Peter got it wrong. We shouldn’t be surprised in the least. The gospels have taught us to expect Peter to be the eager disciple who energetically jumps to the wrong answer and is ready to act when listening and learning is called for.
Peter sees Jesus get up from the table, take off his outer robe, and tie a towel around himself. Then he watches as Jesus pours water into a basin and begins to wash the disciples’ feet. You can almost hear the wheels turning in Peter’s mind as Jesus wipes the wet feet with the towel that was tied around him. Peter is waiting until it is his turn. He lets the other disciples take part, but he will never let the master be his servant.
Then as it is his turn, Peter asks, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
Impetuous Peter doesn’t want to wait. He understands perfectly well that Jesus is serving his disciples in the humblest of ways and he isn’t going to play along. Disciples wash their teacher’s feet, not the other way around. Peter says flatly, “You will never wash my feet.”
Then in language that has long reminded the church of baptism, Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” This changes everything for Peter. If foot washing is a sign of being part of Jesus, then he wants to be drenched – soaked from head to foot.
Picking up on the baptismal line of teaching, Jesus seems to push it further in saying, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.” In this same way, one who has been baptized needs only repent of his or her sins to be made clean again. One doesn’t have to be baptized a second time.
But the connection to baptism was not Jesus’ main purpose that evening. It was the night before he was to die. The disciples did not know this yet. But Jesus is using his last evening to get across his most important lessons one more time. In case they missed the significance of his washing their feet, Jesus points out that he has done this to give them an example to follow, saying, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
This is where we expect Peter to strip off his outer robe and start working his way around the gathering washing up the other disciples. But this time, he seems to understand that something more is going on here than a lesson about washing feet. It is an example Jesus is giving. An example of service rather than a command to spend one’s days cleaning road grime off feet.
It might not have been easy to get across, but Jesus clearly connected with this message about servant leadership. Peter and the other disciples might have left the table still wondering about when and where they were to wash each other’s feet. But everything would change in a few hours. The next night they would be gathered in mourning at the death of their rabbi. Much later, sometime after the shock of Good Friday and the joy of Easter, this foot washing lesson sank in. We know the point got through because with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the disciples really came to understand their call to ministry and were empowered to act on it.
Later, when remembering that night before he died, Peter and the others would have seen foot washing from the far side of the cross and the empty tomb. Having seen how complete was their teacher’s love and commitment, those words of Jesus, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” must have sounded so different. Then even Peter knew that the life of service to which his Rabbi called him would involve much more than washing the feet of those he might have considered beneath him. After washing their feet, Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Jesus’ example was much more life changing than the humble act of washing feet. Jesus had been obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He had loved as God loves, and in the process, so upset the status quo that various groups who couldn’t agree about anything agreed that Jesus must die. Jesus was restoring outcasts to community. Jesus was breaking down the dividing walls between those who were “in” and those who were “out.”
Those in control, Jews and Romans alike, knew they had to stop this new movement before it got out of hand. In this, those who opposed Jesus were no different from those in power in all times and places, working to keep their influence and authority. Yet Jesus would not give up on his revolutionary love, even when the price of that love was torture and death.
The disciples did come to understand Jesus’ actions fully. Seeing the foot washing anew in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they came to understand that the only real power and authority belongs to God. We mortals who spend our lives trying to build up that sense of control for ourselves chase an illusion. And here all the paradoxes Jesus had been teaching could be heard anew: the last shall be first; those who love their life lose it; and the master comes among us as a servant. These paradoxes spoke to the deeper truth in Jesus’ life and ministry.
Jesus did not call his followers to lead in the same way that others led, by lording over them. He called those who would come after him to lead through their service to others. Jesus called those who would follow him to love as he had loved, with more concern for the other person than for ones’ self.
Simon Peter would come to live fully into Jesus’ example of loving others. Peter was part of that first band of disciples who turned the world upside down with a revolutionary way of loving. The disciples followed Jesus in working from the bottom up to help the world see outcasts and victims not as those cursed by God, but those in need of God’s love and healing and redemption. They came to serve others, even the gentiles, who at first seemed well outside the bounds of their mission.
What is most amazing is that the early church never seemed to take up foot washing as a sacrament alongside baptism and communion. Yes, the act of washing feet was preserved, but never in quite the same way. To this day, some groups practice foot washing, others do not. But all Christians hold on to the essential truth that in serving others in need, we are living in to Jesus’ command to love one another as he loves us.
Tradition tells us that Simon Peter became a scapegoat himself. The early historian Eusebius tells us that Peter was put to death by the Roman Emperor Nero. It seems that following the burning of Rome, someone had to take the blame, and why not that new sect who refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods?
Peter went to his death boldly, not giving up on the love we are to have for others that Jesus taught that night before he died in the humble act of washing feet. In response to that self-giving love of Jesus, Peter gave up his own life willingly. Peter served others by giving the example of faithfulness unto death.
Peter got it right.