4. Footwashing & The Sacrament

Can I turn your attention to a strange event that took place on the night of the betrayal. Let me read it for you from the Gospel of John. Chapter 13:1-11.

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are 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 this betrayal night.  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 ever 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 mind 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 redeemed by the reality of 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 his basin in hand and his towel bound around his waist.  He takes those feet in his hands and washes the dirt of that day’s travel from them.  An eery 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.

The 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 their feet. 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 intimate discussion between Peter and Jesus in the fourth Gospel are intense and intimate moments. (It is this gospel alone that tells us of Peter with Jesus on the beach after the resurrection) John wants us to focus on their words.

Peter begins by protesting the washing. verse 6. “You are not washing my feet are you?”  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 into Christ already.  When he says “my hands and head” he is 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 cannot include the symbol of bread and water and wine in this place, for he wants those reserved for Calvary, but he can leave us with the theology of the service of communion.

Communion is for the foot washing of the believer.  In his baptism-conversion the believer is washed.  His sins are washed away.  He is made clean & holy in that marvelous 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.

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.

So when we take communion, let us offer ourselves for an updated cleansing of our intentions and affections (or as the Book of Common Prayer notes “our desires and devices”).  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)