“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Augustine insisted that Peter was the first to have his feet washed. John’s narrative implies otherwise. As Jesus moved down the row of disciples, Peter could see it coming. He was next, and when Jesus knelt down to wash his feet, Peter objected, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” The impression is given of Peter spluttering in astonishment and incomprehension, “Master, you … my…!” His delayed timing seemed calculated to prove his superiority. His exaggerated shock and definitive “no” was premeditated. Peter was emphatic; Jesus was not going to wash his feet.
Why do we insist on defending the honor of Christ in ways that contradict his words and actions? Sincerity is a poor substitute for faithfulness. To say that we mean well does not justify our actions. Pride and power lurk behind our vain practices and religious habits. Like Peter, what is done ostensibly to honor Christ may only put the ego on display. There is a willfulness about Peter’s “never” that I hear echo in my own soul.
Peter interpreted Jesus’ actions as embarrassing and demeaning. Foot-washing was beneath the office of the Messiah. Peter wanted Jesus to act like a hero instead of a lowly servant. He may have wondered if the hostility and death threats had finally gotten to Jesus. Who knows what Peter was thinking? Peter was literally and emotionally looking down on Jesus. The negative feelings he felt in that moment may have been akin to Judas’ resentment against Jesus. No one wants to follow a leader who exhibits behavior considered demeaning. Acting more like Jesus’ advisor than his disciple, Peter seems to want Jesus to snap-out-of-it and play the role of the messiah as Peter understood and envisioned it.
Embracing Jesus’ redemptive trajectory is difficult for all disciples, not just Peter. We get the confession right, but fail to grasp the costly commitment. We freely confess, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” but then take Jesus aside and we rebuke him (Matthew 16:15-23). Dogmatically we whisper, “Never, Lord!” We object to the path of discipleship that Jesus himself laid down. We stand between Jesus and the cross, slow to understand the meaning of the gospel and resistant to the practical realities inherent in confessing Christ as Lord. It is not only the secular agendas and pagan lifestyles that stand in the way of knowing Christ and becoming like Jesus, it is our own well-meaning religious habits.
Peter’s “Never, Lord!” represents the culture-bound Christian who proclaims the deity of Christ but who unwittingly resists the practical meaning of Spirit-led confession and cruciform commitment. Peter lacked the humility to listen to Jesus. In his enthusiasm and zeal he refused to accept Jesus’ explanation of the Messiah’s suffering and death. Like Peter, we may hear the Spirit but end up in Satan’s camp. Jesus rebuked Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” It is chilling to realize that we can be so close to Jesus yet get it so wrong.
Jesus emphasized that the life of discipleship was the true follow-up to a Spirit-led confession: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Insight means action, and action leads to understanding. There is a lively exchange between confession and commitment which authenticates confession and purifies commitment. We cannot follow Jesus any way we please. His glory is defined in a specific way. “If you love me,” Jesus said, “keep my commands” (John 14:15). We are led by his example through the power of his Spirit. In the upper room Jesus showed us how to do theology on our knees in a humility based on the cross. In spite of his experience at Caesarea Philippi, Peter failed to understand the relationship between Spirit-led confession and costly commitment. He defended the office of Messiah in his own way, according to his own expectations, in spite of what Jesus said or did.
When Jesus came to Peter on bended knee with towel and basin, Peter asked, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Was his tone inquisitive or indignant? Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” This should have checked Peter’s pride, but Peter adamantly answered back, “No, you shall never wash my feet.” Peter’s “no” and “never” are emphatic. The other disciples may acquiesce and passively receive Jesus’ service, but not Peter. He was determined to prove his loyalty to Christ in spite of Jesus.
Foot-washing is a metaphor for what Christ calls us to do for others. The work of the servant may take many forms that are perceived by the recipient as unnecessary or demeaning. When parents serve their children and teachers serve their students in Christ-like ways, they may run into Peter-like resistance. In the home, parental foot-washing serves the child with self-less love. In church, pedagogical foot-washing asks the soul-searching questions that go well beyond cognitive memorization. One’s private life is fair game for spiritual formation and a job comes knowingly under the realm of Christ’s Lordship. Parenting is the work of disciple-making. In either case the Christ-like servant intrudes into personal space in ways that may strike the recipient as unwarranted and bothersome. Humble love is humiliating to the unsuspecting ego. Due to our sinful nature, the costly love of parents and mentors can be misunderstood as demeaning. Recipients of Jesus-inspired foot-washing may perceive such love as a threat to their self-respect. They may recoil on “spiritual” grounds and respond like Peter with an emphatic, “Never!”
Upper Room Reflection
How does your natural bent run counter to what Christ wants you to do?
Why do we insist on honoring Christ according to our own agenda?
What made Peter’s resistance well-intentioned but misguided?
What have you had to unlearn in order to follow Jesus?