The Sacrament & The Foot washing.
John 13: 1-11
Let me turn our attention to a strange event that took place on the night of the betrayal. It is found in the Gospel of John, chapter 13:1-11.
It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, 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.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not everyone was clean.
The strange omission.
Scholars of the church have noticed a strange omission in the Gospel according to St. John. There is no mention of the Lord’s Supper on the night of the betrayal. Matthew, Mark and Luke make it the highlight of that evening. They spend considerable time telling us about this very first communion service.
It is an even stranger omission in the fourth gospel when one considers all the allusions to that supper in the other parts of this Gospel. Jesus’ first miracle of turning water to wine, points to the last supper. The Feeding of the 5,000 with bread points to the last supper. When Jesus says “you must eat my flesh, drink my blood” right after the breaking of bread that fed the thousands, points beyond question to that supper. Even the word “Eucharist” which is translated “gave thanks” is used in John’s gospel when Jesus breaks the bread. But on the night when the communion service is actually celebrated John whispers not a word about it.
Now, there is a reason for this omission. For John the true sacrament takes place on the cross the next day. It is John that tells us that blood and water flow from his side when his body was broken by the penetrating spear. Now wine and water were the two elements in the cup of the sacrament along with the bread in the first several centuries of the Christian church.
In John’s understanding, Jesus is the lamb of God being sacrificed for the sins of the world. In fact, some scholars believe that John has Jesus being killed at the very same time that all the Passover lambs are being slain for the approaching Passover feast. Why would John do this? John wants to point us to the actual death of Jesus Christ as the source of our life. We are not saved by the emblems of the Lord’s Supper. We are saved by what took place on the cross. We are saved by a great event, and not the mere symbols of it.
Perhaps lest we become superstitious about the sacrament, John omits the Communion Service from his account of that Thursday night before the crucifixion.
The strange inclusion.
But if John has a strange omission, he also has a strange inclusion. In place of the Lord’s Supper, John tells us a story of that betrayal night that the other gospel writers do not relate. It is the story of the foot washing. It is one of the most moving of the deeds of our Lord. Around that sullen circle, Jesus moves with the basin in hand and a towel bound around his waist. He takes those feet in his hands and washes the dirt of that day’s travel from them. An eerie feeling comes over those previously-bickering men. They are quiet now as he moves from one to the next and then to the next.
Why the three synoptics do not tell us this marvelous story we do not know. It is almost too dramatic an event to omit. But John, feeling the need to omit the sacrament of the new covenant, selects another event instead, and tells us of Jesus washing soiled feet.
A function of communion
But the story has a strange way of being told. It is complete within itself as the Son of Glory stoops to wash the feet of his friends. The message is dramatic in and of itself. John, however, has a story within the story whereby he can make a point of paramount importance. It is found in verses 6-10. It takes up most of the space in the story because John wants us to focus on the discussion between Jesus and Peter. This discussion between Peter and Jesus in the fourth Gospel is intense. (It is this gospel that tells us of Peter with Jesus on the beach after the resurrection, another intense conversation between the two men.)
Peter begins by protesting the washing. verse 6. The Greek version reads, ”You are not washing my feet, are you?” expecting a “no!” answer. Jesus says to him. “You will understand it later.” Peter retorts. “You will never wash my feet!” Jesus responds: “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me!” Obviously, this washing is a matter of crucial importance to Jesus. This is no mere object lesson on humility. Simon Peter catches on quickly. He responds “Lord, Not just my feet, but my hands and my head!” But then Jesus moves to where John’s focus is in all this. “He who has bathed does not need to be re-bathed, except for his feet, to be clean all over.”
Now these words seem cryptic when first read. But let me change the words somewhat. Peter has been baptized already. When he says, “my hands and head” he may be saying “from my head to my feet and all in-between!” inferring the need to be baptized again. Jesus answers, “He that is baptized does not need to be re-baptized, except for the feet.”
This brings us back to the communion. John chooses not to include the symbol of bread and water and wine in this place, for he wants those reserved for what will take place on Calvary, but he can leave us with the significance of the service of communion.
Communion is for the foot washing of the believer. In baptism-conversion, the believer is washed. His sins are washed away. He is made clean & holy in that significant event. But as the believer walks through life there is always the possibility of infection from the world around. We pick up the world’s attitudes and habits and need a renewing. A touch up, if you will, to restore us to cleanliness in all of life.
In some churches the baptismal font is placed in the entry way to the sanctuary, where the worshipper is reminded of their baptism, and in some traditions water and wine are mingled together in the Chalice, not to water down the wine, but to remind us of our baptism into Christ and the kingdom.
So what happens in communion? It is the sacrament of progressive sanctification or ongoing holiness. It is the re-presenting all that I now know about myself, to all that I now know about Him. It is having my feet washed so that my sanctification remains entire and growing. It is updating my commitment to him, so that his grace is renewed in my life.
When next we take communion, let us offer ourselves for an updated cleansing of our intentions and affections. Let us once more commit ourselves fully to him. Let us have him wash our feet so that, as the Apostle Paul says we “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit perfecting holiness in the worship of God.” (II Corinthians 7:1) Amen!