Do People Feel Important Around You?

John 13:1-17

November 3, 1991 | Ray Pritchard

Strange winds are blowing in America. In Louisiana, the experts say that a man who once led the Ku Klux Klan may be elected governor. Although David Duke has said that he favors the white race over the other races, and although he is basically nothing more than a blow-dried neo-Nazi, he may win.

You say, How could that happen in America? Have the people of Louisiana lost their minds?

There are several possible answers to that question, one of the most obvious being that people who live in Illinois can hardly criticize people who live in Louisiana for electing unqualified people to public office. Some people think we cornered that market years ago. And after all, it was just last Sunday that we were reminded of the words of Jesus—”Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7)

The real answer lies much deeper, and reveals something crucial about the heart and soul of America. Yesterday the Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot spoke in Tampa, Florida to a packed auditorium. He was speaking for an anti-congress organization called THRO, which stands for Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out. His message was simple: The country is trouble because we’ve elected a long line of incompetent people to public office. It’s time to throw the bums out.

Do you know the number-one political movement in America today? It’s the movement to establish term limits for members of congress. According to the latest polls, 79% of Americans favor term limits.

That movement is sweeping the country. On Tuesday the voters of the state of Washington are expected to overwhelmingly approve a ballot measure to limit the terms of their representatives in congress. Last night I saw an add for Esprit Jeans. It was really a series of statements about the crisis in the environment. At the end a young man borrowed a few bars from “The Star Spangled Banner” and sang, “Who should we blame? Blame the people in power.”

The song is prophetic. We are blaming the people in power. After Iran-Contra, the S & L scandal, the BCCI scandal, the congressional check-kiting scandal, after record budget deficits and a recovery that keeps looking more and more like a recession, our confidence in government is at an all-time low.

Wanted: Leaders We Can Trust

That’s especially true after the Clarence Thomas hearings. Those five extraordinary days left an open wound on the American soul. The anger runs deep, and next year, for the first time in many years, incumbents will be running scared.

Why? Because we don’t trust the people in power. Because we don’t think they really represent our interests. Because we don’t think the public is well-served by professional politicians who live inside the Beltway.

People are outraged. They’re mad and they aren’t going to take it anymore. They want leaders they can believe in.

Leaders with integrity. Leaders with courage. Leaders with high moral standards. Leaders who model the values we all believe in. Leaders who can’t be bought or sold.

Most of all, we want leaders who care about the people they were elected to serve. We want leaders who serve.

It’s hard to find people like that today on either side of the aisle.

The leadership crisis is not a Democratic problem. It’s not a Republican problem. It’s an American problem.

Where are the leaders we can believe in?

Nervous Chatter

It’s Thursday night, and we’re back in the Upper Room with Jesus. The Passover meal has just started. They are all there—Peter and James and John. Matthew and Bartholomew and James the less and Simon the Zealot and all the rest. Judas is there, but not for long. He will eat the meal and then be about his business.

The mood is strange. Lots of small talk. Nervous chatter. Jesus seems preoccupied, not nervous exactly, but somehow burdened as if there are important things he wants to say but isn’t quite ready to say them yet.

All of them realized that things could turn ugly at any moment. Not in that room, of course, but outside, where the chief priests and the Pharisees were plotting a way to catch Jesus. The disciples knew that something was going down, they just didn’t know exactly what it was or when it would happen.

They didn’t know it was their Last Supper with Jesus. But the sand was almost out of the hourglass. The final movement was about to begin.

The Towel and the Basin

As they ate, they talked and reflected on the extraordinary events of the last few days. And they wondered what tomorrow would bring. While they were talking, and without any warning, Jesus suddenly rose from the table and took off his outer robe. Then he took a slave’s towel and wrapped it around his waist. Filling a basin with water, he knelt and began to wash the disciples’ feet.

Slowly, methodically he worked his way around the table. Silence, total silence, filled the room. Not a man dared to speak.

The process was the same in every case. He first unlatched the sandals and set them aside. Then he brushed off any excess dirt from the feet. Then he splashed water on their feet, massaging them with his hands. Finally, he dried their feet one by one with the slave’s towel wrapped around his waist.

To say they were shocked and dismayed would be an understatement. More than that, they were profoundly embarrassed to see Jesus doing such a demeaning thing. Footwashing was the work of a slave. A host always offered to wash the feet of his guests. But he never did it himself. His slaves did it on his behalf. It was a sign of hospitality, a way to assure his guests that they were welcome in his house.

