women gathered at the other. Then we proceeded to separate areas. Although I was the pastor of the congregation, I was a newby to our experience…
The night Jesus was betrayed, he modeled the heart of his message to his closest followers. With only a few hours remaining before their worlds were turned upside-down, Jesus’ words carried greater significance and every measured action would engrave itself on the hearts and minds of his disciples.
So Jesus broke bread with his friends and promised that whenever they followed his example, he would be present. Little did they realize that this promise foreshadowed his impending departure.
Amidst the veiled talk about departures and farewells, a dispute broke out among his disciples. Someday soon, Jesus would judge heaven and earth and install a new world order. Someone would be needed to run his kingdom. And just in case judgment day was about to take effect, the disciples argued about who would be Jesus’ right hand man.
In the midst of the evening, Jesus did the unthinkable. He shed his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, and sat at his disciples’ feet. The video above offers a moving reenactment of the event. If you have time, I highly recommend you watch it.
Reading the John 13 account from afar can be so sterile, so romantic, so easy…until you’re in the position to actually do it yourself.
Despite the use of shoes, socks, and hose, feet can be so…unsanitary. True confession: people who touch their feet really disgust me. Under ideal conditions, feet can be sexy. But in their everyday life, I want nothing to do with other people’s feet. And during the summer when people wear leather sandals, they can downright stink.
Imagine people’s feet under ancient, Near Eastern conditions. Leather sandals. Dusty roads. Refuse (both animal and human) that had run freely through the streets which assuredly splattered onto them. Disgusting. Repulsive. Nevertheless, without hesitation, Jesus touched…he TOUCHED the grimy feet of his followers and washed them.
John prefaces his account by saying this about Jesus: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Loving his own to the end meant not only dying for them—there’s a sense of romanticism to that—but also serving them by doing what only the lowliest servant would do.
Once in our room, we began organizing ourselves into pairs. Suddenly, I felt awkward. No, that’s not the right word. I felt extremely uncomfortable and vulnerable. If I hadn’t been the pastor, I would have looked for a reason to escape.
I scanned the room for a safe person, but before I knew it, someone had chosen me. Of all people, a man who was unhappy with my leadership asked if we could be together. Our congregation was experiencing a bit of conflict, and a group of congregation members didn’t like some of the changes I was enacting. Nevertheless, a man who opposed me chose to wash my feet. The experience was completely disarming.
He invited me to sit in a chair while he grabbed a basin. When he returned, he dropped to his knees to wash my feet. Given the choice, I would have chosen anyone BUT him. God had a sense of humor and a lesson to teach me through the most unlikely person.
The most amazing aspect about Jesus’ experience with his followers is that he chose to wash Judas’ Iscariot’s feet. He served the man who betrayed him.
Just before our congregation’s footwashing service, someone mentioned to me in passing that everyone washes their feet before they arrive. No one likes to sully their hands with other people’s feet. Unfortunately, I wasn’t privy to this information, so my partner unwittingly washed my dirty feet. I arrived at our meeting with the grimiest feet of all.
During the event, people said very little. Washing someone’s feet—and having someone wash yours—is extremely intimate. Hence the silence.
When we finished, the other man and I stood and faced each other. Then he stretched out his arms and hugged me.
While Jesus calls all of us to wash the feet of others, I wonder if he set up this event with the purpose of washing Judas Iscariot’s feet. All of us prefer to serve the people we like, the people we consider safe. But washing the feet of our betrayers, well, that’s a different story. It requires the character of Jesus. You could say it’s our greatest act of revenge toward our enemies.
So Jesus hands you a basin of water. Who is your Judas Iscariot and how can you wash his feet?
Michael serves as co-pastor of The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, Colorado.