By Matt Gunter
My name is John, the Beloved. Though it was a long time ago, I still remember clearly the last night we were with the Master. Nothing that had happened before prepared us for what we did that night.
He never was one to fulfill expectations. When we expected him to be gentle, he was stern. When we expected him to condemn, he forgave. He honored the dishonorable and rebuked the reputable. Every time it seemed anyone thought they had him pegged, he deliberately said or did something to bring them up short. But nothing had prepared us for what he did that last night we were together. The lengths to which he would go to hammer home his love for us.
There we were, huddled around the table in that small, rented room. Smoke from the lanterns filled the room. The tension hanging in the air was thicker than the smoke. We were edgy with anticipation. We could sense that something big was coming. We didn’t know what. By this time the crowds and adulation seemed a distant memory.
Now it was pretty much down to the 12 of us and the master. For the first time, it was clear that his friends were outnumbered by his enemies. He had begun to talk and act strangely. He kept talking about his hour having come. We couldn’t get him to tell us simply what that meant (or, when he did, we weren’t ready to hear). Whatever it meant, it hung over us like a cloud of smoke.
The Master also looked at us differently, like he was sifting us, sifting us in ways he had not sifted us before. Other times he would stare into space as if he was sifting the very fabric of creation. He was somehow both relaxed and tense. Like an archer who had pulled his bow to the point that it must either let fly or break. He made me nervous. I guess we were all a little nervous, if not scared, as we reclined around the table eating with anxious anticipation. Whatever we anticipated, it was not what happened.
The Master got up, and without saying a word, stripped his clothes off … stripped! And tied a towel around his waist. All conversation stopped. He poured some water into a basin, set it at the feet of one of the group, and began to wash his feet.
I don’t remember whose feet he washed first, or second, only that they were too shocked and stunned to react much before it was done. I remember Andrew was third. He had more time. As it got closer to his turn, you could tell he wished he had sat on the other side of the table. He looked around at the rest of us for help, but we were all helpless. What do you do when your master becomes your servant? As the Master set the basin at his feet, Andrew sat up. His eyes bulged as if he thought the water was going to scald him. The Master stared into his eyes and smiled. Then he looked down and began to wash his feet.
Of course, later, we began to understand some of what he was doing. He loved to say and do strange and mysterious things, things that meant more than was obvious. Like the prophets of old. Sometimes he would explain them to us, sometimes he left us to guess, and sometimes his explanations left us guessing. For the moment, we were left guessing.
He moved on around the table. He came to Thaddeus. Thaddeus was one of the more inconspicuous among us. He was not as well-educated as some. He was not a natural leader like Peter; not as sharp as Thomas; not as experienced as Matthew; not as outgoing as Philip. I am ashamed to admit I sometimes thought he had no business being among us in the first place. Yet, there was the Master, bent over, cradling his feet as he washed them.
With each foot he washed, he got a foot closer to mine. I began to wish I had thought to get up and wash his feet first. For a disciple, that would have been fitting. And if he still wanted to turn things upside down and wash ours, at least I could feel he was just reciprocating. But, before I thought to serve him, he chose to serve me. What do you do when your master becomes your servant?
He even washed Judas’s feet. The betrayer! I have no doubt that he knew by then that Judas was up to no good. If any of the rest of us had known, we would have spit in his face. But the Master … the Master washed his feet.
He was getting closer to me. I began looking at my feet to see how dirty they were. Not too bad, considering where they had been. But surely there was a slave or servant in the house who should do this. Not the Master.
He came to Peter. As usual, Peter spoke when the rest of us were speechless. He was the only one with the nerve, or the audacity, to challenge the Master. More than once, it got him into trouble. He stood up and said, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
The Master replied, “You may not realize now what I am doing, but you will later.”
Peter declared, “You shall never wash my feet!”
“If I do not wash you,” the Master answered, “you will have no share in me.”
In that case, Peter replied, “I want a full bath.” But that was not the point. He washed Peter’s feet and moved on.
He moved on to me. I was desperate to leave. I was desperate to stay. How could I let my Master humiliate himself and serve me? After what he said to Peter, how could I not? He cupped my foot in his hands and began to knead it like wet clay, rubbing his hands over and under it. Somehow the offensiveness disappeared with his touch.
Those confident hands that had healed so many now healed parts of me I did not know needed healing. As he switched to my other foot, he looked up. I thought I saw a tear in his eye, but his smile was so kind; for a moment filled with eternity, I was his beloved. As he washed me, I was struck with what ends he would go to demonstrate his love for me; even this humiliating service.
Of course, we know now that this was a symbol of the great humiliation that he underwent on our behalf. The next day, he would be stripped again. And this time more than water would be poured out. And the washing we have received has made us cleaner than we could ever have hoped to be.
But that night remains. It was the night the Master became servant, and the servants became masters. The One who was sent sent us to be the masters of his message. And not just those who were there, but all who, like you, have been baptized into his service. The question is, “What kind of masters of the message are we going to be?”
The Servant Master, who is the Master Servant, shows us the way. What do you do when your master becomes your servant? He said, “You also should do as I have done to you.”
The Rt. Rev. Matt Gunter is Bishop of Fond du Lac.