Scripture: John 13:1-17

Those of you with a background in Latin, were once English teachers, or just kind of like etymology then you have already figured out exactly what podophobia is a fear of. If you are still trying to piece it together, I will fill you in.  It is the fear of feet.  Podophobia is defined by feelings of fear, anxiety, or extreme disgust of feet.  It is estimated that about 1 out of every 1,000 people have strong enough feelings about feet to qualify for this.  There are a lot of weird and unusual phobias, but I know this one is a real thing.  Several years ago, as part of a youth group meeting I had the teens play a silly relay game, where they had to work in a team to pass a lemon down a line without dropping it using only their feet.  There was one girl though who had to sit out, because she just could not handle the thought of making contact with someone else’s feet in any way shape or form.  While they may not all rise to the level of podophobia, there are a whole lot of people who do not like feet.  Sure, I can see it.  Feet are kind of gross.  They get dirty easily, they can look weird, and they can really smell.

If the numbers of people with podophobia is really one out of every thousand that means there are millions of people who are just completely repulsed by the idea of touching someone else’s feet.  For those people this morning’s scripture is no doubt a little uncomfortable.   While it is not an official diagnosis, I do think there is another group of people who this scripture makes uncomfortable.   We might call it people with spiritual podophobia.  These would be people who do not want to follow the example of Jesus in washing feet, not because they are uncomfortable with the idea of feet but they are uncomfortable with the idea of radically serving others.  While very few people say the quiet part out loud, and admit they are not comfortable with the example Jesus gives in this morning’s scripture, we can observe the selfish behavior, the entitlement, and the vilifying of others all around us.  As we consider this morning’s scripture and the example that Jesus gives us to follow in it, I think we should pause and seriously reflect on just how willing we are to follow our savior’s example.

On the surface level I think we can easily and readily appreciate that in washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus was setting an example of serving others.  This is consistent with the message of Jesus who claimed that he came not to be served to serve.  It is consistent with what the scripture says about Jesus.  Christians have long seen Jesus reflected in the image of the suffering servant presented in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah.  In the book of Philippians Paul described Jesus as taking the very nature of a servant.   It is easy to understand that this scripture as a symbolic act that signifies the importance of serving others.   It is comfortable to leave it at that.  However, if we consider the culture of the time as well as what this experience would have actually been like for the disciples I think we discover that the example of service that Jesus gives pushes a little bit more than we are always comfortable with.  There are two specific factors that need considering.

First, we need to consider the act of foot washing in the era.  The gospel of John provides a slightly different timeline than the other three gospels, but this foot washing takes place at the beginning of the last supper that Jesus has with his disciples.  For this gathering, Jesus is playing the role of the host.   In a culture that highly valued hospitality, it was Jesus’ responsibility to offer the disciples a chance to wash their feet as they gathered for this formal meal.  In a region of the world where most people walked around in open toed shoes or even barefoot, washing the grime off was a practical concern.   People’s feet would be caked in dust and dirt.   Combine this with the fact that it was a common practice to sit on the floor at low tables, and not at high tables with chairs, where people would be in close proximity to the feet of others- providing the means to wash those feet was a practical and essential act of hospitality.  The most common practice would be to provide water so that people could take of their own feet.  The more uncommon practice would be to have a servant do this, and this only would have been in more opulent settings because by servant I mean slave.   Washing the feet of others was the job for the person of the lowest status who did not have the option to say no.

The fact that Jesus the host, took the role of a slave, is what made this act so profound.  This is why Peter objects to the act.   It would have been an act of hospitality to provide water so the disciples could have washed their own feet.  However, for Jesus to was feet was an absolute breach of protocol.  It was not the way things are meant to be done.  As the host, Jesus was the most honored person in the room. He had the place of highest honor and he intentionally took the place of lowest honor to serve the disciples.   He literally and figuratively put himself beneath his disciples when Jesus got down to wash their feet.

This is the example that Jesus set.  Not only should we serve people, but our service of others should be one that willingly gives up our power and prestige.   While many people are find with the idea of helping others, we also often fall short of the example that Jesus set.   We can see this in the language we use and in the patterns of service.  We refer to the people who are in need as the less fortunate, which by default would mean those of us with the means to help are the more fortunate.   While those in need might be able to get help, they are often put in circumstances to be made felt like it is being handed down to them.

