When I was a teenager, I visited a church that (with good intentions) was trying to find a way to encourage young, questioning teenagers like myself to come experience Jesus. They saw that more and more kids were being raised without religion, more and more teenagers were finding their way away from church, fewer and fewer parents were forcing their kids to sit through another boring Sunday morning service that they didn’t understand. They knew that kids, just like me, were curious and cynical. Their answer to this problem was to encourage discussion in church about God and Jesus. At youth group, the young associate pastor would speak to us about some Scripture, and then we would sit at our round tables and discuss what we were taught. At each table, one designated person (usually a member of the pastor’s family, or a long-time friend of the church family) would have a sheet in front of them with the questions, and as I saw when I leaned over their shoulder, the answer to each question.
I never went back.
I knew, as clear as day, I didn’t want to go to a church that advertised “open-table discussion” but carried all the right answers around on a cliff note. I knew immediately that I didn’t fit in. I felt totally alone at the table, because when the time came for me to give my not-familiar-with-church-stuff two cents, I could only respond, “Oh. I’m not actually sure what the Bible means.”
And that was not the correct answer in red on the paper.
I still open my Bible, almost ten years later, and have to slam it shut. This book is the tool that was used to create those answer sheets that left me alone, afraid and very much out. I can still see in my little green pocket Bible a barrier as big as the Great Wall of China keeping me on the outside. I still can’t find all of the answers within it, and so I feel unworthy to pick it up. I still feel like I’m being asked to leave the table.
Jesus … got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” [John 13: 2-9 NLT]
This Advent, as I personally wait in hopeful anticipation for Jesus to show Himself to me in new and surprising ways, I’ve felt led to read John’s Gospel. And let me tell you, I’ve been as surprised as the shepherd’s must’ve been to meet the King of Israel as a tiny, dirty, poor baby in a manger. The thing that surprises me the most about John’s Gospel is the many times he shows confusion surrounding Jesus and his teachings. I’m tempted to cite here every time in John’s retelling of Jesus’s time with us on earth when the people around him sit at a table or on a mountain or at the temple and say, “Uh, Jesus? We don’t really get what you’re trying to say or do here…” [emphasis and sarcasm obviously added]. They argue, they disagree, and again and again Jesus answers them almost less clearly than he does the time before. He talks to them in parables, stories, and poems that they can’t seem to grasp. He is accused and misunderstood by members of his own religion, he is questioned by his own disciples, and John says even his own brothers didn’t understand what he was up to.
As John retells the story of The Last Supper, we see that the minute Simon Peter thought he had Jesus all figured out, Jesus surprises him, telling him he’s getting his feet washed. Saint Peter has been walking around in sandals for days without bathing. He knows that Jesus is blameless, totally clean. Since Peter is a Jew, he reverts back to his old was and remembers that God can only appear in the midst of the temple, a place that has been ceremoniously cleaned and prepared to be entered by the High Priest. Peter was a fisherman, unworthy and unchosen by the Rabbis in his youth, and here God Himself is telling him he’s going to get naked and was his disgusting feet. Obviously Peter rejects him with a sentiment we can all understand: “I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy.”
Jesus tells him that if he can’t allow himself to be cleaned, he won’t understand who God really is.
Jesus isn’t concerned that Peter has all the right answers. He even excuses it: “I know you don’t get it, Peter, but you will. What I’m doing is more important than understanding what’s right and what’s wrong. Let go of your misconceptions about how God works.” He quickly changes the subject and insists, “Just let me wash your feet. You will experience something profound.” And Peter responds, “Oh, I see it. I feel it. And I want more of what you’re offering me. Don’t stop with my feet!”
I wish I was introduced to this Jesus when I was fifteen and really looking for him. I wanted more, but I was taught I couldn’t get it because I didn’t know the right answers. I was isolated from the table because I didn’t feel like I really understood what was going on. And you know, I think we have solid proof that if Jesus were sitting at that table with me, he would’ve taken me and simply washed my feet. I think that would’ve made me feel even more included than I would’ve had I actually known all the answers on the paper. I would’ve been cleaned, I would’ve been convinced that I wasn’t bad or wrong or isolated. Most importantly, I would’ve been invited into a deeply intimate relationship with Jesus.
I’ll make my point plainly:
The Church is doing an excellent job at creating answer sheets.
The Church is doing a terrible job at washing peoples’ feet.
The Church is doing an excellent job at telling us to follow commandments.
The Church is doing a terrible job at helping us follow Jesus.
The Church is doing an excellent job at telling us we’re wrong.
The Church is doing a terrible job at showing us we’re loved.
When 87% of non-Christian young adults (between 16 and 29) say they’re not interested in Christianity because they perceive Christians as judgmental, something is wrong.
When our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQIA community are told they are bad the second they walk into church (IF they are ever brave enough to walk into a church), and the rest of us gluttons, drunkards, and gossipers are getting off scot-free, there is something seriously wrong. When so many people just like me have been made to feel ashamed, wrong, embarrassed and isolated in a place that claims to be sharing The Gospel, something is really really wrong.
Jesus washed the feet of a man who didn’t yet understand the full promise that Jesus was making him.
Jesus ate dinner that night with his betrayer, Judas. He gave him communion. He washed his feet, too.
We took Jesus’s prayers for us to be one in Him and one in the Father and created 41,000 different denominations of Christianity. Why? Because we can’t bear to sit at the table with those we believe to see things differently than us.
If we continue to call ourselves followers of Jesus, we need to learn to stop asking our friends who are sitting around our dinner table to agree with everything we believe. If we want to follow Jesus, we must wash the feet of those who we don’t understand. We have to wash the feet of those who hurt, misunderstand and betray us. Jesus is washing their feet – and ours – every single day.
I sincerely believe we need to let go of the fact that we don’t understand each other and, you know, sometimes we probably don’t really understand Jesus. His disciples were sitting right next to him and couldn’t grasp what he was getting at, but we expect ourselves to?
It doesn’t matter anyway. Let’s agree to disagree, and have dinner together. Welcome each and every person to this glorious table, beautifully decorated and abundantly stocked with all the wine and bread you could wish for. And when things get a little hairy, how about we let it go and I can wash your feet. I can’t understand your opinions, but I love you like God does. And let me tell you, He loves you in a way that is irrelevant to your interpretations, your background and your beliefs.
God isn’t waiting at the table with an answer sheet.
He is waiting beside the table, on his knees, half-naked, with a basin of fresh water.