Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
Just a bowl of water and a towel. Such innocent-seeming, everyday items. Items you could go into any kitchen in any house anywhere in the world and find. Items no one would even look at twice.
And yet in the wrong hands so subversive. So threatening to the order of things. So challenging to the way we see ourselves and the people around us.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio knows. The man most of us now know as Pope Francis knows better than most how a bowl of water and a towel can ignite a firestorm.
Francis, by many accounts, is a man who holds the pomp and circumstance of the papacy at arm’s length. As an archbishop and a cardinal in his native Argentina, he famously lived in a small apartment in Buenos Aires and took public transportation to his office. When he emerged from the conclave at St.Peter’s basilica as Pope, he wore only the white cassock and not the fur cape and other garments that many of his predecessors have chosen. He’s chosen to live, at least for now, in a guest house in Vatican City, where he’ll eat his meals with other residents in the public dining room. Traditionalists have been somewhat disappointed by his choices thus far.
Some of them are downright apoplectic after his celebration of Holy Thursday during Easter week.
Holy Thursday is usually associated with Jesus’ last supper, and Francis chose to commemorate the day, naturally enough, by imitating Jesus: by kneeling and washing and then kissing the feet of twelve of the inmates in a juvenile detention center in Rome. So far, so good. The problem, to the extent there is one, is that he violated church law in his choice of inmates. Two of them were women. One was a Serbian Muslim.
In washing the Muslim’s feet, of course, Francis raised concerns that he was going to be more receptive toward other faiths than some Catholics are comfortable with. In washing the feet of the two women, he raised concerns that he might be receptive toward the ordination of women.
Well, you know, you have to be careful of exactly to whom you extend the love of Jesus.
It’s funny: every Christian, everywhere, says that we should show the love of Christ to the people around us. And then every Christian, everywhere, wants to place limits on just how far that love should extend. Jesus talked about loving neighbors, and the first question on the lips of everyone who heard him that day was, “Who is my neighbor?” Believers been hearing that demand - and asking exactly that question - ever since. We’ve said, at various times and places, that people of other races should be excluded from the love of Christ. Or that divorced people should be excluded. We’ve tried to hold addicts and homosexuals at arm’s length from Jesus’ love. We’ve tried to withhold Jesus’ love from those of different faiths, different denominations, or even different political parties. At times, the church has quite pointedly taken our basin and towel of Jesus’ love and passed over the dirty feet of some of those who have most desperately needed his love.
A bowl of water and a towel are subversive. I know. I had my feet washed recently in the name of Jesus. I mean literally. It was...what? Uncomfortable. It made me a little anxious, to tell the truth: anxious about how my feet looked and smelled, about sock lint, about what other people who were watching might be thinking. It crossed my mind that I wished the positions were reversed, that I’d be more comfortable with that. I wonder if that’s what Peter was thinking when he resisted Jesus’ intent to wash his feet. Of course, in Peter’s day, questions of status were probably paramount: foot-washing was the work of a servant.
“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me,” Jesus told him.
There you have it. A basin of water and a towel - especially in the hands of Jesus or someone acting in his name - overturns all our nice ideas about self-sufficiency. It reminds us that all of us, washers and washees alike, have no part with Jesus without his sacrificial love. It places us all, embarrassingly, on the same...well, footing.
A bowl of water and a towel are subversive. We all know. That’s why we resist it, why we don’t do it in our worship services. We’re all too aware of the significance Jesus attached to this act of service: he promised blessings to those who follow in his example of self-sacrificial love to others. Little wonder we resist. Little wonder we protest that we don’t need to be washed. Little wonder that when we do wash others, our bowls and towels so often pass by those who are least like us.
Jesus, of course, washed the feet of every person around that table. One of them would betray him hours later. One would deny him three times later that night. All of them, save maybe one, would scatter and leave him alone. Yet his love for all of them would be unshakable.
If Jesus’ love couldn’t save all of his disciples, then our love won’t change the lives of everyone we serve. Some might thank us politely and then walk away on their newly-washed feet. Some might angrily throw our bowls of water in our faces. Sacrificial service doesn’t have to accomplish anything. It doesn’t have to change a person’s heart. That’s God’s business. Ours is to serve as Jesus served, love as he loved, give as he gave. He has set us an example that we should do as he has done for us. We should love others with the same sacrifice and service with which he has loved us. He’ll work through that to call his people to himself. And, as he promised, he will bless us.
A friend of mine told me once about a church he belonged to. The church instituted an annual award: an embroidered towel, mounted on a plaque, called The Towel of Service.
After a few years they had to do away with it. People got their feelings hurt when they didn’t win.
No one fights over a real towel of service. A bowl of water and a towel are subversive. As followers of Jesus, should know. And we should be well-acquainted with them.