I remember when I was in middle school and I first heard the popular saying, “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”
It was the first time I began to understand that real love was not about possession, but rather about freedom.
If there was ever a night for Jesus to give up on love as freedom and engage in a little love as possession, I think the night before he died would have been a good choice. It would have been understandable if Jesus would have put the screws down on the disciples a little harder and said,
“Look, I’m going to die tomorrow, and I need you to show up. I have given you my heart and soul, my prayers, my healing, my time, everything I’ve got. Now it’s all coming to an end tomorrow and the political and religious leaders are going to have my head. I need to know that you are with me. Peter, are you in? Matthew are you in? James and John, can I count on you? Philip and Andrew, will you be there for me? Bartholomew and Thaddeus, can I count on you? Thomas and James, and all the rest, are you in?”
But Jesus does not do it, does he? Instead he instructs them to love one another as he loves them, and he demonstrates what this love looks like as he wraps a towel around his waist and washes their feet.
The funny thing is, their feet were already clean, actually. They probably washed them before they came into the house for supper. The roads were dusty, and their sandals were open, and nobody wanted all that dirt tracked into the house, so feet were washed upon entering, much like taking off our shoes at the door. Foot washing was usually done by a servant and if there wasn’t one, the woman of the household. In addition to an act of cleanliness, it was also an act of hospitality, warmth and welcome, especially after hard work or a long journey.
Because their feet were already clean, Jesus washes their feet, not to get the dust off, but as an act of love. He gets down on his knees, taking the form of a slave or serving them a like woman—talk about bending social and gender roles! Jesus offers hospitality and love, warmth and welcome, acceptance and relationship, as their time together comes to a close, shifting social and gender roles to demonstrate that true love is a life of service, regardless of what social norms might dictate.
What is even more surprising than Jesus behaving like a slave or a woman to demonstrate true love, is that Jesus washes feet that will run away and leave him; he washes feet that will deny him; he washes feet that will betray him. Jesus knows these feet will all abandon him in some way, and he washes them anyway.
Judas allows Jesus to wash his feet, and then he leaves and goes into the night—he has turned toward evil. This is the worst betrayal of all—it wasn’t turning Jesus over to the chief priests (which we will hear at the end of our service), but the worst betrayal in John's Gospel, is abandoning the relationship with Jesus. Judas is struggling with all kinds of things—fear, turmoil, greed—and in that suffering he turns away from Jesus.
But there is Jesus, on his knees, rinsing and rubbing 24 feet, 120 toes—all feet that will flee and leave him to journey to the cross alone.
“If you love something, set it free…” Jesus loves the disciples enough to wash their dirty souls and let them go… We all have the freedom to walk away.
The disciples will walk away from the relationship, but Jesus will not. When they are ready to return to him, he will be there. It may not be until Easter morn, but Jesus will always show up.
Can we bear to receive that much love? Can we sit still and have our feet washed, knowing we have failed Jesus, and will fail him again—not because we are bad people, but because, like the disciples, we are human—and still, Jesus is going to show up and love us, and kneel at our feet, with warmth, love and welcome, and get the towel and water and say, “I love you. I am here, and will always be here—even when you walk away, I will be here when you come back.”
Can we kneel at the railing and open our hands, knowing we have walked away and may walk away again—not because we are bad people, but because, like the disciples, we are human—and still Jesus is still going to show up with joy, and love us with abandon, and feed us with forgiveness and say, “you are precious to me, and honored, and I love you.”
Jesus is not going to betray, abandon, or deny his relationship with you, no matter who you are, what you’ve done, what you’ve thought, how weak your faith is, or whether or not you deserve it.
You can always come back. No matter what, you belong to Jesus.