Christianity's Awkward Meal
This is a devotion written for my church.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
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. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then 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. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus 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." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean."
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little 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.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Jesus must have been an awkward dinner guest.
While eating with his disciples in celebration of Passover, the Jesus of John's gospel gets up from the table, strips almost completely nude, and goes chair-to-chair washing his followers' feet. One can imagine the disciples shifting uncomfortably as Jesus gets to them, putting their feet in the basin and massaging them, wiping them on the cloth hiding his nakedness. It must have been met with at least an eye roll or two, as Jesus had just received similar treatment from Martha's sister Mary a chapter before—the sensuality and extravagance of which was also met with protest. When Jesus kneels in front of Peter, his most trusted disciple finally says what everyone is thinking: "Jesus, you really don't need to do that." Jesus insists. Peter, in characteristically zealous fashion, tells Jesus just to bathe him all over. Jesus says, "no it's okay, just your feet are fine."
This is a moment illustrating the kinds of intimate caring that amount to love of one another. Jesus himself says so, and points to acts of service and private sustenance as the markers of true discipleship. If we listen to Jesus, then, the physicality, the discomfort, the embarrassment, and the vulnerability of discipleship starts to come into focus. We aren't there for one another only when it is public (although that matters), nor when our actions themselves are enthusiastically received (although that can matter, too). We are disciples of Christ in our intimate acceptance and recognition of one another's need, our willingness to serve their wellbeing, and our readiness to be fully exposed for what we are when we do so. Into the awkward silence of the dinner post-foot washing, Jesus says: "you also should do as I have done to you."
In our present cultural moment, a group meal, a shared basin, and close physical contact are not advised. But our unity in common concern remains. The paradigms for action set forth in Jesus are not as rigid or religious as some make them out to be. The world will not know us as disciples by our going out and getting one another sick in church and dying for cultic observance. The world will know us Christ's followers only in our willingness to serve one another in all contexts and challenges. We are disciples just as surely inside in our physical vulnerability as we are outside in our public witness, and to ignore the reality of our embodiment on religious grounds is to forsake the role of discipleship for something more idolatrous.
We should each ask ourselves how we can echo Jesus' concern for cleanliness, then, as a community, morally and physically. We should also be honest about how each of us needs the kind of intimate care Jesus offers. Though it may not feel like it, we are practicing a different kind of foot-washing together by being apart. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are perhaps the most complex and mournful days on the church calendar. In all their entangled complexity, and in our present isolation, I pray you encounter Jesus' presence caring for you so completely it makes you uncomfortable.