Tonight I want to begin by talking about hospitality. And I’d like to hear your input on this topic, so tell me, what kind of words or experiences or pictures come to your mind when I say the word hospitality?
I think we can establish that hospitality is doing something for the good and comfort of someone else. It is putting our own concerns and preferences aside to listen to the concerns and preferences of others and attending to them when possible. We often think about hospitality in reference to having guests over in our home and, most commonly, providing a meal for them. Hospitality will often be associated with sharing a meal together. But while food and drink involvement is not a requirement, interaction with other people is at the heart of hospitality.
With that in mind, I invite you to think about Jesus’ act of foot washing as an act of hospitality. It was hospitable for the good host in Jesus’ day to provide a servant to wash the feet of his guests, to remove the dirt and dust they have accumulated from walking around all day. Usually this would happen when the guests first arrived, before they sat down to share a meal.
Although Jesus’ act is similar, it varies just enough to raise eyebrows and apparently objection from Peter. Foot washing is usually done to prepare for mealtime. Yet Jesus does it DURING supper. Maybe if this wasn’t Jesus and it wasn’t his final hours with his disciples, it wouldn’t matter as much. But with the intention in which John writes this story and with Jesus involved, you can be sure that the timing is significant. The foot washing is done too late to prepare the disciples for their shared meal. In that case, we must ask ourselves, for what is Jesus preparing his disciples?
The other blaring variation to the usual foot washing practices is that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet…Jesus took on the role of the servant. Remember, Jesus is the rabbi, the teacher. Disciples generally revere their rabbis, striving to do what their rabbis do because they look up to the particular way the rabbi lives out the Jewish law. With that kind of reverence between teacher and student, it was completely inappropriate for teacher to kneel on the floor and wash the feet of his disciples. That is why Peter objects so strongly. We can’t fault him at all. That is a servant’s job. That is not a teacher’s job! But again, with the intention with which John writes this story along with the fact that Jesus is involved, you can be sure that something significant is happening.
Jesus gathers his disciples at a significant time, though they do not know this yet. These are the final hours that Jesus has with his disciples. Since the foot washing is not done before the meal, since it is not done to prepare for the meal, it is performed in this significant time so that Jesus may prepare his disciples for another significant time…a time when he would no longer be with them. The rabbi prepares his disciples to carry on his teaching when he is not there anymore. And the rabbi must teach his disciples to do what he, himself, would do.
Now, Jesus would enact hospitality to have a servant wash the feet of his guests. But Jesus, the rabbi gets down on his knees to wash his disciples’ feet in an act of radical hospitality, going the extra mile. Jesus wanted his disciples to understand his ways of radical hospitality; if they didn’t pick it up from his teachings and his way of living and interacting with others, Jesus was sure to drive it home now, by uncharacteristically humbling himself to wash the feet of his followers. Followers like Peter who weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer…followers like James and John who were a bit power-hungry…followers like Judas who in just a few minutes would walk out the door to betray the one who had just washed his feet.
In this act, Jesus seeks not only to teach but to transform. The disciples witness their rabbi’s act of radical hospitality, and Jesus compels them toward radical hospitality toward one another, “Wash one another’s feet.” At the same time, the disciples have benefited from Jesus’ radical hospitality. They have had their dirty feet touched and completely washed by their rabbi Jesus. Can you imagine what that would be like? Tell me, what do you imagine the disciples were thinking when Jesus washed their feet?
This year, I’ve been poked a bit by Jesus’ response to Peter in v. 8b, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” I’ve wondered why a simple act of foot washing was so important in order for Peter to have a share with Jesus. But now Iknow. It was important for one who would lead a community in the practice of radical hospitality to have experienced radical hospitality demonstrated by his rabbi. When someone completely puts aside any concern for their own status, their own social standing, their own preferences in order to attend to the concerns and preferences of others, it is a sight to behold…almost an unusual phenomenon…a transforming experience. Jesus was preparing his disciples to become that community of radical hospitality and preparing himself for one more act of radical hospitality when he humbled himself on the cross for all people.
Jesus’ final act, final teaching to his disciples is to be a community of radical hospitality…putting aside our own concerns and preferences to care for the concerns and preferences of one another. It is in Jesus’ humbling actions that we too are humbled. It is in Jesus’ acts of love that we are loved anyway. It is filled with the love showed to us in Jesus that we extend radical hospitality to one another, not just across the aisle, but across denominations, across races, across languages, across sexual preferences, across political leanings. Jesus forms us as a community of radical hospitality to put ourselves aside to care for the other, regardless of their faults or how similar or different that other is from us. Amen.
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