On the night He was betrayed, Jesus knew He had but a few hours before He would be handed over to the authorities. So, He gathered His beloved disciples around Him and shared with them those things which pressed most urgently on His heart. He began by washing their feet.
We know that washing of the feet was a common practice. After all, the people wore sandals, if any shoes at all. And although major Roman roads were paved with stone, both the paved roads and the many dusty, muddy paths were shared with animals. You would see some ox-drawn carts, a few donkeys, and an occasional wealthy man or a Roman official on a horse. But for the most part, people walked everywhere.
And so, washing feet was both a necessity and a blessing: a necessity because of the conditions, a blessing as cool clean water soothed hot, dirty, tired feet. No good host would neglect to provide for the comfort of his guests by allowing their feet to go unwashed. But washing feet could be a nasty job. And so it was a task usually reserved for the lowest of the servants.
We don’t know for sure how it came about that no servant was present to wash their feet when the time came to eat the Passover. It could be that the disciples simply forgot to hire a servant when they made arrangements for the meal. Or perhaps they assumed the owner of the house would provide someone. It may have been a misunderstanding, each disciple thinking another had made the appropriate arrangements when, in fact, no one had. But however it came about, none of the disciples was in a hurry to step into the servant’s role and remedy the situation.
And so, Jesus did.
Personally, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that a servant had indeed been provided and Jesus had arranged to dismiss him. Because Jesus wanted His disciples to understand what He meant when He said, “a servant is not greater than his master.” To comprehend what it meant for Jesus, the Son of God, to humble Himself by becoming a man may have been difficult for the disciples to grasp. But watching Jesus, their Teacher and Lord, humble Himself to crouch down before them and wash their dirty feet with love and care, they could not help but realize He had humbled Himself to serve their needs with grace and lovingkindness.
On this night, we remember Jesus washing the feet of the disciples and His commandment that we should do likewise. In our culture, we may observe the tradition in ritual, not experiencing the same necessity for the cleaning of our feet. But if we would observe His command, we must apply the principle, so that, rather than jockeying amongst ourselves for a position of prominence, we humbly serve one another according to need without expecting something in return. We must be willing to lay aside our own preferences and desires in order to love as Jesus loved.
After supper, the eleven walked with Jesus toward the Garden of Gethsemane while He shared the thoughts that weighed most heavily on His heart. It was in these last hours that Jesus spoke these words,
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Did you ever wonder why Jesus called this a new commandment? Hadn’t they heard it before?
Because the commandment to love others was not new to the Jewish people. In fact, in one of the oldest books of the Bible, Leviticus, we read:
‘You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.’ (Lev. 19:18)
When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment in the Law, He had quoted this verse from Leviticus together with a passage known as the Shema. The Shema embodies the heart of the Jewish faith as John 3:16 encapsulates the heart of the Christian faith. Found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, it reads,
“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:4-5)
Love God. Love your neighbor. Jesus proclaimed that all the Law and the Prophets are dependent upon these two commandments (Matt. 22:40).
So, the command to love one another was not a new one. What, then, did Jesus mean when He said, “a new commandment I give to you…”? Hear again His words,
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34, emphasis mine)
Over the previous three years, Jesus had re-defined what it means to love your neighbor. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount He had taught the people,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matt. 5:43-45)
“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matt 5:46-47)
In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 7:12)
When asked, “Who, then, is my neighbor?” Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate that it is not a question of a person’s relationship to you that determines whether you ought to love them, but a question of whether the person in your path is in need of mercy and compassion (see Luke 10:25-37).
The love that Jesus taught was radical. And the love He demonstrated, even more so.
The love of Jesus is patient and kind; steadfast and compassionate; always ready to forgive; slow to anger; gentle and humble in heart. Jesus’ command was a new command not because it was a command to love, but because it was a command to love as He loved.
“This is My commandment,” Jesus proclaimed, “that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12-13)
Are you willing to lay down your life for others? Laying down your life is not always a question of being willing to die, although Jesus calls some to do so. The question is, are you willing to lay down your agenda? Your preferences? Your desires? Even your dreams? Maybe for those who are closest to you, you are willing, but what about for the ones that God places in your path?
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite went out of their way to avoid the stranger, bleeding at the side of the road. They had an agenda, things to do. They didn’t want to get dirty or distracted, or, heaven forbid, become unclean! But God often places obstacles in our way to interrupt us. He gives us opportunities to lay aside our agenda, to lay down our lives, to be His hands and feet, to be an agent of His love.
Jesus was often interrupted as He went about His ministry. It was frequently when Jesus turned aside from His path to meet the needs of those who interrupted Him that He performed great miracles and taught great truths.
If we are to love our neighbors with the radical love that Jesus calls us to, how much more ought we to love one another – we who share one faith and one Spirit?
- The love of Jesus compelled Him to humble Himself and serve in a menial role with kindness and compassion.
- The love of Jesus compelled Him to heal the sick, feed the hungry, comfort the brokenhearted, set the captives free, and preach good news to the poor.
- The love of Jesus compelled Him to surrender His will to the Father and lay down His life for His friends.
And this is His commandment, that we love one another even as He loved.
Take note: It is a command, not a suggestion! Jesus chose to lay down His life in obedience to the Father, not only on the cross, but daily as He lived and taught and loved among us. Even so, we must choose to be obedient to His command to love as He loved.
It is no coincidence that in those late evening hours, as Jesus shared His heart with His disciples, He also shared with them the secret of His obedience to the Father and the promise of help for His followers: the indwelling Holy Spirit.
“I will ask the Father,” he said, “and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17)
In the words of the Apostle John,
“…if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit… God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him… And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.” (1John 4:12b-13, 16b, 21)
And so, as we remember the night in which our Lord was betrayed, let us resolve, by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, to be obedient to the command that lay heavy on His heart:
Love one another, even as I have loved you.
[Sermon originally preached 4/18/19]