“The Light of Humility”
John 13:1-11, 31b-35
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
April 18, 2019
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 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.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
10Jesus 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.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.
“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”(NRSV)
The central images of the Tenebrae service are light and darkness. We hold these opposites in tension as we light, then darken each candle one-by-one. At the end of the service, all interior light will be extinguished, and we will be surrounded by darkness. (As much darkness as daylight savings time allows, that is.)
In John 13, Jesus snuffs out the central candle of the disciples’ hopes. They still expect Jesus to reveal himself as the great and glorious military messiah. And then Jesus empties himself. Stooping like a servant in front of them, he takes their filthy feet into his hands, and he washes them. The disciples are dismayed and embarrassed. Jesus’ act of humility throws a dark pall over all their bright hopes.
Completely missing the blessing of humility, Peter feels humiliated. So, he tries to forbid Jesus from such foolishness.
No way you’re washing my feet, he says.
If I don’t wash you,says Jesus, you don’t belong with me.
Then let me have it, says Peter. Bathe me from head to toe!
Bless your heart,says Jesus.
Humility and humiliation are as far apart as the disciples’ expectations and Jesus’ purposes. To be humbled may entail stepping down a notch or two, but it empties us of the selfish and bitter bile that always leads to Friday. Humiliation is to be cast into cold darkness, because it is to have our humanity stripped from us. By contrast, humility only makes us more human.
When Jesus sets an example of fierce humility, Peter experiences it as humiliation – and maybe it’s because he sees what’s coming. Maybe he suspects that Jesus will tell his disciples that they are to do for others what he has just done for them. This runs counter to everything the disciples anticipate. Peter himself seems to be expecting Jesus to name him as a top commander in a messianic army when the swords start swinging and the arrows start flying. So, Peter just can’t imagine himself kneeling before other people, washing their dirty feet with his bare hands. He may have been a fisherman and a laborer, but given the glorious struggle and the victory ahead, he refuses to endure such humiliation. And that’s as real a denial as those he will utter on Friday.
The story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet also juxtaposes light and darkness by setting Jesus’ self-understanding over against the cluelessness of his followers.
Right now, says Jesus,you’re in the dark about who I am and what I’m doing.
For John, this ignorance and misunderstanding lie at the heart of human sin. And redemption means coming to a new and fuller understanding of Jesus. And so that we might understand him, and be in relationship with him, Jesus washes us. He washes us with his life, with his love and humility. He saves us with his indomitable living, because it hislife we are called to live. And through the gift of Resurrection, we’re empowered to live that life. The love he has for all his disciples is the love we are to show to each other. And, to live in love isto bear witness to the power of Resurrection at work in and for the world.
The brutal actions of Pilate and Caiaphas toward Jesus reveal how humankind so often responds to those we think are humiliating us. But Jesus wants simply to humble us toward eternal life. And he will not stop humbling himself, stooping to scrub us with his love, not even to save his own life.
Things are about to get dark for you,says Jesus. But the day is coming when the lights will come on. In the fullness of time, a new day will break, and you will begin to see and understand.
For now, just do as I do. Serve each another. Wash each other’s feet. Most importantly, love one another as I have loved you. And by that love everyone will know that I am your Teacher and Lord, and that you are my followers. By that love, everyone will know that I do live.
There is relentless tension in this story. But then there’s also great strength in humility, great wealth in giving, boundless forgiveness in confession, and there’s light even in the darkest corners of the world and of our lives, because through Jesus, the Christ, death always gives way to new life.
Come now to this table and be emptied of darkness and filled with light, so that we may brighten this world by loving as we are loved.