The Night Jesus Washed His Disciples Clean


3/21/08. I can’t forget that today is called Good Friday, and that Jesus, on the day of His crucifixion, may have had to use all the mental discipline He could muster to keep His focus on the present moment and prayerfully on the presence of God. Could the Man who stilled the wind and the waves also still the adrenalin, the rage, the fear in His own body? How did He cope with the pain of the nails, the crown of thorns, the blood trickling down into His eyes? More importantly: what can I do for Him and His mission today, right this moment?
Reading from the Gospel of John this morning, I noted that the Evangelist prefaced the story of the foot-washing with a seemingly irrelevant parenthesis, John 13:3: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God:…” – what is this? Something Jesus was just becoming aware of, or something He knew for a long time? If for a long time, why mention it here? The only sense I can make of its placement here is that the writer is using it to put a frame around a part of his narrative he finds particularly important – perhaps the whole Passion story, but  perhaps just this part about the washing of feet.
“Knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands:” after such a buildup, we might expect that Jesus then magically made tangerines appear on the supper table, or had the stars in the sky spell out the words “repent, everybody.” But no; He stripped naked and put on a bath-servant’s towel. And then He tells Peter that Peter won’t understand what He’s doing until some time later. There’s something profound going on here. Jesus, knowing that all things are in His hands, is about to do one of His greatest works. Humble Himself and play servant to His own servants? Well, yes, that, but something more: wash His disciples “clean every whit,” so that Peter, his feet bathed, will no longer need his dirty hands and defiled head washed.
I’d never seen this before: that was Jesus’ baptism of his disciples. With Judas we’re given to believe that this baptism didn’t “take,” John 13:10-11, but for the others I believe they were, at that moment, made sinless. This is the baptism that the apostle describes as “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21). If it had required a complete removal of the filth of the flesh, Jesus would surely have washed Peter’s hands and head, and maybe even sent him outdoors to gargle.

Sinless? I know that Peter then did a string of inappropriate actions, like cutting off Malchus’ ear and denying that he knew Jesus; and all the disciples fled from the garden, abandoning their Lord and Savior. How can we not think them still sinners? But we have the Lord’s own word that they had been washed “clean every whit.” And this is only fitting for souls of whom Jesus was about to say, first reminding them of their new-found cleanness (John 15:3), “I am the vine, ye are the branches” (15:5). Can members of Christ be unclean? The disciples might still err in minor ways – Paul would later rebuke Peter for dissembling, Galatians 2:11 ff. – but they now had consciences that sins would no longer stick to as they once did.
Unstainable consciences, while still capable of minor errors? It’s not as though the disciples had been given Teflon coatings, or – to use the language of Yoga, become jivanmuktas who could generate no more karma, bad or good, because they’d attained to direct knowledge of the timeless Atman and could identify no more with changeable nature – but rather, I think, Jesus gave them what Paul was later to call huiothesia, “son-placement,” translated by King James’ scholars as “the adoption,” Galatians 4:5-6 and Romans 8:13-17, whereby we call God Abba, “father.”

There’s no Teflon coating involved in this: we wash out our errors, as Peter did, only with our tears, and these are tears of real pain. It hurts to see our own laziness or cowardice or greed cause someone else sorrow. But there’s a good reason not to call such errors sin. For we now feel God’s parenthood, protecting us from falling so deeply into sin that we have to block off awareness of our condition with a fabric of lies. Moreover, we now have a heart that yearns to be corrected whenever it strays, rather than go on straying in happy ignorance. It is the heart of what Paul called “the new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15).

That freedom from sin, I think, was the great spiritual gift passed on when Jesus washed Peter’s feet. It came to me seven years ago, just before I fell in love with Elizabeth, when I heard the Unmistakable Voice in my mind say, “I will not let you fall into sin,” so I know it’s a real thing, given to little people like me who are by no means jivanmuktas. It does not mean that I couldn’t spoil it all if I set my mind to becoming an evildoer, as I did for a time as a child when I thought I might be more impressive if I were one of the bad boys; the sinless life does require vigilance. Robert Barclay (Apology, Proposition 9, §II) comments wryly, “it is to no purpose to beseech them to stand, to whom God hath made it impossible to fall.” What I take my Lord to have meant is that I can trust Him absolutely, and that by His grace I can now, amazingly, even trust the new heart He has given me.


2 Responses to “The Night Jesus Washed His Disciples Clean”

  1. zencath Says:

    I enjoyed reading your post, thank you for writing it.
    It is a common error to think that a person should somehow be incapable of sin after they have turned to Christ, and that if one commits a sinful action then the relationship with Him is thereby cancelled out. This is to re-introduce a doctrine of “works” and bring back a submission to the Law. We note that, in the story of Peter’s three denials, the sequel is that Our Lord lifts him up again by asking him a question three times.

  2. Thy Friend John Says:

    Dear Zen Catholic friend,

    Thanks! for your comment on my “The Night Jesus Washed His Disciples Clean.” I’d felt a little insecure posting it, half expecting comments like

    (1) “What, you, sinless? Why, you impostor!” or

    (2) “What, you’re just getting it now that this was Jesus’ baptism of His disciples? Didn’t you ever go to Sunday School? Augustine said it, Calvin said it, Billy Graham said it. Why, you hick!”

    So to have my first (and so far, only) comment be a supportive one felt like a great kindness.

    Yes, isn’t Jesus’ thrice-repeated question to Peter a beautiful way of exonerating him? Getting him to affirm Jesus three times after having denied Him three times?

    There’s another irony in the “Lovest thou me?” story that’s in the Greek original but is lost in translation; that is that Jesus twice asks Peter “Agapas me,” Do you love me, and Peter answers Yea, Lord, thou knowest “hoti philo se,” that I like thee. Jesus switches from the verb agapao to the verb phileo in His last iteration of the question, though, and someone who knows some Aramaic informed me that there’s only one verb “to love” in Aramaic, so that in the actual seaside conversation there wouldn’t have been this little nuance in Jesus’ question that Peter was failing to pick up on.

    In spite of my having taken one course in New Testament Greek I still am pretty much a theologically uneducated hick, except for the Quaker classics like George Fox and Robert Barclay and Isaac Penington, and some devotional classics like The Imitation of Christ and The Practice of the Presence of God that I keep coming back to over and over again as bus-ride-to-work reading — they’re so much saner than what’s in the newspaper.

    On the other hand, if I’ve heard the Lord speak to me, I really shouldn’t call myself a theologically uneducated hick, should I? I’d rather have one sentence like “I will not let you fall into sin” from His Mouth than have the whole Summa Theologica committed to memory.

    Anyway, I wanted to tell you that I like your blog — the reflection on the snowstorm, the Zen story about the strawberry on the cliff. You seem like a merry soul. I like that.

    Be well,

    Thy friend John

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