It was not the footwashing that bothered them. That was customary in those days. Since everyone wore sandals, even feet that had been clean when they left home would soon become covered with dirt.

Looking Out For Number One

No, that was not the problem. It was not what was done but who did it that bothered them. The disciples were profoundly disturbed to see their leader—the man they called the Son of God—stoop to do such a demeaning thing. It was beneath him.

But if footwashing was customary, then why hadn’t they washed each other’s feet already? Why hadn’t they washed his feet? The answer is not hard to find. The other gospels tell us that when the Last Supper began, the disciples were having an argument. Do you know what they were arguing about? They were arguing about who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. There were 12 disciples there, and they had 12 different answers to that question.

That’s why they didn’t wash each other’s feet that night. They were too busy arguing about who was going to be Number One. It makes sense, doesn’t it, that as long as you are worrying about who’s going to come out on top, you’re not going to worry about something menial like washing dirty feet. Footwashing and looking out for Number One just don’t go together.

But Jesus wasn’t into those power games. I imagine that he just sat there listening to them argue, and when he had taken all he could take, he just got up, got the basin, knelt down and started washing their feet.

Dead silence.

Dirty Feet, Dirty Souls

Until he got to Peter, who would always say whatever was on his mind. Usually when Peter spoke, he also spoke for all of them. In this case, Peter tells Jesus, “I will never let you wash my feet.” To which Jesus replied, “If I don’t wash your feet, you have no part with me.” (13:8)

That answer is key to what this footwashing was all about. While they were arguing about who was going to have that high-tech throne with built-in VCR, CD player, mobile phone and rich Corinthian leather, Jesus was giving them an object lesson about why he came to earth.

He came to make them clean. They were dirty, and Jesus came to make them clean. The washing of their feet symbolized the washing of their souls. The dirt on their feet symbolized the dirt of sin that stained their souls. The water symbolized his own blood that washes the dirt of sin away forever.

“Peter, I have the power to wash away your sins. Not only your sins, but the sins of the whole world. That’s why I came—to take lives that have been stained with sin and to wash them as white as snow. But unless I wash you, you will remain dirty on the inside. And as long as you remain dirty on the inside, I have no fellowship with you, and you have no fellowship with me.”

That much is crystal-clear—footwashing symbolizes the effect of Christ’s coming to the earth, and particularly the effect of his bloody death on the cross. Jesus washes dirty feet so that we would know that he can do the same thing for our souls.

Baffled and Bothered

When Jesus had finished talking to Peter, he took his seat at the table and said, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” (13:12) They didn’t have a clue. They knew what he had done but they didn’t know why he had done it.

So he went on to explain, “You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so for that is what I am.” (13:13)

Then the punch line. “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet.” (13:14) This was truly a shocking thought to them. Wash each other’s feet! The thought was repugnant and humiliating.

Don’t miss the point. Footwashing was the work of slaves. If you had any money at all, you never washed feet. You paid somebody to do that for you.

Why would you let your hands touch some smelly, pock-marked, misshapen foot? The thought was … well … it was unthinkable.

Jesus knew exactly how they felt. That’s why he washed their feet. He could talk until he was blue in the face, and they still wouldn’t get it. But now that he had washed their feet, they couldn’t miss it.

The Leader Goes First

That’s why he says, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (13:15) That’s what a leader does. First he does it himself. Then he explains it. Then you do it. But always, the leader goes first.

Lest they misunderstand, he spells it out for them. “No servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” (13:16)

“I did it for you. And if I did it for you, you can do it for someone else.” In that one verse you have the key to the Christian life. Do what Jesus did!

He washed dirty feet. Go and do likewise.

How do you think the disciples felt when they heard those words? Let’s start with words like shocked and dismayed. Then move on to dumbfounded. And then add totally baffled.

Remember, these were the geniuses who five minutes ago were arguing about Who’s gonna be the Big Man in the kingdom.

End of argument.

But it is a good question. Who is the greatest in the kingdom? Whoever he is, or whoever she is, they don’t know it. They’re too busy washing feet to get into that discussion.

Good News and Bad News

One final word from Jesus. “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (13:17) You didn’t know before; now you do.

The conclusion of the whole matter is this: There is good news and bad news this morning. Let’s start with the bad news.

Feet stink. That’s the bad news. Nothing we can do about that. Footwashing is not always pleasant.

