Remember that scene in the Upper Room? Without saying a word, Jesus gets up, lays aside His outer garment, wraps a towel around His waist, pours water into a basin, kneels down and starts to wash the dirty feet of His disciples.
It was servant’s work, the customary washing of dusty feet done in those days by the host or by one of his servants.
There is a thick and heavy silence – until Jesus comes to Peter who blurts out with mingled pride and shame: “Lord, are You going to wash my feet?”
Gently at first, Jesus says: “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
Both proud and embarrassed, Peter persists: “No, You shall never wash my feet!” As in, I can’t see how things can’t be so bad that You should have to do this! Peter is in denial because he just can’t see that things are this bad!
Just because we can’t see the bad things, doesn’t mean they are not there. For many years, surgery was only a desperate, last resort to save someone’s life. That’s because surgeons knew nothing about germs. Without washing, they would don surgical coats caked with blood and pus from previous operations. They would pick up a scalpel wiped off with an old rag after the last operation. Half of those operated on died.
One medical pioneer after another stumbled on to the idea of sterile techniques, urging surgeons to wash their hands. But these medical pioneers were scorned or ignored by most of their colleagues. Why were doctors – educated men in their day – so slow to adopt sterile techniques? Simple. Germs had not yet been discovered. Doctors could not see them. Medical reformers couldn’t point to them. Not until sterilization experts such as Joseph Lister (as in Listerine) and microbiologists such as Louis Pasteur (as in pasteurization) came along – showing their colleagues these germs under a microscope – did germs become “real” to most medical minds.
All of the Old Testament rules governing uncleanness, all of the ceremonial washings and ritual cleansings, preached the same sermon. You are unclean. You can’t see it, but this uncleanness from the cradle to the grave, from the womb to the tomb, is killing you. It is not a question about whether you can see just how bad things are in this dirty heart of yours. It’s not a question of how you feel about yourself – telling yourself how good you are – anymore than it’s a question of how a surgeon “feels” about germs. God has told us how bad off we are. So said Christ to Peter: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with Me.” We need cleansing. In Christ alone we have it.