Clearing weeds, tending festering wounds, removing rotting garbage, washing away perspiration: we would prefer to avoid the detritus of life that clings to everything we touch and do, for it arouses in us a sense of disgust when we are dealing with something that is either distasteful, or potentially harmful, or demeaning.
If we are employed in the service sector, we prefer an unpolluted, safe and healthy work environment. We want our homes to be shrines of almost clinical, allergen-free cleanliness. If we are well paid, qualified and competent professionals, we can probably afford to have someone perform the task of cleansing the environment on our behalf.
Domestic employment is often considered to be thankless drudgery and so poorly paid as to be on a par with slavery. In the healthcare sector, we fail to recognise the dignity of those assigned to cleanse bedpans, disinfect our toilets and remove medical waste with adequate pay.
Yet, we also pay a premium for beauty therapists to cleanse our faces and remove dead skin from our feet and hands every now and again. That's because we want to be seen at our best: our hair to be shining and our complexions, radiant and blemish-free and our bodies toned and strong. In spite of this, Christ, the King of eternity CHOSE, in spite of His status, spectacular talents and abilities, to inhabit our real world of dust and debris. Even in respect of John the Baptist, He asked his audience: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet’
John, like Jesus, was a man of simple tastes. The desert caves were his home. Living on a Spartan diet of locust and wild honey, he wore a cheap, coarsely-woven camel tunic and leather belt. It disturbs us that anyone could live so sparsely. Yet, it was all he needed. His wealth was in knowing how to transform broken lives into those pleasing to God. His reward was great in heaven!
It was typical of ancient Eastern hospitality to extend the courtesy of cleansing the feet of those who have arrived exhausted after a long and dusty journey. Among the lower classes, overland travel was largely completed on foot. Yet, while the Pharisees were offended by the fact that Christ had participated in a meal without observing rituals of hand washing, His host, Simon the leper could not be bothered to supply water for Christ to wash His own feet. Oh, the irony! Christ contrasts the blatant discourtesy with Mary’s tears of gratitude: ‘Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair’ (Luke 7:44), the lack of hospitality amply demonstrated the absence of any social acceptance. Christ was sat at dinner with his enemies.
Judas aside and in spite of their constant bewilderment, the apostles were sure He was the Messiah. This was contrary to the many others who had abandoned the cause, offended as they were by what they saw as stern, grandiose and uncompromising pronouncements.
At the Passover, Christ sat at dinner with his friends. In relative seclusion, He treated His inner circle of disciples as honoured guests. They had stayed the course and, separated from their contemporaries by holding onto His entire message, they could exclaim, ‘Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?"
Christ explained the effect of His message on those who do stay the course: ‘Now you are clean by the message that I have spoken to you.’ (John 15:3) Paul also attests to this cleansing action of divine insight through the gospel: ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word’ (Eph. 5:25,26)
Yet, Jesus’s later reply to Peter on the cleansing ritual is startling: “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to Him, `You shall never wash my feet' Jesus answered him, `If I may not wash you, you have no part with me.’ (John 13:7 – 8)
The gulf between vastly differing statuses is crossed in rendering such a personal level of service to another. The action of foot-washing unveils a deep truth of salvation. Mere mental agreement to the truth of gospel is not enough. It may even distinguish churchgoers from the wayward society that we live in. Nevertheless, each of us, in turn, must submit to the principle of Christ washing our feet. In effect, we must each accept and exalt His sacrificial act of cleansing our moral grime, however foul or undignified that might be.
For Peter, the act was filled with unacceptable prospect of a role-reversing indignity towards his master. Yet, the foot-washing merely foreshadowed the next day’s horrendous indignity of Christ’s surrender to humiliation and death on the cross. The ritual only made sense and became a model for us to emulate after Christ’s sacrifice, resurrection and exaltation were understood by the apostles, not before.
Paul put it this way:
‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5 – 8)
The service rendered by Christ towards us and that we, in turn, offer each other, is not just about embracing or conveying the lofty morals of godly behaviour. However that may dedicate us to God morally, true Christian service begins by restoring fallen humanity to cleanliness and wholeness at the most basic practical level of human need. BUT IT MUST BE AT THE EXPENSE OF OUR PRECIOUSLY GUARDED STATUS. To make a difference, we must all get our hands in the water and wash away the debris, rather than doing no more than pointing out where people have accumulated dirt.
It’s no mean feat, but if Christ does not restore us at that practical level, we can have no part of Him. If we do not restore each other at that practical level and at the expense of our pride and status, we can have no part of each other.