Jesus desired to eat the Passover and institute his Supper behind closed doors, that is, alone. Privacy was what he wanted so they would fend for themselves. This would also include any washing up that would be needed. And it usually was needed. The roads were largely powdery dirt, dry and well-trod. Just a short journey would usually render one’s feet, ankles, and calves caked with road soot. At finer inns, a stationed door servant customarily would wash the feet and ankles of guests who entered for a meal - a touch of class and civility in the ancient middle eastern world.
As Jesus and his disciples entered the upper room for their Passover Meal celebration, a large bowl, towels, and pitcher of water were there in waiting, minus the otherwise present attendant. Then a most startling thing happened. After all were seated, Jesus got up, wrapped one of the towels around his waist, poured water into the basin, and went down the line, washing the feet of his disciples seated at the table. When Jesus finally comes to wash Peter’s feet, he freaks out. He demands that Jesus stop right there. He tells Jesus that he would never allow such a thing (John 13:4-6).
What are we to make of Peter’s protest? Clearly, he is embarrassed by Jesus' behavior. And clearly, he is also embarrassed for himself. Peter did not jump up and say, “Lord, please sit down, I’ll do it.” He could not stomach the idea that the One he had recognized as the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16), would stoop to take on some lowly dirty business that he himself would not do.
Wouldn’t you have felt the same if you were in Peter’s sandals?
And yet, dirty business – ordinary and extraordinary - is precisely at the core of what was on Jesus’ mind in the upper room. Washing the disciples’ feet was the prop he used to illustrate some important things about vocation – theirs and ours. Most directly, Jesus presented an object lesson about vocation for all who would call him Lord, and are therefore his servants. The lesson for all would-be servants is this: As he washed the disciples’ feet, we ought to wash the feet of one another, as service rendered to our Lord. Serving our Lord will be serving him through our neighbors (John 13:13-15).
We cannot serve Jesus directly for two rather embarrassing reasons: First, we do not have anything he needs. Secondly, everything we do have that is worth anything, he gave us. So, as an example of work that serves Christ through our neighbor, he shows us that we are to take care of our neighbors’ soiled conditions, like washing their dirty feet. Can you imagine that? When Jesus wants to exemplify quintessential good works in the Kingdom of God, he grabs a towel and engages in ordinary dirty business. This is what grossed Peter out!
How would you have reacted, if you were in his sandals?
While we may occasionally be called to do something amazing, even to engage in courageous deeds, it is the ordinary, dirty business of life that Jesus here reveals as the kind of labor that ultimately serves him as Lord. How could we translate foot washing into today’s mundane dirty labors? How about the lowly domestic task of weekly laundry around the house? Imagine what doing the laundry might mean according to our Lord’s example. When you throw in the soiled clothes and dirty socks; when the bleach and fabric softeners go in; the angels in Heaven are going crazy as they witness the performance of the quintessential works in the Kingdom of God. So, because we serve our Lord by serving our neighbor, it is ultimately our Lord Jesus who gets a clean set of clothes for the coming week.
In the upper room, Jesus revealed himself as the Lord of the dirty business of life.
The ordinary variety of service, however, is not the only kind that was brought into focus in the upper room. Jesus washed the feet of those who were about to be washed clean in the blood of the lamb. He reserved for himself the extraordinary dirty business of cleaning up our soiled souls, our spirits made foul and filthy by sin. Through the sacrifice of his body and precious blood, he has cleansed us from all unrighteousness. As he explained to Peter, unless he accomplishes this extraordinary dirty business for us, we can have nothing to do with him (John 13: 8).
This is the extraordinary dirty business that Jesus would accomplish shortly on the cross. Dirty business indeed! He who knew no sin, will become sin for us. He will die a wretched, dirty criminal’s death - that we might get cleaned up for life - life forever with our God. And about this business, Jesus gave no object lesson to Peter and his disciples that evening. And he gives no object lesson to us.
About that work, he would go it alone. He does not distribute it to his disciples or to us. It is his cup, and his alone, to drink. Even the angels would be ordered to stand down. He takes the extraordinary dirty business of the cross on himself as the climax of the vocation that the Father especially gave to him. To him has been given the exclusive vocational office of Savior.
Here we are not doers; we are spectators and benefactors of the cross, while also being partakers of his post-Passover meal. In this meal, Christ comes as both host and sustenance to offer his very body and blood by which we have been cleaned up for eternity and fit for his Kingdom.
So now with Peter and the other disciples, having gotten our lessons and gotten them right, with clean feet and clean laundry, our Host bids us come to the table. All is prepared for the meal that celebrates the extraordinary dirty business of our Lord, who makes us clean forever.