GOSPEL: John 13:1-17
[He] 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” (Read the whole passage)
We are taking our next step into our Lenten sojourn. Last week, we ventured out into the wilderness, not the traditional wilderness of temptation, but the wilderness of grief, confusion, and death as we heard in the story of Lazarus.
Today, the Narrative Lectionary skips us forward again, this time past the end of Lent into Holy Week itself. The washing of the disciples feet is a Maundy Thursday story. A story that begins the Triduum, the Great Three Days of the church that take us to Easter and resurrection.
Still today, we aren’t there yet. We are still just setting out on our Lenten journey, only having begun it last week. And so this story of foot washing becomes something different. Rather than the beginning of a bigger story, it is a moment between Jesus and the disciples that tells us something all on its own.
When I was in high-school as a cello player, I was recruited to play in the orchestra in a large scale production called Love According to John. It was an annual passion play/musical that had been running for decades. Sitting in the orchestra pit was one of the best spots to be able to see the actors just above us on stage.
And one particular scene still lives freshly in my memory nearly 20 years later.
It is this moment of foot washing. As Jesus washes the feet of the other disciples, the actors playing them, would put confused looks on their faces, but would dutifully play along with their master.
Yet Peter was different – to see Peter with my eyes and hear his voice, rather than reading them on a page… Peter always was reactive and brash, frustrated and clearly insecure. Almost as if he didn’t really know what was happening until Jesus was about to pour water over his feet.
And to watch Peter’s body go from withdrawing in one moment to offering his whole self up in the next, you could see that Peter’s problem was in interior one, a problem deep within himself.
Peter is longing for control… Peter cannot help himself. The same Peter who wanted to build a house for Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, yet who rebuked Jesus for speaking about dying. The same Peter who jumped from the boat to follow Jesus, yet who wanted Jesus to put a cap on the number of times he needed to forgive. The same Peter who hopped out of the boat to walk on water, yet sank when he saw that we has walking on water.
The same Peter who said he was willing to die with Jesus, yet denied evening knowing him just a few hours later.
This Peter is grasping for control, grasping for power and security, for the smallest sense that the world around him isn’t careening chaotically about him.
Peter wants to be the one who will dictate to Jesus how this whole faith relationship is going to work. First Peter will not let his master and teacher wash him… and then if he must be washed, Peter will be the most washed, every inch of him.
Peter can’t help himself, Peter tries to control Jesus every chance he gets.
We have a similar habit of trying to control things in our world. We long for security and and power, safety and predictability too. We don’t like that Jesus seems to be constantly changing his mind, doing things differently, and operating outside of our acceptable parameters.
Control and being in control is something that we naturally long for as human beings. We try to control the world around us, whether it is at home, work or church. We don’t like it when things don’t go as we expect, and just like Peter who is stopped in his tracks by his teacher, we can lash out when things come at us unexpectedly.
We often try to control Jesus. As Christians we have been guilty of withholding Jesus from people that we think are the wrong people and then in the next breath telling others that they need more Jesus. The church has controlled access by selling indulgences that granted a little bit of God to those with money… a practice that sparked Martin Luther and the reformation. And more recently, prosperity televangelists have tried to sell Jesus, with tracts or little green cloths or miracles… dolling out Jesus as if he was a Home Shopping Network product.
And of course most recently, many churches hold on to control, wanting Jesus to bring in more people and more resources, as if the point of the gospel was to bring butts and wallets into the pews, rather than forgiveness, life and salvation into people’s lives.
Like Peter, we flail about searching for control, even in the face of Jesus offering himself to us.
The season of Lent is the season in which the church remembers baptism. Those who are preparing to be baptized complete their preparation in this seasons while awaiting baptism at great vigil of Easter. Those are already baptized often take the opportunity to remember our baptismal identity.
And if there is anything the church does that reminds us that control is an illusion it is baptism. In baptism, God claims us, names us, and gives us new life. God does all this, and there is nothing we do to earn any of it.
So as Peter stands there before Jesus, protesting his feet being washed at all, and then asking for is whole self to be washed… we cannot help but imagine ourselves standing (or being held as babies) before the font.
When Peter finally submits, Jesus takes his disciple’s feet, one at a time, and washes the mud and dust from feet that have travelled far. He washes them clean, and dries them with a towel.
And what is normally a perfunctory act that happens between house slave and guest, becomes an intimate moment between teacher and student, between beloved friends.
And perhaps just for that moment Peter got it.
The washing of the his feet is not about control.
It is an act of Love.
Jesus washes Peter’s feet and the feet of disciples not to demonstrate who is in control, but to show them that he loves them.
Jesus washes our feet in Holy Waters not to demonstrate who is in control, but because he loves us.
The tension of our Lenten journey is this one.
In our wilderness journey, we struggle with things like being in control, with power, with fear and insecurity. And the wilderness of this journey reveals them to us, even as the rest of the year we can keep things under the surface.
And yet, as they are revealed, Jesus bends down with water and towel, and washes these things from us.
And Jesus shows us love.
Love that holds us,
love that forgives us,
love that renews us,
love that gives us life.
And as we are washed by Jesus’ hands, by Jesus’ body, we become part of the Body of Christ, forever grafted on to a body that isn’t about control, but about love.
For Jesus, it has never been about control, it is about bringing the kingdom near, about showing us God in flesh, by coming close to us.
Close enough to wash our feet,
close enough to reach out to us in the wilderness,
close enough that we might forget our fear for just a moment,
close enough to show us love.
Today, Peter’s story is a lenten story. Just as our own baptisms are Lenten stories.
Stories that reveal our flaws, and faults, our failings and insecurities.
But also stories that reveal Jesus’ love.
Jesus’ love for Peter.
Jesus love for us.