Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end (John 13:1).
Jesus’ washing of the feet of his disciples teaches us that loving service is shown in the simplest acts of daily life: preparing meals, showing hospitality, cleaning up.
“A servant is not greater than his master,” says Jesus (John 13:16). As his disciples, our view of those around us, including people with dirty feet (not to mention those who wish us ill), can be transformed to the way Jesus sees things. Our task is to serve them by following in his steps.
In doing this, we can change people’s perception of the church and of Christians. By following Jesus we unmask the church that is rich and oppressive, allied with the powerful and the power of their weapons, and reveal a community of simple servants who are bearers of God’s tenderness. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus tells us (Matt. 5:14). We become this light by living humbly with him in obscure places and by carrying the light of faith into the shadows of despair and violence.
Giving ourselves for the sake others is a path toward salvation – the same path that led Jesus to the cross. Our giving does not save the world; Christ did that. But in manifesting the love of God by our actions and our readiness to be used, we open people’s minds so that they can see his face. This can lead to hearts that are open to faith.
This is also a path to happiness. We know that love leads to happiness, but when the way becomes too demanding we tend to forget it. We find joy when we make ourselves available for service. Jesus tells us, “Once you have realized these things, you will find your happiness in doing them” (John 13:17).
In the end, this gives meaning to life. Jesus shows us a way that leads to profound peace. We find the fullness of peace on the path of renunciation that Jesus opens to us: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).
We meet the Lord by living out the gospel. But Jesus leads us to discern an even greater mystery through service. He answers Simon Peter, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean . . .” (John 13:10). What is he trying to say by that?
A radical change will be produced in the lives of his disciples. Since God became a servant through his son Jesus Christ, our relationship with the Lord passes from doing to being – from the law to life in Christ. Because we are saved we now can place ourselves freely at the service of others. The washing of feet announces a new reality that is made possible because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Service can be understood in various ways. Basil of Caesarea (329-379) described three attitudes which inevitably lead to obedience. If we turn from evil in fear of punishment, we are acting as slaves. If we fulfil the commandments because of the advantages to be gained, we are mercenaries. However, if we obey simply for the sake of good, it is because we love the One who commanded us to obey. We are happy to have been found worthy of serving a God who is so glorious and good. This is the nature of a child.
The death and resurrection of Jesus move us past the rationale of a slave or mercenary to that of a child or friend (John 15:15).
Up to this time, Simon Peter had followed the Master. But when he publicly denied Jesus three times he experienced in a dramatic way the weakness of his resolutions. The commandments – and the will to obey them – are not enough to change human hearts. Something else is needed: the presence of Jesus and “the love of God flooding through our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us” (Rom. 5:5).
After the Easter victory, Peter was able to focus once more on Jesus (John 21:15-19). From then on, as he followed the Master he was also following the Friend. His sins had been forgiven through the cross of the Lord; the resurrection had freed him from fear and offered him the assurance that Jesus would always be present “to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28.20). A new life opened up before him in communion with Christ.
Peter took on a great task that was founded on a declaration of love, repeated three times: “You know that I love you” (John 21:15-17). Three times, as though to erase his triple denial; three times, to show that his love would never again waver. When a word is repeated three times in the Bible it denotes insistence; it is the superlative of superlatives. Through his response of faith, along with his free and joyful commitment to the Lord, Peter had entered the life of the Spirit.
Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we, with Peter, will also be able to answer him, “Lord, you know that I love you.” We can freely say this “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Love responding to love engages us in voluntary service. Having become the Lord’s friends we can, without worrying about the cost, tend his sheep. In offering our life to the Lord and to others, we abandon it, opening ourselves up willingly to hardships, if not death. Living the life of Christ also means taking up his cross.
Ever since Jesus came to earth the kingdom of God has been present through those who continue to walk in his steps. In all our activities Jesus commands us to love him. And he says to us, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).
Adapted from a message given to the cantonal committee of the Neuchâtel Blue Cross, Couvert, Switzerland, on 31 January 2015. Translated from the French by Allen Page.