Many of you may remember Art Linkletter and his radio and film clips called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” It was later picked up by Bill Cosby for a couple years in the late 1990’s. They were funny, because the children unabashedly spoke the truth they had witnessed or experienced, often in ways adults found refreshing in a child, but would never dare to say themselves. Someone once asked a young girl why we have to be quiet in church. Her response was “because people are sleeping.” What the girl had witnessed in church gave her a wrong impression of what was supposed to happen in church. Our actions do speak louder than our words.
Jesus has been teaching his disciples through both words and actions from the time he called them until this night. They still haven’t caught on to half of what he has been trying to tell them. They still don’t understand that he is about to die. They are still expecting some sort of military rebellion, perhaps not a full army behind a general on a white charger, but at least some kind of resistance activity. They are still anticipating that Jesus will supplant Herod and actually sit on a throne ruling Israel, and they are still arguing about who will be second in command. So, Jesus demonstrates two things and gives them one new commandment.
First, he washes their feet. In a country where most of the people walked, wore sandals, and the roads were traveled by livestock as well as humans, a good host or hostess provided a bowl of water and a towel for their guest to wash their feet as soon as they entered the dwelling place. A wealthy host or hostess also provided a servant or slave, usually the lowest ranking one in the house, to do the actual foot washing. Jesus assumes this position among his disciples and begins to wash their feet for them. At first, Peter is appalled. His mentor, his teacher, has stooped, literally to take on one of the lowest jobs in a household. Peter may have understood what Jesus was doing better than even he himself realized, because the reason he was appalled probably was tied to Peter’s own ego and his relationship with Jesus. How many of you have ever been embarrassed by something your parent, child, or friend did? You were probably embarrassed because you didn’t want anyone to think you would do that, or hang out with someone who did. When Jesus basically tells him, if you don’t let me wash your feet you are not my friend, Peter suddenly wants a whole bath thinking this is some kind of purification ritual. Jesus says no, I am just washing your feet because they are dirty and it is the kind thing to do.
Jesus is demonstrating servant leadership. He is a mentor; a teacher not a political or military figure and they are called to be mentors and teachers not soldiers or politicians. We are called to be mentors and teachers as well. I suspect the reason the current generation is not engaged in religious activities is because they watched what we did, rather than did what we said.
The second thing Jesus did was he took the story of the Passover and appropriated its symbolism to help us understand the cross and to alter the way we approach God. Up to this time, animal sacrifices were used to symbolically demonstrate our desire for forgiveness and assure us of God’s mercy. Jesus puts an end to animal sacrifices and moves the focus of our relationship with God to the dinner table. We are no longer subjects expected to cower in fear before God, we are children who are to gather as a family to share in the bountiful mercy of God’s love.
Finally Jesus gives them a new commandment. Jesus had summarized the law given though Moses to the people by quoting two scripture passages: “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31) But tonight he tells his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35).
The reality is, we don’t always love ourselves or treat ourselves very kindly. I am sure Jesus was aware of this. If we only love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, we may not love them very much or treat them very well. But, if we use Jesus and the love he had for his disciples as the measuring stick for what love looks like, then we cannot fail. What did that look like? Jesus was about to show them. Nothing that was said or done to Jesus by anyone lessened his love for them. Jesus asked them to pray with him and for him in the garden during his greatest hour of need, and they fell asleep. Only a very feeble attempt was made to stop Jesus from being arrested as one of the disciples whacked the ear of the servant of a soldier with a sword. Jesus had compassion on the man and healed his ear even as he was being arrested. The disciples slunk around in the shadows as Jesus was being tried and convicted. Peter went so far as to deny he even knew Jesus on three different occasions that same night. Jesus’ response is after the resurrection to ask him three times to confess that he loves him and to commission him to “feed me sheep.” Only John and a few women stay with Jesus while he is dying. After the Resurrection, Jesus first greeting is not, “Where were you jerks?” but, “Peace be with you.” Jesus is brutally scourged and crucified, and Jesus’ response is “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus said if you do this, people will know you are my disciples. One of the biggest complaints about Christians is that they are not very Christ like. Some of this comes from people who expect Christians to allow themselves to be taken advantage of, but what Jesus demonstrates is not submission to evil. He cast out demons, reprimanded religious officials, and even his own disciples. What Jesus demonstrates on the cross is that forgiveness, not evil is the more powerful force. We are called to forgive one another for our failings, even when the consequences cause us great pain, because in the long run forgiveness is our best weapon.
This week, be aware of what your actions say to those around you, demonstrate a Christ like love through servant leadership, and remember that forgiveness is the strongest weapon you have for combating evil.