Thursday evening was Passover day, the Jewish festival where they remembered their liberation from slavery. Jesus had planned it carefully. An upper room in a discreet part of the city was booked and a Passover meal prepared. Threads were being gathered together. The tapestry would soon be complete. For those who had eyes to see, the knotted skein at the back of the loom was all that was visible at the moment, and it made no sense. But the loom would be turned around. It would reveal something beautiful.
When he arrived with his disciples it was as if Jesus knew that this night and this Passover was one of special significance. It would provide the lens through which everything that followed would be seen and understood, just as the Passover itself was the blueprint for the supper where he himself would be food and drink.
Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
In the rest of the city similar preparations were being made. There was a buzz and an excitement in the air. Festivals are always exhilarating. People were rushing home, dressing up; all over the city tables were being laid.
The heat of the day was subsiding. A cool breeze was blowing in from the east. The sky was scorched and marbled with streaks of violet and pale vermillion. Above the city, two eagles rode the evening thermals, circling and looking for prey.
During the meal Jesus got up from the table. He took off his outer robes. He tied a large towel around his waist. He poured water into a basin and started to wash his disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel. He did it so unobtrusively that at first they hardly even noticed it, thinking perhaps that someone else had entered the room and a servant was doing this for them.
But when they saw it was Jesus, that he was their servant, they looked at him with a kind of dumb disbelief. Why was he, their master, demeaning himself in this way? But he worked quietly, methodically and thoroughly. He smiled throughout. And they just sat there and let it happen. He was, in those moments, a still small voice in their presence; a voice of service that did this simple act of love with simple deliberation.
It shut them up. For a moment. They received from him, and this was never something they were very good at. Like most people, they were always happier to be in control, defining themselves by their power over others. But what he did was so obviously ‘other’ that it silenced them. The whole order of their expectations was upended, and they felt embarrassed, feeling they would never get to the bottom of him. After all, hadn’t he reproached them when they argued among themselves about who was the greatest? He had said the first must be slave of all, and that the Son of Man – whom they assumed to be a reference to himself – came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many. But surely he meant servant of God? Not their servant? Yet, here he was, washing their feet. The things he did were too hard to fathom. The things he said were conundrums. He challenged everything.
It is a funny thing having your feet washed. Feet are more private than hands; on display each day, but rarely looked at or loved. They are not objects of beauty. They are gnarled and sweaty. They bear the brunt and weight of the day. Their skin is broken and rough. They are not accustomed to attention. If they are washed, it is usually a perfunctory thing. But he held their feet tenderly. He knelt before each one of his disciples and, holding their feet firmly and before he washed them, he looked each one of them in the eye. He held them with his gaze, and his eyes sparkled with gladness and affection. His eyes said, ‘I know you; and I want to do this thing for you because I love you; and I want you to be clean. And I will wash away the heat and burden of the day. I will be with you as one who serves. Come to me all who are weary and overburdened, and I will give you rest. I will make you clean. I will make you well.’
And what can you say to that? Even if you are feeling a little stupid, or slightly vulnerable, or just embarrassed, it was good to feel the cool unction of the water and his steady grip, holding and kneading your feet.
So that is what he did. He moved from one person to the next. He washed everyone’s feet. But when he got to Peter it was different. Everyone was feeling a mixture of awkwardness and delight as he did this thing, but only Peter objected. When Jesus held Peter’s feet and looked him in the eye, Peter tried to pull away. ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ he asked with stubborn incredulity.
This wasn’t really a surprise. Peter had always been difficult. He had a knack for getting things wrong. If the stick had a wrong end, he would unerringly go for it and pick it up. He was the natural leader – likeable, affable, capable in a ‘doing things’ sort of way – but also headstrong and boastful, easy to forgive and, therefore, often in need of forgiving. When he had first encountered Jesus he had said to him, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ This turned out to be an isolated incidence of self-knowledge. After that he promised everything, but delivered little. Even his name – Peter – was something of a joke. It meant ‘rock’. It was the name Jesus had given him, but it was not a name he lived up to. ‘Sandy’ would have been more appropriate, for that was what he was like. He looked good. He sounded good. But like a house built without foundation, come the crisis he would always collapse.
He had been the first to glimpse who Jesus might be. When others called him ‘rabbi’ or ‘prophet’, he had boldly declared, ‘You are the Messiah.’ All the other disciples had grinned in vacant disbelief at this. But Jesus took it. He took it not just because Peter had said it, and he so obviously loved Peter, but because he always saw something in him that others couldn’t. Somewhere inside Peter’s bravado was an ability to grasp things and reach beyond himself to become that person that Jesus could see. But when Jesus then started talking about being rejected and killed, Peter got it wrong again. He wanted it his way. He wanted Jesus as his sort of Lord, not one that would suffer, not one that would die. So Peter rebuked Jesus, saying it could not and need not end like this. And Jesus said to him, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’
You see, Peter was one of those people who got things right and got things wrong at the same time. When he made his promises he really meant them. But he couldn’t see them through. He was still too full of himself, to let anyone else in. Too busy talking, to ever really listen. Too scared of dying, to ever really live.
Then there was that stormy night on the lake. Jesus had just fed thousands of people, and everyone was exhausted and elated. He dismissed the crowds and sent the disciples in the boat to the far shore. A terrible storm blew up from nowhere, like it sometimes does in these parts. The wind was against them and the waves were enormous, battering the boat and crashing over them. They thought they were going to die. Then, in utter amazement, they saw Jesus walking towards them upon the water and out of the eye of the storm. At first they thought it was a ghost. They cried out in fear, but Jesus said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answered, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’
Jesus said, ‘Come.’
So Peter – dear, deluded, brave and foolish Peter – got out of the boat and started walking on the water towards Jesus. At first it worked. It seemed that when he was held by Jesus’ gaze he was safe, he was able to do the things that Jesus did. But the winds were still strong, and Peter was still Peter; still more full of himself than ready to be filled by God. So he looked around him. He saw the forces raged against him. He thought they were stronger. After all, isn’t that the sensible thing to think? Isn’t that what we all think? Filled with a sudden fear, and – paradoxically– with an urgent desire to survive, he started to sink. And as the waves swallowed him he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’
Jesus immediately reached out to him. His hands were around him and beneath him, lifting him up, saving him, embracing him, and whispering in his ear, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’
Now Jesus held him again, held him with his eyes, and kept on holding his feet: ‘Peter, don’t you know this? Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’
Jesus wanted something for Peter. It was there in the name he had given him. But Peter could still not get hold of it. And all Jesus could do was goon loving him.
There was then a difficult silence in the room. It seemed as if everyone was holding their breath. But Peter still wasn’t ready to let go. He was still so very far from understanding, let alone receiving. ‘Then not just my feet, but also my hands and my head,’ he retorted indignantly and triumphantly, as if to say, ‘Give me a bath, or nothing at all!’
Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’
None of them knew why he said this, though afterwards they realized it was because one of them was about to betray him.
Outside, darkness was falling. Inside, everything was changing. It was almost as if the shadow of night was passing across them inside the light of the room.
After he had washed their feet – Peter’s feet, Judas’ feet, everyone’s feet –Jesus put his robe back on and returned to the table. He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
This is what he did. He showed them what love looked like.