Who can tell what’s going on in the minds of the disciples as Jesus washes their feet?
We know what Peter thinks and says. Dear, lovable Peter, so very human. Fiercely loyal to Jesus, willing to risk his life for his Lord, always opening his mouth before engaging his brain, getting over-excited like that time when he sees Moses and Elijah with Jesus, enthusiastic – let me walk on the water to get to you, but then in danger of drowning because he’s overcome by the wind and waves.
And this evening he behaves true to character. “I’m not going to let you wash my feet” he says to Jesus. But then when Jesus tells him that if he wants to share his life with Jesus he must allow Jesus to wash his feet. So Peter swings to the other extreme – wash my hands, my head, all of me.
(I have a picture of Peter from then on rushing around trying to wash the feet of everyone he meets whether or not they want or need washing!)
Peter, who with all his impetuousness, energy and larger than life personality has within him a strength, a courage, a faith and a love that Jesus believes in and wants to use as the foundation stone for the church which is to be. Peter’s love, faith, strength and courage are liberated after the Resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit. But tonight such a thing cannot be imagined, it’s all too dark and foreboding.
There are some of the twelve disciples we know little about so let’s imagine the story of one of these, Thaddeus – named in Mark and Matthew.
Like Peter, Thaddeus wants to back away saying “Lord, you will never wash my feet” but he knows Jesus would reply to him as he did to Peter, “unless I wash you, you have no share with me” and he so wants to share life with Jesus.
Before Jesus called him to join his group of friends Thaddeus, a young man with no family or wealth of his own, was the servant of a land owner in Galilee. His had been an inferior position and it regularly fell to him to wash the feet of visitors to the house. How he hated the task – men arriving for a meal, greeting each other, talking, laughing, not paying attention to whoever it was who cleaned their feet. They took no notice of him, he wasn’t worth it. How he hated the task, how he longed for freedom from its humiliation.
This evening Jesus smiles up at him and Thaddeus, embarrassed and afraid, finds the courage to look into the eyes of this man who knows him so well in all his weakness, sadness and insecurity. He sees only love, acceptance and reassurance as he feels also the gentle cleansing touch of loving hands soothing the rough and painful places of his hot, tired feet and in his aching heart.
There is a great difference between something done by a servant out of duty and something done by a friend out of love. That difference is what Thaddeus and the others experience so dramatically at this supper with Jesus. Yet again Jesus transforms an ordinary everyday event into something significant, something that is symbolic of life in the kingdom of God.
And then, of course, there is Judas Iscariot, surely a very complex character with huge potential for love and goodness – why else would Jesus have chosen him? But somehow it’s all gone wrong and we can only speculate on what happened to him and within him.
All the gospel writers agree that before what we now call the last supper Judas made the decision to betray Jesus, to make it easier for his enemies to arrest him in a quiet place at night with no crowds around to cause a riot.
Why the betrayal? Maybe Judas envisaged Jesus overthrowing both the Roman authorities and the religious leaders in Jerusalem. He, Judas, would be one of the conquering heroes and in line for an important role in government – at last people would respect him.
Perhaps he thinks that this evening would be the moment when Jesus puts his takeover plan into action. He would be like Moses and the people of Israel in Egypt sharing their Passover meal before marching out into freedom, casting off slavery and oppression.
Talk of sacrifice and service along with the submissive washing of feet are too much for him, his plan of betrayal will go ahead, there will be no last minute change of heart.
Perhaps Judas is jealous and angry: jealous of Peter, James and John – the special three who always seem to be favoured by Jesus. Is he angry with Jesus for excluding him from that inner circle? Surely he is important, their treasurer no less, why is he side-lined and never called on to be a specially chosen witness?
Maybe Judas is a very damaged man, driven by hurts, wounds, rages and emotional needs that find expression in only negative and harmful ways. If only he could overcome his inner demons he could become the person Jesus knows is hidden under the layers of brokenness. All he needs to do is accept the forgiveness and healing offered by Jesus.
Because Jesus does offer a renewed covenant, a fresh start, when he shares bread and wine with Judas. He does offer forgiveness and healing when he washes his feet and he offers an intimate sign of close friendship in the bread dipped in a dish – perhaps of oil – which he gives to Judas in a final effort to turn him away from the path of treachery.
None of this is enough. The decision is made. Jesus tells Judas “Do quickly what you are going to do”. Judas receives the friendship bread and leaves.
And it is night.
And we are here remembering the events of this night as generations of Christians have done before us. Like them we follow the command of Jesus to eat bread and drink wine, to wash one another’s feet and, because he asked his disciples to do so, we will watch and pray with him tonight in the lonely garden that used to be a place of safety and peace.
Each of us no doubt share many characteristics and personality traits of the twelve disciples. Impetuous, given to speaking without thinking, bursts of anger that we bitterly regret, hurt by people and events we can’t control, haunted by memories of failure and inhibited by insecurities and a sense of inferiority. Sometimes angry with God because he isn’t the sort of God we want and the example Jesus set of love and service just isn’t reasonable or possible in the world as we know it.
Tonight’s story tells us that whatever we are and whatever we carry that holds us back Jesus offers us, as he did to Peter, Thaddeus and Judas, bread and wine, a new covenant with God and he washes our feet with tenderness and compassion. Because he sees in us also our love, loyalty, energy and courage which can be liberated when he is raised from the dead and when we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Judas refused that new covenant, the forgiveness and the healing. He turned away from the freedom Jesus offered him. That is his tragedy.
We need not turn our backs and stay in our dark places. We can move forward in the light we already have into ever brighter light until finally we live in the eternal and glorious light of Christ which the darkness will never overcome.