This morning I was listening to Dave Christian and Pamela Lundell on KTIS Radio talking about foot washing. It is Maundy Thursday, a day set aside to remember Jesus’ Last Supper with His disciples. Some churches hold Foot Washing services every year around this time, where the church leaders wash the feet of their parishioners. They do this to remind them of when Jesus washed His disciples’ feet before the meal in John 13. Dave recounted his experience in both washing the feet of others and having his own washed; Pam then remarked that the thought of having her feet washed by someone made her uncomfortable. It was not the physical act that gave her discomfort, but the message conveyed in the action. To wash someone’s feet is an act of submission towards that person. In Jesus’ day, this was a duty reserved only for the servants of the household. People walked around all day in the sand and dusty roads with their sandals on their feet; no fancy hiking boots or running shoes, just simple leather sandals. That meant their feet got plenty dirty, so when they entered someone’s house as a guest, the master of the house would have his servant wash their feet, to keep from getting his floor and house dirty. Pam was saying that she was uncomfortable being served.
As she and Dave where talking about this, I heard and was reminded of Peter’s reaction to having his feet washed by Jesus. Sometimes we look down on Peter for his initial unwillingness to have Jesus wash his feet. Yet I think there’s something deeper going on here. When Jesus took the servant’s role and started washing His disciple’s feet, this took Peter by surprise and he felt uncomfortable. Like Pam, he was uneasy with the idea of Jesus submitting to him in this manner. Here was the Man Who had healed Peter’s mother (Matthew 8:14-15), the One who Peter saw calm the storms (Matthew 8:23-27) and walk on the water (Matthew 14:22-36). Peter had seen Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, and then both disappeared and Jesus was standing there alone, as if to say, in Jesus the Law of Moses and the Prophets, like Elijah, live side by side (Matthew 17:1-13). Maybe Peter was reminded of when Jesus said that He had come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17) and that His commands to love God and love each other encompassed all the Laws and the Prophets (Matthew 22:34-39). Peter had seen Jesus do many amazing things and believed that He was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (Matthew 16:16). This was the Man Who was washing His disciple’s feet and now coming to submit to Peter in this fashion.
It was all too much for Peter. Once more Jesus undid him. This was not the first time this happened, nor would it be the last. All the other times Peter had seen Jesus in action, he was amazed and undone. Jesus left him dumbfounded. Peter could not figure Jesus out. There was no category of understanding that encapsulated Jesus in Peter’s mind, heart and experience. Jesus was like no other person Peter had ever met or befriended.
Nowhere is this more expressed than when Jesus forgives Peter in John 21. After hearing and seeing that Jesus was raised from the dead. Peter and a few of the other disciples had gone back out onto the lake to fish. Perhaps they were still trying to comprehend all that had happened over the weekend and throughout that week. Their Lord and Master had been crucified on Friday (John 19) and had risen from the dead on Saturday (John 20). He had appeared to Mary Magdalene, Thomas and the rest of His disciples. When He had appeared to Thomas, the disciples were gathered in a room with every door locked and Jesus appeared out of nowhere (John 20:24-29). Peter and the other disciples were still trying to get over all their shock. They had gone back to the only thing they knew made sense. When Jesus had found them in the beginning, they were fishermen and it was still what they knew best.
So, here comes Jesus. Peter and the disciples with him were out on the water, probably a long way off from shore. They hear someone on the shore yell, “Have you caught any fish?” Despite all their efforts throughout the night, Peter and the other disciples had not caught a single fish, not even a small Minnow. Here comes this stranger, maybe they even thought him a bit of a jerk, asking them what probably felt like the stupidest question that could ever be asked. In consternation they reply back, “No.” Perhaps there was even a bit of sarcasm in their voices. “Try casting your nets on the other side,” Jesus said. “Oh, of course,” they probably thought. “That’s our problem. We were fishing on the other side. Still feeling a bit perturbed, they follow His suggestion and cast their nets on the other side of the boat. The results amaze them. They catch so many fish in that one casting that they are unable to haul in the huge load. Perhaps they are reminded of another time when they followed the fishing advice of a stranger and the result was a catch to large for their nets to even contain (Luke 5:1-11). That was back when they first met Jesus. That must have been why Peter ran to shore, leaving the rest of the disciples to gather the fish and bring the boat ashore. Jesus already had some fish cooking on the fire and asked the disciples to bring some of the ones they had caught. Then Jesus broke the fish and some bread He had brought with Him and distributed it among the disciples. Maybe that reminded them of the times Jesus had multiplied the fish and the loaves before (Matthew 15:29-39, John 6:1-15).
After the small meal, Jesus took Peter aside and had a meaningful conversation with him. Among the things Peter was trying to sort out was his own betrayal of Jesus, especially since earlier that very evening Jesus had foretold that Peter would betray Him and despite Peter’s earnest assertion that such would never happen, Jesus pushed the point even further, saying that before the rooster crowed, and morning broke, Peter would deny three times that he even knows Jesus (Matthew 26:31-35). This had indeed happened and at the very moment it did Peter’s eyes met Jesus’ and he broke down in sorrow, weeping (Luke 22:60-62). When Jesus takes Peter aside, he is probably still trying to figure all this out. Peter’s own grief over his Master’s death was mixed with his sorrow at having betrayed Him. Even though Peter’s Lord is now raised from the dead and has appeared a number of times, Peter’s heart is still clouded with grief and regret. It is precisely into this uncertainty that Jesus speaks.
He asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, Do you truly love me more than these.” Jesus was calling Peter by the name he had before Jesus had renamed him (John 1:42). This had happened before when Peter had fallen asleep in the garden of Gethsemane, after Jesus had asked him to stay awake (Mark 14:37). Maybe Peter thought Jesus was calling him by his former name to get his attention. Indeed, such was probably was the case. Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love you.” Jesus replies, “Feed My sheep.” Then Jesus asked him once again, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love Me?” Peter again assured Jesus that he does love Him and Jesus replies, “Take care of My sheep.” Not swayed, Jesus asks Peter a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me.” Peter is disappointed and hurt by this second asking of the same question; his reply is an even stronger assertion and assurance: “Lord, You know all things, You know that I love you.” Jesus replies again, “Feed My sheep.” He then goes on to tell Peter about his future death and asks him once more to “follow Me.”
I am not sure Peter fully understood what Jesus had just done at that moment. When Jesus is done speaking, Peter turns and upon seeing John, the disciple Jesus love, asks Jesus about him. Though this incident is not spoken of in either Acts nor in any of Peter’s epistles, I am sure that it was foundational in Peter’s life and ministry. Another time Jesus called Peter Simon was when He predicted Peter’s betrayal. He told Peter, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). When Jesus said this to Peter, I believe He was speaking of Peter’s betrayal. Jesus knew that, if left to his own devices, Peter might have followed right after Judas and killed himself when he realized he had betrayed his Lord and Master the very night Jesus needed him to be strong. Jesus knew Peter would betray Him and knew that Peter would be terribly saddened by this. Peter’s inevitable betrayal and sadness was not what Jesus meant He said He was praying that Peter’s faith would not fail. Jesus wanted Peter to live through this, to persevere through his sorrow and grief and live to see the hope that was to come. Upon seeing this hope fulfilled, Jesus knew Peter would be strengthened in his faith and would have enough strength even to turn and strengthen his brothers and sisters in Christ. When Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him, and hearing Peter’s replies asked him to feed and take care of His sheep, Jesus was giving Peter a living sign of His forgiveness for Peter’s threefold betrayal and reinstating him as the leader of Jesus’ early church.