Now for the good news. Footwashing has its rewards. “You will be blessed if you do these things.” What things? Washing dirty feet.

You probably wonder what this has to do with my series on Wholly Living. The answer is simple: Most of us go through life basically unhealthy because we’re just like the disciples—We’re looking out for Number One. We’re jockeying for position in the kingdom. We want that high-tech throne.

The sixth question in the series is this: Do People Feel Important Around You? Healthy people focus on making other people feel important. How do you do that? You do what Jesus did. You wash their feet.

No Foot-Washers in Washington

The world is full of people who are on a power trip. They get elected, they go to Washington and they forget all about the people who sent them there. It happens all the time.

Who’s to blame? “Blame the people in power.” And blame the people who put them there.

No wonder we don’t trust our leaders. Not too many foot-washers in Washington. Glad-handers and back-scratchers and back-stabbers and ladder-climbers—we have those in unlimited numbers. But foot-washers are in short supply.

So here’s the lesson: The followers of Jesus distinguish themselves through acts of humble service to those who don’t expect it and who are unable to repay it. That puts it in clear perspective. Washing feet is a distinctive mark of the followers of Jesus. We do it through acts of humble service. We do it for those who don’t expect it. We do it for those who are unable to repay it.

We wash feet because our Lord set the example for us.

We wash feet because in so doing we help those who truly need our help.

We wash feet because in so doing we ourselves are richly blessed by God.

50 Ways to Wash Feet

Would you like some suggestions on where to begin? This week the staff got together and compiled a list of 50 Ways to Wash Feet. This is only a beginning. If you don’t know where to start, pick one of these 50 ways and start there.

*Running errands for a friend

*Baking a cake for a shut-in

*Opening your home to international students

*Giving $20 with a note of encouragement to a single mom

*Confronting a friend who has strayed from the Lord

*Driving carpool to Awana

*Making tape recordings for the blind

*Hugging your children at least once a day

*Rufusing to repeat gossip

*Sending flowers to a friend

*Opening your home to an unwed mother

*Meeting with a new Christian at 6:30 A.M. for discipleship

*Picking up your own dirty underwear

*Giving anonymously so a single mom can go to snow camp

*Intervening in a quarrel to help two friends settle an issue

*Buying food for the Food Pantry at church

*Tutoring at Circle Urban Ministries

*Helping a friend light the pilot in their boiler

*Inviting someone over for dinner on the spur of the moment

*Writing your parents a love note

*Paying your employees more than the going rate

*Cleaning up the kitchen so your wife can read the paper

*Complimenting your boss

*Keeping a secret you’d really like to share

*Praying daily for a friend’s special request

*Spending Saturday helping a friend move

*Raking leaves for a senior citizen

*Changing the oil in a friend’s car

*Making supper for a new mom

*Typing a term paper for a Moody student

*Visiting people in a nursing home

*Baking an extra loaf of bread for your child’s teacher

*Writing a missionary

*Volunteering to help in the church office

*Counseling at a crisis pregnancy center

*Inviting college students over for Sunday dinner

*Staying late after Allied Force to help clean up

*Inviting a new neighbor over for supper

*Substituting at the last minute for a Sunday School teacher

*Loaning your pickup to help a neighbor move

*Baby-sitting children so a young couple can get away for a weekend

*Driving someone grocery shoppping

*Volunteering to serve in the nursery

*Washing windows at church

*Opening your home to evicted families

*Loaning your van for youth events

*Volunteering for a committee

*Reading books to children

*Paying someone’s taxes

*Praying for our pastoral staff

There’s really no secret here. Anyone can wash feet. You can do it if you don’t mind bending your knees and getting your hands wet.

To put it another way, you can wash feet if you don’t mind being a servant instead of a Big Shot.

The irony of it all is this. We have what the world is looking for. We’ve known about it for 2,000 years.

Jesus said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet.”

Only one question remains.

When will we begin to take his words seriously?

Lord Jesus, for too long we have overlooked your words and then we have wondered why the world has overlooked us.

Forgive us for our disobedience. You showed us the way to live on the night before you were crucified. Send the Holy Spirit to do a deep work of repentance within us. Grant that we might leave this place determined to become foot-washers for Jesus’ sake.

As you were unashamed to kneel before your brethren, may we be unashamed to do as you have done, and so show ourselves worthy to bear your holy name in the world. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?