taking the words of Jesus seriously

This past week I was invited to speak at a youth event, which had servanthood and commissioning as its focus.  It was organized by three youth pastors that are all close friends of mine.  When they asked me to speak, they told me that I would be leading into a time of foot washing.  This spiritual act would be a symbol for the way in which we are called to serve others, and for high school students, specifically those on their campuses.

Often when I have a speaking engagement coming up (or any other project such as writing articles), an idea will often come to me when I am in the car.  On this particular drive, prior to reading the famous foot washing passage in John 13, I had this thought: I hope (and think I remember) something powerful from the story… Jesus washed all of the disciples feet, including Judas’! It was a moment where us preacher types think, “That’ll preach!”

Then I read the opening segment of the story:

2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 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.

Did you catch that?  Not only did Jesus also wash Judas’ feet, but the storyteller (whom we presume is the Apostle John) frames the story with this fact in mind!  Not only so, but after a dialogue with a reluctant young Peter, the storyteller gives us another piece of inside information:

10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

So, Jesus has Top Secret Intel about an enemy spy among them.  He knows that a traitor to the crown is present.  Jesus knows Judas will commit the ultimate act of treachery.  Yet, still he humbly serves him – Jesus washes Judas’ feet!

I think this piece of overlooked information reveals much about life of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.  The same Jesus who calls us to love our enemies also demonstrated service to his own enemy.  And then the Lord adds these words after all the feet are washed:

14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

Our call to model our lives after Jesus includes washing other peoples’ feet, including our enemies.  Most likely this won’t be literal in our day as this humble act was contextual in its application for people in the First Century.  Jesus invites us to serve others, especially our enemies.  It’s the “enemies” part that makes discipleship so difficult.

9/11’s tenth anniversary happens this coming Sunday.  Throughout our nation, churches will reflect on the thousands of lives lost in that horrific act of terrorism.  That needs to be named as what it is: evil.  But, if all we do is point our finger at “those terrorists, ” “those enemies, ” and praise our national military for killing a whole lot of them in the “war on terror, ” then we will miss the point of Jesus’ model of enemy love.

Judas, by all measures of terrorism, could be classified as the worst traitor of all time.  Not in the measure of lives he led to unjust death, but in measure to the Kingdom he committed his act of terrorism against.  Judas as a “terrorist” led the King of Kings to his horrific execution!  Our King, our President, Jesus the Messiah, died because of the actions of Judas.  If anyone could be classified as a Terrorist, certainly Judas could!  And even though Jesus knew in advance that this pseudo-disciple would turn out to be a terrorist, Jesus lovingly chose to wash his feet.  He models how Christians are invited to approach enemies of the State – love and service.

In the past 10 years, Evangelicals’ reputation for militarism and killing has been at the forefront of public perception.  Leaders in our movement condemned the actions of the terrorists (rightfully so) and then called for violent retribution.  Jesus certainly was quick to “name” evil but NEVER gave permission to his followers to do anything but serve those who hate us.  Worldly militaries function one way, Jesus followers function differently.

Ten years from now, when we arrive at the twentieth anniversary of that horrific day, my hope is that the paradigm of foot washing will inform the rhetoric and actions of Christians in America.  We can promote bombs or we can promote basins of water.  We can promote retribution or we can promote reconciliation.  We can join up in support and participation in the Armies of this Dark Age, or we can join in a new kind of “war” on terror: counterintuitive service and love.

Kurt Willems is an Anabaptist writer and pastor who is preparing for church planting next year by finishing work towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.  He writes at: the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook.

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