Years ago when I led the youth ministry at Avon UMC, I would regularly take teenagers out with a group from neighboring Plainfield UMC to the homeless encampments around Indianapolis.  The group from Plainfield would bring food to these places, but they also intentionally spent time getting to know the people.  At the time it was surprising to me how many people who were on the streets were there by choice.  These people intentionally stayed away from the shelters and many of the soup kitchens, because of how they were treated.  They were treated like they were lesser, like they were an inconvenience, like they were a problem to be dealt with.   They chose the streets to avoid feeling looked down upon.

Jesus does not look down the people he serves, because in this scripture, he has to look up at them.  The example that Jesus gives is much more personal than the way we meet needs today.  Amy-Jill Levine, New Testament Scholar and author of the Entering the Passion of Jesus (our current Wednesday night bible study), wrote about the example Jesus gave in this morning’s scripture.  She wrote, “Service is up close and personal. . .Service means getting down off one’s high horse and manifesting meekness and humility.  It teaches us that we are not the important ones: the ones we serve are the ones who are important. “In the following the examples of Jesus we should serve others, not because the people we serve are less fortunate but because we believe and treat them like they are important.

The second specific factor we need to consider is whose feet Jesus washed.  We find a detail that should not be overlooked in verses 2-3, which read “The evening meal was in progress and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.  Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power and that he had come from God and returning to God.”   Jesus washed the feet of the disciples.  Judas does not leave to do his betraying until later in chapter 13, which means Judas was one of the disciples who Jesus washed the feet of.   Moreover, verse three indicates and then verse 13:26 later in John confirms that Jesus knew it was Judas who was going to betray him.  Despite knowing what Judas was about to do, Jesus washed his feet anyway.  Jesus humbled himself before his betrayer and served him.

Unfortunately, I know that is a bridge too far for a lot of Christians today.  This is a step in serving others that they would likely not be willing to take.  Here is how I know this.  I have seen too many Christians in recent years share too many snarky internet memes, posts, or talking points that calls the people they disagree with and don’t like idiots or worse.  We cannot serve others in a way that communicates they are important, that recognizes their worth, that elevates them above ourselves and belittle them at the same time.  It just is not possible.   We have to choose to either tear down or build up.  If we are going to choose to build up and serve others, then if we are following the example of Jesus we serve without qualification.   If Jesus can get on his knees and was the feet of the man of the man who was going to deliver him to death on a cross, then we can serve “those people”-whoever those people are for us.

Serving the people that we disagree with, that bristle against us, and that feel so different it is hard to find any kind of common ground to meet on is the example that Jesus gives us.   This is what we as his followers are supposed to do.  It is kind of our purpose.   In his provocatively titled book “How to Pick up a Stripper and Other Acts of Kindness Nashville based Pastor Todd Stevens makes a similar point.  In the book he details his journey in leading the church to reach outside the walls and serve the people least likely to be served by the church.  As part of this journey he made a discovery which he shared in the book.  He wrote, “People will have a hard time believing God loves them, if they’re positive we don’t.  This truth has caused me to recalibrate my entire approach to outreach.  I’ve realized the homosexual activist isn’t the enemy.  Neither is the Muslim.  The strippers and porn producers aren’t my enemies either.  They are who I am supposed to love.  They are the mission field.”

The Emperor Julian was the last pagan emperor of the late Roman Empire.  At this point Christianity was ascendant, but there were still plenty of old Roman pagan practices around, and Julian wanted to see them become dominant again.  In writing to a pagan priests Julian lifted up why he thought the Christians were so successful.  He wrote “When it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the priests [that is pagan priests], then I think the impious Galileans [his term for Christians observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy.”  He continued later on [They] support not only their poor but ours as well.”

The first centuries of Christians shared the gospel by caring for the poor.  They served others, including the people who did not like them and belittled them.   They did this for centuries and in doing so eventually converted an empire.   I am convinced that loving others and serving them is still the most effective way to make new disciples.  We do this, not by treating people like projects but like important people that deserve to be respected and helped because they have sacred worth.

So friends, do you have spiritual podophobia or are you willing to serve like Jesus served?  Are you willing to serve people on a level that honors and values them, and are you willing to serve all people?  To seriously follow Jesus, our answer should be “yes”.  These are the examples Jesus gave us, and following this example is how we accomplish are mission of making disciples.  May we follow the example of Jesus.   Jesus did not belittle others.  He served them.  Jesus did not judge others.  He washed feet.  Let’s be like Jesus.

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