13 Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.
2 Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. 4 So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing. 6 When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”
8 “No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”
9 Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”
10 Jesus responded, “Those who have bathed need only to have their feet washed, because they are completely clean. You disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 He knew who would betray him. That’s why he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”
12 After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. 16 I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them.
Thoughts on the passage:
What do you call it when a grandparent or a non-family member watches a kid? Babysitting. What do you call it when mom or dad stays home to watch the kid? Parenting. This simple distinction, which I was not aware of when I became a dad, explains one of the great challenges when it comes to the love language “Acts of Service.” Just as watching our children is an expectation of parenting, many acts of service can be thought of, not as gestures of love, but rather as expectations of our role in a relationship. Unfortunately, this has the effect of causing our actions to be taken for granted and diminishes one of the fundamental ways that we can express love.
While I was in seminary I shared an apartment with a friend of mine from college. To make living together work we had some clear expectations about how we shared our communal spaces and divided up the tasks that needed to be done. We did not do this because we cared for each other and wanted to show our appreciation for the other person. Instead, this was simply a transactional part of living together. In much the same way that we split the cost of rent and the Internet bill, we also split the chores that needed to be done.
Unfortunately, in our married lives we can make the same mistake. We can reduce things that need to get done to a transactional nature. In my house, I wash the dishes and Marianne does the laundry. Suddenly, doing these things becomes the expectation. When that is the case, there is no where to go but down. If I expect clean clothes, then I will not be impressed when my clothes are clean and will be disappointed when they are not. By contrast, if I think of Marianne’s willingness to do laundry as an act of love, then I will appreciate the care and attention she takes to sorting the clothes into the right color groups (not my strength) and folding them neatly so we can put them away (definitely not my strength). This simply shift in mindset can turn a pair of clean socks into a reminder of love.
If like me, you sometimes take the work of people around you for granted (whether they are parents, spouses, or co-workers) don’t worry, we are in good company, the apostle Peter does it as well. When Jesus suggest that he is going to wash Peter’s feet, he reacts strongly, refusing the gesture. Washing feet is the degrading action of a servant, not something that a great person like Jesus should do. What Peter unintentionally does is revel his bias about acts of service. He clearly views them as things that are less important (and therefore something not worth Jesus’ time). Once corrected, he is ready to accept the action and learn the importance of serving others.
Acts of service are an important part of the Christian faith for the same reason that they are an important part of a marriage. Service to others is one of the ways that we can express our love. As Christians we are called to wash feet, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the sick because this is how we help people who have these needs to know that we love them. The defining characteristic is not what we are doing, but why we are doing it. We are doing it because we are meant to be agents of love for the world. When we give our time and attention to someone else, we are showing them that they have value and we are demonstrating that we care. We are imitating Christ.
Acts of service is not a prescriptive formula, but a descriptive suggestion. For some people, expressing love might mean mowing the lawn and for others it might mean running errands. The value comes in the time and attention that goes into the action. Washing dishes is an act of love that I do for Marianne because she hates to do dishes. By washing the dishes, I am not just contributing to the care of the house, I am allowing her to not do something she does not like to do. At the same time, the same act becomes less loving when I am doing it instead of helping with bedtime. Jesus uses the language of being a servant to others. A good servant cares for the needs of their master. A loving act of service is done with the needs of the other person in mind.
One of the great tragedies when it comes to Christian missions is that we can forget this simple principle. The importance of an act of service is not the action, but the reason behind it. In our effort to do something, we can forget to think about the person we are supposed to be helping. We are not doing this for our benefit but for their benefit. A good example of this that I encountered a few years ago was the phenomena of packing food for people in Haiti. What started as a loving act of service can easily morph into a self-serving practice. Most people who have done food packing events can tell you just how good it feels when you get done to see all the food that you have packed. This is a benefit to us because we can see the tangible difference we are making. The question is whether it is really helping others. In the instance of Haiti, that benefit is debatable. Sending food to Haiti started in the wake of a disaster when there was a pressing need for food. Unfortunately, the continued support of food has undermined the local economy and made it harder to recover. Local famers and fisherman who want to sell their goods in the market are forced to compete with the free food that caring Christians are sending from the United States. What started as an act of love for our brothers and sisters in Haiti had started to become more about us feeling good than it was about helping them with what they really needed.
The challenge we have is to humble ourselves and not think about what we want, but what others want. Acts of service require us to move outside of our comfort zone at times, but it is that very act of vulnerability that makes the service all the more touching. When we do acts of service we can remember the greatest act of service we have seen, when God became flesh and walked among us to service us and to die for us. This is the greatest expression of love the world has ever known.
Questions to Ponder:
What are times when people have done unexpected acts of service for you that you appreciated?
When you think of a random act of kindness, what comes to mind?
Are you more comfortable performing or receiving an act of service?
Washing feet was a common practice in Jesus’ culture but today would be awkward and potentially taboo. What is a modern equivalent to this practice?
God, never has your love for us been more clear than in the ways that Jesus humbled himself to service us. Thank you for that love that blesses us and inspires us. Helps us to be instruments of your love as we seek to do your work in the world. May our actions reflect not only our love for you, but also our love for our neighbors. Amen