When Jesus entered the upper room on the night before he died for us, he was tired. Exhausted. And afraid. He knew that death was coming, knew that his time was up. This would be his last meal on earth, his last night to spend with his friends. But instead of doing the things we might think a person would do if they knew they were about to die, Jesus does something unexpected. He takes off his coat, wraps a towel around his waist, pours water into a basin, and washes his disciples’ feet.
The whole scene is strange. We might imagine the surprise, even the distaste on the disciples’ faces. Because what was happening didn’t make sense. Barely a day had passed since Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem, and the people had hailed him as king. But now he was doing the work of a slave. What did this mean for their understanding of the Messiah? What does it mean for them? Up until that moment, they would never have imagined that this man would pick up a basin and a towel and begin shuffling around the room on his knees, washing the dust of the roads off of the feet of his followers. But here he was, doing just that.
What the disciples didn’t understand and what we so often forget, is that Jesus is a king who embraced humility. As St. Paul tells us, the Son of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, so that we might be saved. On the night before Jesus died for us, he showed the disciples what his love looks like: willingly humbling himself in order to serve and save his people.
Today, we enter into the story of Jesus’ last hours on earth. We walk with him into the upper room, we watch and listen as he breaks bread with his disciples, we wait with him as he prays in the garden. And the whole time, we know that the betrayer is coming. That the cross is coming. But in this moment, here, right now, Jesus invites us — despite our own exhaustion, our own worries and fears — to do as he has done. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus, in this small act of washing feet, challenges us. He challenges our love for honor and prestige, our debates about who will be the greatest. If you want to become great, he said, you must become small. Jesus challenges our distaste and embarrassment with the least and the lost. While we don’t want to look dirty, Jesus is on the ground washing off dirt, he’s eating meals with cheats and speaking to drunks and healing adulterers. And Jesus challenges our lack of love, our desire to correct instead of comfort. While we are picking and choosing who is worthy of our efforts, who is not “too bad to be worth saving,” Jesus is washing Judas’ feet.
This is a hard lesson and we may say to ourselves, “who can bear it?” But the good news is that Jesus has loved us unto the end, straight through Golgotha and beyond.
Jesus has shown us what it means to love as he loves; but we may not feel like we have the strength to do it. And we don’t; only Christ in his humanity and his divinity has the strength to love his own, even his enemies, unto the end — which is why he has given himself for our sake, not only in the act of service and humility, but in his very body and blood.
As we leave here today, we go out into a world that is just as broken, just as violent as the world in which Jesus lived. To love as Jesus loved is hard, and it can sometimes look just as odd as a king washing the feet of his servants. But Jesus calls us to follow him regardless. May we remember that and hope as we come to the Table — for Jesus has given us himself, that we might have the strength to walk beside him. AMEN.