Jesus does the unthinkable.
He picks up a towel, ties it around his waist, and pours water into a basin. Then, he approaches his friends.
He takes their stinky, dirt-encrusted, calloused feet in his own hands—hands that within hours would show their love again by having Roman nails driven into them—and washes those feet clean. He wipes away the grime and makes them spotless, symbolizing what the cross will soon accomplish not just for their bodies, but their very souls.
To appreciate Peter’s shock and horror at this scenario, we must realize this foot washing was the task of a slave. Not just any slave, but it was typically reserved for Gentile slaves. Someone the Jews would have seen as being fundamentally and ceremonial unclean. And Jesus takes on this unclean role to show us how we are to love each other. We are to serve each other as Christ demonstrated by reaching down and bathing dusty dirty feet in clean water. It is a metaphor for how we are to live out Christ-love.
“Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another.” Jesus tells his followers just a few verses later. “This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other” (John 13:35).
Loving others is really hard. Hate is easier than love. Lazy self-service is easier than love. Although the above passage is talking about loving other Christians, the commandment to love is humanity-wide (see Matthew 22:34-40). Whether it’s loving our families, other Christians I may not see eye-to-eye with, or those who share different political beliefs, the commandment is the same.
Jesus’ commandment isn’t the feel-good warm and fuzzy kind of love. It includes loving our enemies, just as Jesus washed and dried the feet of Judas, who moments later would walk away to betray him. It’s love proven in actions of service.
This month we celebrate Resurrection morning. We remember Jesus’ supreme act of love by dying on the cross to take away our sins and make us His. It is a spectacular and powerful love that we celebrate.
It is that sacrificial love that empowers us to do the daily task of foot washing. Most of the time, living out Jesus-love is as mundane and dirty as changing diapers and feeding children. It might be helping tend to an elderly family member and changing bedpans. It may be showing kindness to a grouchy neighbor. It could be becoming a foster parent for an unwanted child. To love our family, friends, enemies, and community by taking on tasks that may even seem unclean, menial, and slavish to others.
This is how we learn to love like Jesus. We look for ways to wash the feet of others.