You will never wash my feet

April 15, 2014

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news this morning from John 13:1-17.

Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end. The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over. So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.” Jesus said to him, “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so you are clean, but not all.” For he knew who would betray him; for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.” So when he had washed their feet [and] put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it.”

For me John’s gospel does more than any other to convey the tenderness and intimacy of God’s love. I am always so touched by those words, “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” It’s such a simple, human characteristic, but it’s also tells me how God loves me. I’m always astonished by that fact. That I have chosen to believe it is the really astonishing thing about it.

I identify with Peter in this scene. John Shelby Spong in The Fourth Gospel writes, “Peter is always portrayed in the gospels as a work in progress.” That’s me; I always feel like I am a work in progress, that I am always becoming, that I never arrive. At this point in his development Peter did not believe that he was worthy of Jesus’ unconditional love. Jesus was his master, his rabbi, his teacher, his mentor. He wasn’t worthy to be served by Jesus especially in this most demeaning act of having his dirty feet washed. Feet that had to have looked terrible — calloused, cracked, ragged toenails, dirt encrusted beneath the nails, ugly. He fairly screamed out, “Don’t touch my feet. I am not beautiful or lovely enough for you. I am not good enough. I am not worthy.” It was the culmination of a lifetime of not feeling worthy.

However, if Peter was going to be Jesus’ emissary in the world after his death, Jesus had to make him understand that not only was he worthy but so was everyone else he would encounter. Peter would have to be servant to everyone he met; he had to be an instrument of God’s love and esteem. I am always so uncomfortable at Mass reciting the response, “I am not worthy,” or now, “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” It seems so contrary to Jesus’ teaching and it reinforces that judgment of unworthiness that I have carried with me through life. Don’t the gospels teach me that I can’t earn my worthiness, that I can’t achieve it? Don’t they teach me that God has created me out of His love and gifted me with His love, that I am worthy just by the fact of being alive, a child of God?

Spong goes on, “Jesus responds, not in these words, but with this meaning: Peter, do not resist the freeing power of divine love, through which I am calling you into a new dimension of what it means to be human….I am a doorway for you into being itself. Come through me and you will become more fully human. I am inviting you into an experience that will make you whole. If I do not wash your feet, you cannot be part of the God I am revealing and of the humanity I am offering.” Then Peter quit resisting, he relented and surrendered himself to Jesus’ love, to God’s divine love. I like this notion of Spong’s: “love is God flowing through human life….Love embraces people as they are….No one can create love. One can only receive it, and when it has been received it must be immediately shared….Love is the power that binds us to God and to one another.”

It’s only in allowing my feet to be washed that I’m able to receive God’s love. That’s a metaphor for allowing myself to be loved by God and by others in my life in spite of my ugliness, in spite of my failures. I can’t create it. Only in receiving love can I share it with others. That’s what binds me to God and to you. It’s taken me a lifetime to get there. Yet, still, I’m on the cusp of understanding just as Peter was in this scene.



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