What is the definition of selflessness? This act of giving, or sacrificing for another. If selfishness – the act of seeing inward – is our animal instinct at work, then selflessness – this looking outward even at cost to ourselves –is what makes us human. It is something that weighs on us, perhaps this evening, as we know what is coming – the grace-filled selflessness, this terrible, mysterious sacrifice by Jesus.
Certainly Jesus understood this: as our gospel says, he knew “his hour had come to depart from this world.” The disciples would have known too, for Jesus had prepared them. And yet, in this last hour, it is not they who serve Jesus. It is Jesus who serves them, humbling himself to wash their feet.
The disciples are baffled by this. Jesus painstakingly covers himself in a towel, fills the basin, and kneels before the disciples, beginning to wash their feet one by one. Just as Mary once washed his as a show of respect and love. Simon Peter, says, perplexed: “You aren’t really going to wash my feet?” “You may not understand what I am doing now, but you will later,” Jesus says. Peter refused: “Don’t wash my feet, teacher,” he says. “It is beneath you.” But Jesus is stern in his reply: “If you do not let me do this, you have no share of me.”
And when he is done, Jesus shares this, one of his final lessons: “Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” In his last act, Jesus is highlighting service as the calling of his ministry, reminding the disciples not to flaunt their relationship with Jesus, or to boast of their knowledge of God, but to act out of love and service to others.
And with this act – the humble, selfless act of feet-washing – he offers to the disciples a new commandment: – that they are to love one another: “Just as I have loved you, love one another.”
On this important evening, Jesus gives a very precise definition of love. Foot-washing requires the washer to kneel before another, to wash, in a sandal-wearing society, the dustiest part of them, and to offer relief to that part which bears the burden of the poor. To truly love, then, requires humility. It requires facing the deepest need of another person. And it requires lifting the burden for them. In other words, selfless service.
This night, and the darkest of times, reflect two paths for humanity – the selfish anger of the mob, and the selfless service of even the very powerful. Jesus places his hope in our potential even as he goes to his death: that we may be greater than our own selfish desires and needs, that we may lose ourselves for others, that we may understand love is not about what we need, it is about understanding what others need.
The disciples take a while to get this, and perhaps, as Jesus says, they only truly understand it much later. Simon Peter thinks Jesus is acting strangely. Peter isn’t comfortable accepting the gift. In our world, it makes more sense when leaders ask for service, not offer it. It just isn’t done. But as Jesus has been constantly reminding the disciples the gospel is all about doing what just “isn’t done.”
Except, what inspires us? What fascinates us? Greed and ambition – these we know well. But selfless service – that is something of a mystery. We have plenty of examples of feet- washers. In the House of Commons this week, Malala Yousafzai, the teenager who risked her life, and nearly died, to push for the education of young women, was awarded an honorary citizenship.
This week in Canada we honoured the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge – where so many young soldiers lost their lives, fighting for our country against tyranny. We are so far removed from these stories – by years or by geography – that we cannot truly understand them. Here, safe in Canada, we may wonder about our own mettle in such circumstances, the path our own souls would choose. To be full of our own selves, or to lose ourselves for another?
In the city of Aleppo, the bombs continue to fall, and the White Helmets keep running toward them. They are a group of Syrian men and women working to free strangers from the rubble, to restore power, to help those in need. They are not soldiers: in another life, they were bakers and engineers and pharmacists. Now they are feet-washers. So far, they have saved more than 85,000 lives. Among those who wear the white helmets, 166 have died.
These are stark, daring examples of selflessness, born out of war and tyranny. We, by fortune, do not live that reality. But it is a responsibility placed upon us all the same. To care for one another, to forgive one another, to love one another selflessly. To be feet-washers for others.
Where does the strength to be so come from? John describes it in the Gospel: Jesus knew that God has given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God. The message is the same: to be selfless, we must see our own worth in the world, understand our own power, know that what we do matters. Feeling connected to something larger than ourselves allows us to release our own suffocating sense of self as if to the wind. We can humble ourselves before another because we understand that humility – that forgiveness and kindness and peacefulness – in the tool for the strong, not the weak. We can face what is dirty and ugly in others because we believe in the potential of people – just as we know our own potential in God’s eyes. And we can relieve their burdens because our own have been made lighter by our faith.
The gospel says: “He loves his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” We don’t wash feet once, and stop there. We don’t love to a point and call it quits. Jesus gave all of himself, not part of himself. We are called again and again to be feet-washers. To love in ways that serve, that face the darkness and lift the burden.
Jesus knew that one day, probably not too far in the future, when the story of Easter was told, Simon Peter would think back to this night, in that room. And Peter would remember that, with the darkness falling, this wise teacher, this brilliant man, this gift from God, had chosen his last night among friends to remind them of the selflessness of true love.