Communion and the Washing of Feet

Recently I was asked to say a few words at my church to prepare us to take communion together. This inspired me to read all four Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, the final Passover meal Jesus shared with his 12 closest friends and followers, where he established the tradition of the covenant meal we call communion.

When I read narratives in the Bible, especially in the Gospels, I like to put myself there. I like to focus on what Jesus says and does in the passage as though I am an eyewitness in the room. This requires that I suspend what I know about everything that comes after the moment at hand. I must pretend I don’t know the rest of the story. I try to perceive some of what Peter or Thomas would perceive.

In this case, they would have had certain expectations for this occasion. It was Passover, and all Jewish disciples knew its deep significance to their nation. They knew what foods to prepare and serve, the cups of wine to make ready, the history to be recounted, and the prayers and blessings to be uttered. This was a commemoration of God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, a much-anticipated time of worship, feasting, and celebration.  The twelve tribes throughout the land made their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This is what Jesus and the disciples did, culminating this time in Jesus’ triumphal entry on a donkey.

Matthew and Mark provide very straightforward reporting of the facts of their preparations, and of the dinner itself. Jesus blesses the bread and wine and instructs them to make it a regular practice to remember the sacrifice of his body and blood each time they partake of it. Although Jesus had tried to prepare them for the reality that he was going to be beaten and crucified, in the tomb for three days and then resurrected, they didn’t quite get it. Judas’ betrayal was about to happen before their eyes, but they still couldn’t make sense of it. They were in considerable denial. It is plainly stated in John 12:16 that the disciples didn’t understand the meaning of the Passion of Jesus until after his resurrection and ascension.

Luke’s Gospel adds Jesus’ teaching on servanthood in the context of the Passover meal. Jesus explains that in his kingdom, unlike the kingdoms of the world, greatness is determined by humility, where the “greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:26). He will set the example, declaring, “I am among you as one who serves” (v. 27). He will soon serve them—and us–upon a bloody cross.

It is only in the Gospel of John that we see in action, not just in words, how Jesus defines servanthood. Though we know the communion meal was instituted this same night, John does not share the details of the bread and wine. His focus is on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  John wants his readers to understand that Jesus, “having loved his own who were in the world…loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1).

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;  so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.  After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him…When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (Jn 13:3-5; 12-17).

I am apt to forget that this scene happened on the very same night, in the same room where they ate the bread and drank the wine.

Could it be that when we take communion, we are not only to remember the words of Jesus as he held bread and cup in his hand, but to remember him in the towel, bowing low to wash dirty feet? Could it be that when we remember him, we are also to remember that he called us to emulate him in our service to one another?

Communion indicates oneness—with the Father, with the Son, with the Holy Spirit, and with one another, his own body on the earth.

From now on, this is how I am going to present myself to the Lord when I take communion–eager to celebrate his deliverance, tenderly to remember the Savior who gained that deliverance for me, and willing to humbly serve my brothers and sisters in his name.

Knowing these things, let us be blessed in the doing of them.

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