Gospel of John: Peter’s Distress


Jesus had once again done the unthinkable, the startling and disquieting, beginning their meal together not by ritually washing his hands, as tradition required, but by taking off his outer robe, wrapping himself with a towel, pouring water into the basin, and personally washing the disciple’s feet.

Since the “U” shaped arrangement around the table would have placed Peter toward the end, across from John, it seems as though Jesus would have come to Peter after he had washed the feet of other disciples.


The musical sound of water splashed about each foot, the ceramic bowl adding notes of rippling brook with each movement. Outside, the wind kept a steady whispering whoosh, the trees rustled in waves of adagio to a more gentle, almost silent lento, only to rise in crescendo. A warm wind on a crisp, cool evening, redolent with balsam and rosemary.

The only sounds in the room were breathing, small splashes, and the wind. Jesus took his time with each disciple, his touch strong and warm, firm, healing, massaging each foot with love and care. Sometimes he would look up with a smile, holding the eyes of his beloved friend with his gaze. From man to man he went, mesmerizing, intimate, humbling. No one spoke.

John’s mouth had gone dry when Jesus took his feet and placed them in the bowl. He gripped the pillow he had been reclining on, needing to do something with his hands. He hardly let himself enjoy the feeling of the Master’s touch. Then he remembered Jesus’ face when Mary had rubbed the nard into his feet. He closed his eyes, and felt the tears well into his lashes. Finally, as Jesus was toweling his second foot dry, he opened them to contemplate the bowed head of God’s Son. Jesus met his look with love, and it was as though the rays of the setting sun, and the light from the flickering candles had surrounded his rabbi with a glow.

He could not stop watching as Jesus went from disciple to disciple, friend to friend.

Peter

Jesus picked up the basin of water, turned, and went to Peter, who was at the end of the table. This was entirely off script, not at all how the Seder went, and Peter was alarmed. He had felt increasing tension building in his chest, tensing his arms and neck. He could not believe his eyes, as each disciple received this humiliating service from their rabbi. Did they have no honor?!

But when Jesus knelt down to take off Peter’s sandal, that was so far over the top Peter could not stand it a moment longer. After all, this was the absolute lowliest duty of all, so low that it was reserved for Gentile slaves.


Why would Jesus add this bizarre twist to the Passover Seder? Because he knew

the father gave all into his hands, and that from God he came and to God he would go.

John 13:3

Jesus was in command of all the events surrounding his coming death and resurrection. These were not forces beyond his control. Jesus knew who he was. He was completely secure in his own identity, able to love freely, actually finding pleasure and joy in being able to do this simple, menial service for the friends he loved with all his heart, and to show them the kind of love, humility, holiness and joy he wanted them to have, too.

Peter felt embarrassed, humiliated for Jesus’ sake, intensely uncomfortable that the Son of God would kneel at his dirty feet and do a job that Peter himself would never imagine doing for anyone: What the heck,” he said, You are going to wash my feet?! Jesus reassured him that even though he did not understand it now, he would later.

No, Peter said, Forget it. You are never going to wash my feet.

Peter could not bring himself to participate in this degradation. He could not bring himself to accept what Jesus was doing to the natural hierarchy of rank and status. It was as though Peter needed Jesus to remain above as master, just as Peter was also above some, and under others.

Fellowship with Jesus

But when Jesus told him that he would have no fellowship with Jesus if he did not let Jesus clean him, then Peter was even more distressed: Wash all of me, then! Head to foot, do my whole body!

It seems clear, for Peter, the implications of washing feet was too troubling, too distressing. Even washing his whole person would not be the same as the unspeakable lowliness of washing his feet. Jesus understood.

Jesus said to him, “One who has washed does not have need, except the feet, to wash, but rather is altogether clean.”

Jesus to Peter, John 13:10

Two Kinds of Cleansings

First, we are cleansed totally and fully when we recognize that we need reconciliation with God and come to Jesus to wash away all that stands between us and God. Hurt, wrong choices, hardening of the heart, coping mechanisms that build fortresses around our tender inward person, protective measures that keep us from trusting, from being vulnerable, from accepting love. But also those aspects of our inner life that are self-serving, self-promoting, simply selfish.

There is no question that every person has been both a victim of others’ wrongdoing and an agent of wrongdoing in our own right. There is much each one of us has to ask forgiveness for. And there is much that was done to us, that only the Savior can redeem, at this point.

This kind of cleansing also means partaking of Jesus’ life, just as in the Passover, the lamb is partaken of, or eaten. This is taking the Lord’s life into ourselves, not only clean of all sin (all that is wrong) but also filled with new life.

Secondly, there is the cleansing of daily confession of sin, that you and I need in our daily lives.

This is not simply admitting to God (and just as often, to others) those things we know we have done poorly, words, deeds, decisions that were unwise, unkind, selfish. But there is another kind of confession. Expressing to God those things said and done to us, decisions that we also were swept up in, that were unjust, unkind, often hurtful, even damaging. To be clean means not carrying those things within us either.

God is able. God can take those things from us as well, and heal the wounds that were inflicted.

As often as we “get dirty,” that is how often we need Jesus to wash our feet again, so that we can have fellowship with him.

This is also entering into Jesus’ service of love:

  • Letting the Lord love us.
  • Letting Jesus draw us close to himself as we humble ourselves.
  • Becoming vulnerable as you and I admit to the real truth of our own thoughts, motivations, hidden desires, shortcomings, failures, wrong thinking, and bad behavior.

The more you and I are willing to be laid bare and washed by our Lord, the more we will become clean, pure, more the person we are really meant to be.                           

But not All

After Jesus explained to Peter that he needed to let Jesus wash his feet, I think he must had turned and addressed all the rest of the disciples, with his eyes finally resting on Judas of Iscariot, when he said,

“And you are all clean . . . but rather, not all of you are clean.” For he knew the one who was surrendering him—for this reason he said that, “Not all of you are clean.”

Jesus to all the disciples, John 13:10-11

I wonder what Judas was thinking, as Jesus said those words. Was he grateful Jesus had washed his feet, so that no one would suspect? Did he feel any remorse? Or did he feel more determined than ever? I think ultimately it hardened his heart against Jesus, in a way proved to him Jesus was an unworthy leader.

Knowing who we are in Christ makes us able to freely love, freely give, and freely serve

Humility is not trying to think less of ourselves, or trying to make ourselves believe we are not worth much.

That is not what Jesus thought about himself.

Jesus he knew who he was, and he knew the Father had handed all things to him. Since that was settled, Jesus no longer needed to concern himself with thoughts of status and dignity, or even rightful place and proper respect and honor.

Jesus was free to think about his disciples, what they needed, and what he was able to do for them. The truly humble person knows who they are and what they are able to do.


[Jesus washing Peter’s feet | Ford Madox Brown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

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