He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”
When the King of Kings picked up a towel and took on the job of the lowliest servant–washing the dirty feet of his first century Palestinian disciples–the experience would never be forgotten. It challenged age-old views on power and hierarchy, it was sensory and more easily and permanently written in the brain, and it was followed by a “new commandment” to love one another. Jesus used every powerful teaching tool to embed this truth in their minds. And 2,000 years later the church is still pouring over this text, full of ready desire to love one another.
So why do our best efforts often fall flat? Why is the church not often seen or experienced as a place of love?
The answer to that question is in the text itself: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” And again in verse 34, “just as I loved you, you also are to love one another.” We must not confuse following Jesus with fandom of Jesus. What do fans do? They watch, admire, perhaps they copy. If we look only at verse 34, we might assume that simply watching what Jesus did will give us a fully adequate example to flesh out in our lives. But we cannot isolate verse 34 from the context of the passage. If simple head-knowledge of Jesus’ love were adequate in carrying out this commandment of love, then Jesus would have allowed Peter to step aside and watch the others have their feet washed. Instead Jesus made plain that for Peter to understand and share in this kingdom culture, He must place his dirty feet in the hands of the perfect Christ–and do so, before understanding why. There is a world of difference between “Jesus washed the disciples feet. So can I!” and “Jesus washed my feet. May I wash yours?”
Peter had to allow himself to be served by Christ before he could effectively serve others. He had to experience the shame, the shock, the discomfort of confusion and misunderstanding, the feel of the Master’s hands, the coolness of the water, the warmth of the towel, the look in Jesus’ eyes as he carefully and thoroughly carried out the task. What did Peter do, I wonder? Did tears come to his eyes? Was his mouth open in shock? I imagine him full of that “Peter” over-confidence (“Wash not only my feet, then, but also my hands and my head!”), sitting down abruptly and kicking his foot out, tense and confident. But then, when Jesus’ hands began removing his sandals, experiencing the vulnerability of being disarmed. The very feeling that marks a naked heart.
Here is the prerequisite to the New Commandment: let Jesus love you. Understanding comes later and effectiveness in loving others comes later. “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter had to be willing to be confused. For headstrong Peter, what could be more vulnerable than not getting it? He had to lose his sense control to receive and internalize the love of Christ. We are no different.
Allowing ourselves to be loved can never be done from a distance. The pure love Adam and Eve were born into in the Garden was a love where they were “naked and unashamed.” They had nothing to hide. More importantly, they had no wish to hide. Do we have things to hide within ourselves in this post-Garden world? Sure. But like Peter, Jesus is saying to each of us, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Another way of hearing this is, “You are free to pull away from me. But if you would let me love you, let me serve you, you will find true intimacy with me and become part of my kingdom.”
Ask Jesus to enable your ability to surrender to his love. Ask him to show you in what ways you are resistant, because sometimes we don’t even see our own tendency to hide. Did Peter think himself the type to resist Jesus? Yet Jesus was faithful to expose this in Peter, and he will be faithful to us.
It is this experience of Jesus’ love in our personal lives that then allows us to know what it means to “love one another just as I have loved you.” Let us bring to each other what we have allowed him to first give to us. Let us not simply be observers of Jesus. To copy Jesus without experiencing Jesus will be a shallow shadow of his love and ultimately lead to personal burn out. Instead, let us be recipients who reciprocate. Let us come to him uncomfortable, vulnerable, dirty–but courageous in surrender. Understanding will come later. You will find yourself infected with contagious, healing love for others.