“So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, 5 and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him. When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You don’t understand now what I am doing, but someday you will.” “No,” Peter protested, “you will never ever wash my feet!” Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.” Simon Peter exclaimed, “Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!” Jesus replied, “A person who has bathed all over does not need to wash, except for the feet, to be entirely clean. And you disciples are clean, but not all of you.” 11 For Jesus knew who would betray him. That is what he meant when he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. 14 And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example to follow…So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.”John 13:1-15, 34
Dr. Raymond Brown, a Roman Catholic Bible Scholar and commentator, made a fascinating observation on the Gospel of John several years ago. He points out that there is no explicit reference to the story of Jesus’ institution of Holy Communion in the Gospel of John. There is no mention of the bread and cup and no words of institution, “This is my body,” “this is my blood.” While we find the story in each of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, there is no mention of it in the Gospel of John. Why? Brown observes that where we would expect to find the story of Communion in John what we find instead is the story of the Foot-washing; of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. He also suggests that there is a deep connection between these seemly different stories and that the story of the Foot-washing explains through Jesus’s selfless acts of washing the feet of his disciples the true meaning of Communion.
When I was in kindergarten, one of my favorite days was “Show and Tell.” Every Friday we had “Show and Tell.” You remember how it worked? You brought an object from home, perhaps a toy or something you really liked and showed it to the class and told something about it. Show and Tell has also invaded some pulpits and many preachers do object-centered sermons. They use some particular object that can be easily seen and understood by the congregation to convey a point that’ll be remembered. Jesus was doing something like that on the night of the Last Supper. In some ways, it comes as much of a surprise to us as it did to those early disciples. We may even find ourselves as scandalized by it as was Peter. When we read this story in John, we would expect to find the story of Communion; of Jesus taking the bread and wine and sharing it with the others in remembrance of him. But John doesn’t tell us about that event at all. Rather, he tells about something, that happened at the meal that’s not reported by the other three gospels. He tells this remarkable story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. Why did Jesus do it? There are two reasons. Let’s begin with the first.
First, Jesus wanted to show and tell us something about himself. It’s not clear exactly when this event occurred in relation to communion, because John says Jesus did it “during supper.” In any event, the foot-washing is another way for Jesus to show the disciples what it meant to give his body and blood. It was an act of service which no one else could or would do. In the breaking of bread, Jesus said, “This is my body, given for you.” In the foot washing, he uses his body to illustrate the attitude of humility and service that was part of his mission as the Son of God. As God laid aside His divine glory in the incarnation, so Jesus lays aside his garments to do the work of a slave. He was showing and telling them something about himself: that humility is one of the characteristics of God. Funny we never think of God as being humble. Maybe because humility is another of those words that has had bad press. Humility doesn’t mean eating dirt. It means you have enough confidence in who you are that you can recognize yourself even when you’re dirty. It means you can risk the dirt because your appearance doesn’t have to be defined by the cosmetics of pride. God’s like that. The God who lived among us in Jesus Christ is like that. While the disciples may still have been thinking about the chief seats in the kingdom, the God who made them was washing their feet. Which brings us to the second point.
Second, Jesus also wanted to show and tell us something about ourselves. He tells us when we participate in his body and blood, we also become the foot-washers of the world. The servant isn’t greater than the master. Jesus tells us, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” As we come to eat at this Table, it’s appropriate to examine ourselves as to whether we’re thinking about the chief seats or the opportunities for service. Communion reminds us of our call to serve the needs of the world. You know, in the early church, people didn’t show up at worship and find the communion elements all prepared in advance and waiting for them. No one had cut the bread into neat cubes and poured the wine or grape juice into those individual antiseptic shot glasses. People brought the bread and wine that they’d made and presented them at the time of the offering. So the priest would take enough of the bread and wine to be used for the communion, and the rest of it would be distributed to the poor of the community. Participating in the communion of the body and blood of Christ automatically meant being involved in ministering with Christ to the needs of the world. As Christ gave his body and blood for the world, we’re called to give ourselves. As he washed the feet of his disciples, so we’re called to outdo one another in serving and showing honor to one another. Jesus has shown us an example of what we’re to be if we’re to follow him in the world and if we’re to partake of his body and blood in this Eucharist. I want to close with this last illustration. A preacher once took his congregation on an imaginary tour through the museum of the New Jerusalem. He told them about what he saw there: a widow’s mite, the feather of a little bird, some swaddling clothes, a hammer and three nails, a few thorns, a sponge that had once been dipped in vinegar, a small piece of silver and a common drinking cup which had a very honorable place. Then he asked the attendant: “Have you not got a towel and a basin in your collection?” Can you guess the answer? “No, not here,” he said. “You see, they’re in constant use.” They’re in constant use – by us. Because we’ve been shown and told what it means to love and serve by the very Son of God! You see, by washing His disciples feet, Jesus shows and tells us something about himself and something about us. He shows and tells us what it means to love and serve God and people. And that’s what Communion is all about. As Jesus gave himself for us as symbolized through the bread and wine, so we are to give ourselves for others.
Gracious God, we thank you for the gift of communion through which we experience the real, spiritual presence of your Son and are reminded how he gave himself in life and in death for others. Help us also to give ourselves in service to others as you have given yourself in service to us, in Jesus name. Amen.
Questions for Reflection
1. How does the story the Foot-washing relate to the story of the first Communion?
2. What does the breaking of the bread and the drinking from the cup make you think of?
3. We Methodists describe Communion as one of the “means of grace” by which we experience the spiritual presence of Christ. Communion is not only a “means of grace” but also a call to us. What is it calling us to do? Jesus suggested the answer when he gave us the New Commandment. What is that new commandment and what does it call us to do?