The Rev’d Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told his supporters once that he had “seen the Promised Land.” He told them that though he may not get there with them, he wanted those in the crowd that night to know that they, as a people, would get to the Promised Land. “We mean business now,” King said, “and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's world.”
The very next day, King was assassinated; but he left, with his supporters, hope as well as instructions for ushering our society toward the Promised Land where all people are treated as people—where all people might live in unity with one another.
The night before Jesus dies, he shares a meal with his friends and gives them the commandment to love one another just as he has loved them. By this, he says, everyone will know that they are his disciples—by their love.
We’re told that Jesus knows his time has come—that the end is imminent. Maybe he possesses the ability to predict the future, or maybe he knows that he has ticked off enough powerful people and that it is only a matter of time until they take action, or maybe his horoscope that day was eerily specific. Whatever the case may be, Jesus at least suspects that this dinner was the last time he and his twelve would all be together sharing a meal.
Now Jesus and his disciples aren’t on great terms at this point—the tension has built up within the group. Jesus rode into town triumphantly on a donkey a few days before, and the disciples are anxious to take action and get on with the revolution. Judas has already decided to betray Jesus, and Peter has had it up to here with Jesus’ dilly-dallying—four days in Jerusalem, and all Jesus has done is overturn a few money changing tables outside the temple and tell a few insulting parables about Pharisees.
The disciples are anxious. The disciples are frustrated. But then again, so is Jesus. If we’re to believe that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, then he must be frustrated at his disciples’ inability to understand his vision and purpose. Why don’t they get that he doesn’t want to rule like a king? Why don’t they understand that you can’t really love one another while attempting to rule one another at the same time? This dinner might be Jesus’ last opportunity to teach his students about the nature of selfless love.
With the tension in the room thick enough to cut with a knife, Jesus removes his outer robe and wraps a towel around himself. He grabs a jar of water and a basin, and he kneels at the feet of one of his friends. He cradles the first foot in his hand and pours over the water. He massages the calloused heel and removes the dirt that had collected throughout the day. He takes the other foot and repeats. He does this with a few more disciples until he comes to Peter.
Peter is appalled. “You will never wash my feet,” Peter says.
“Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” Jesus replies.
Peter is still appalled, but he admires Jesus and trusts him, and he realizes that Jesus isn’t simply washing feet, he’s preparing the disciples for the next step—whatever that may be. Now, Peter wants to be the most ready. “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” and my elbows and my ears!
“Don’t go crazy,” Jesus seems to say. “I still have something to teach you.”
And in that moment, Jesus teaches his disciples that while they call him “Teacher” and “Lord,” he has done for them what servants do for houseguests. He has washed their feet with his hands. He has humbled himself in a way that doesn’t place him above or below them in value or importance—Jesus has invited them to join him on common ground. Jesus has invited them to serve one another and love one another.
At this point, Jesus has just about taught them everything he can, but with one sentence he instills in them a calling to move beyond knowledge. He says, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
“You are blessed if you do them.” Make the movement from knowledge to action. Wash each other’s feet the way I have washed your feet. Love each other the way that I have loved you. Do not place yourselves above one another. Do not place yourselves above those who abuse you or those whom you could easily abuse. Do not seek to become more powerful than anyone else because as long as there are people at the top, there are people at the bottom, and in God’s eyes, no one is ever at the bottom.
The world to which Jesus calls the disciples is liminal—here, but not yet here. God’s Kingdom, the City of God, the Promised Land, the place where all people live reconciled with God and one another as a beloved community.
The disciples glimpsed this Promised Land in that upper room as their leader washed their dirty feet. We glimpse this Promised Land when we engage in the same ritual and remember that we are equally loved, and that we are equally responsible for loving one another. We glimpse this world when those who are collectively downtrodden unite and remind those who keep them in such a state of their equal worth as human beings, even though they should not have to remind anyone of their humanity. And we glimpse this Promised Land when we share in the Eucharist and remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us to know that while we may find ourselves chained to oppressive systems of domination, we are ultimately free in Christ.
We have seen the Promised Land, and Jesus invites us help usher that Promised Land into this land through the activity of our lives lived loving one another and loving the God who makes us free.