Reflections on John 13:6-11
So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, "Lord, do You wash my feet?” … “Never shall You wash my feet!" Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me."
John 13:6, 8
Peter couldn’t help his outburst.
Maybe he was first. Maybe he wasn’t. No doubt, the longer he waited for Jesus, the more he stewed. There was no way he’d let Him wash his feet. And he told Him so. The moment Jesus knelt in front of him, Peter erupted.
And that was the problem. He knew too much. He knew He was “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” With his own eyes, He’d seen Jesus transfigured in glory and majesty. With his own ears, he’d heard the voice of God from heaven above declare, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” 1
“You wash my feet?”
Not Him. Not after seeing the winds and waves obey Him. Or seeing Him walk on water; or the way He healed multitudes of people; or raising Lazarus after four days in the tomb. No, the Baptist was right. We’re not worthy to come to His feet. Let alone unstrap His sandals and wash.
Jesus calms him. “You don’t understand. But you will. Later.”
“Never!” Peter retorts. But it’s an odd, confusing response. He’s being humble. He’s telling Jesus he’s not worthy. His voice keeps accenting, “You?” and “my?” How can “You” the greater wash “my” feet the lesser? The answer, “Never!” He refuses Him – bold, brash, and in control. The lesser dictating to the greater. 2
But what kind of humility is that? Peter is sending mixed signals.
And yet, Jesus is patient with him. In simple terms, He tells Peter this washing is everything. It’s the only way to be “part” of Jesus and His eternal kingdom. If he wants to belong, if he wants “in” -- fully in -- this is it.
"If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me."
Which meant Peter was faced with a hard reality. How does he let go of his bold, brash, in control pride that pushed Jesus away? If he recoiled his feet so Jesus couldn’t touch them, does he give them back? Does he let Jesus wash him?
Yes! His reaction is instantaneous. Yes! A thousand times yes!
Peter explodes with exuberance. “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.”
He still doesn’t understand. Not yet.
But for Jesus, it’s okay. He takes Peter’s feet and begins. Peter is not like Judas – who is clean on the outside and unclean on the inside. No, Peter is different. Peter is why He came. Tonight, He washes his feet with water. Soon enough, He will wash his soul with His cleansing blood.
And that’s why He can say it – and say it strongly, “You are clean!” 3
“You are completely clean!”
* * *
As I said, we visited John and Harriet in Rwanda in the spring of 1998.
We flew into the capital city of Kigali, got our luggage, and hoped to see John waiting for us. Instead, he’d sent a clergyman by the name of Ephraim to pick us up. He had a round, gentle face with brightness in his eyes, a gracious smile, and a warm, pastoral disposition that seemed altogether kind.
He greeted us with a handshake and an apology that English wasn’t easy for him. He immediately handed us a note from John:
You are most welcome in Rwanda…I am very sorry for not being at the airport to meet you. I have an important national meeting to attend. I was asked to give a talk. I will explain on arrival…I have sent Archdeacon Ephraim Semabumba to meet you. The way is well-protected. Be at peace.
Yours in Christ,
Bishop John Rucyahana
We got in the car, drove out of Kigali, and took the major roadway to the mountainous northwest. For an hour and a half, we had front-row seats to witness the magnificent beauty of Rwanda’s lush terrain, the meticulous architecture of terraced hills and cultivated valleys with rivers cut deep into the landscape and meandering gently on their courses.
This road, this beautiful road, is where John nearly lost his life in an ambush several months before. I’d just read on the Internet that infiltrators had attacked a mini-bus only weeks ago -- killing everyone. On this very road.
John had written: The way is well-protected. Be at peace. And maybe we would have been if it hadn’t been for Ephraim. He was nervous. His eyes kept moving back and forth from the road to the mountainside in an unending, annoying rhythm. He was obviously watching for infiltrators. He was – like us – scared.
The drive couldn’t have ended soon enough.
That night, as we sat for dinner with John and Harriet, we learned that John had barely escaped death that afternoon.
He was heading home after work. As he got in his car, some workers asked him for a ride. They didn’t want to walk home due to an impending storm. He agreed, drove them to a certain street in town, and dropped them off. Twenty minutes later, after arriving home, the phone rang.
Rebel forces had just attacked that same street with open gunfire.
“Had we walked home, Bishop,” one of the workers said, “we would have most certainly died today.”
And for John, it was the same story. He was there – on that street – only minutes before the shooting. What if the timing had been different? What if he’d stayed there, got out of his car, lingering in conversation with the workers? Or what if he saw someone he knew and stopped to talk?
He would’ve been there when it happened.
His emotions were mixed. Yes, the Lord rescued him. But people had just died. Loved ones were mourning. Fear was now spreading to towns and villages as the news got out. This place was not well-protected. It was not safe.
As we got into bed that night, tired from a long plane flight from the U. S., it all came too close. John and Harriet lived in the center of town. With our windows open, we could hear sounds everywhere like a thousand echoes bouncing off the surrounding hills. There was music. Voices. Sometimes shouting.
Then – Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
Gunfire. Shots, real shots. We both sat up, eyes wide open. It sounded close. It could have been miles away, given the mountains around us. It could have been down the street. Was it the infiltrators? Had people just been shot?
Were they coming for us?
There was no movement in the house. We wondered if John and Harriet had heard it. Were they awake? We sat there – our hearts racing, scared, waiting for more. But nothing. Some time passed, maybe an hour or two, and it happened again. In the long hours passed midnight, our minds tormented us. We kept thinking, at any minute, they’d break into the house – into our room.
We prayed. We waited for the first light of dawn.
“No one ever gets used to it,” John told us at breakfast.
Who lives like this?
We spent a week there. We traveled to schools, medical clinics, churches, and memorial sites of the genocide. And everywhere we went, we had military escort. Three men dressed in fatigues, carrying rifles, sent by the local government. They feared we, as Americans, might attract infiltrators. They wanted to protect the people as well as us. They wanted us safe.
In a world that wasn’t safe.
They made us feel like outsiders. We weren’t part and parcel of the people’s lives, or their suffering, or the fear that terrorized their hearts every time the rebels attacked. No, we were visitors. We’d soon be gone. But what if we stayed? What if the Lord called us to be part of their lives?
“How do you do it?” I asked John before we left.
“It may not be easy,” he said. “We may not feel comfortable. It may mean we lose things we hold dear. But we do it because we love Jesus. We follow Jesus.”
I could see the hurt in his eyes as he said it. I knew he was still grieving Madu and her family. But even then, in his pain, he’d never dream of leaving here. He’d go on suffering for as long as his people were suffering.
I couldn’t help the feeling inside, the ache. I’m not like him. I didn’t want the Lord calling us here. I didn’t want to live where shots ring out at night and where people live in constant fear. I didn’t want “in.” I didn’t want “part.”
I just wanted to go home.
1 Matthew 16:16; 17:5
2 Leon Morris comments that when Peter says “You” it is “emphatic, and in the Greek is followed immediately by ‘my’, thus placing the two in sharp contrast.” See p. 617.
3 In verses 8 and 10, we see two aspects of foot-washing. First, it is a saving act. We must receive the Lord’s washing to have “part” with Him. Second, it is a sanctifying act. As Christians, we grow in Christ by regular confession, repentance, and need for His daily cleansing in our lives (see 1 John 1:7, 9, 2:1-2).
3 Barnum, Never Silent. This story can be found on pages 69-76.
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