Talking among clergy friends there are some who don’t do foot washing as part of Maundy Thursday acts of worship because they had no volunteers prepared to have their feet washed. We wondered what put people off? Perhaps because of the intimacy of the act. In the 21st century our feet are usually hidden away in socks or shoes. We rarely walk barefoot. We are often embarrassed by our feet, perhaps for how they look or how they smell. Some people actively dislike seeing or touching feet. And the act of removing our socks and allowing someone else to wash and touch them might feel too difficult, too embarrassing, too revealing.
In the first century feet were regarded differently. If you had shoes, they would have been sandals. The roads and streets were dusty and dirty and to preserve the cleanliness of inside spaces you would normally have washed your feet or had them washed by the foot washing slave on arrival in a house. At the Last Supper, Jesus is the host, the disciples the guests. For the host to wash the feet of the guests was unheard of. Shocking even.
Why does Jesus do it?
John 13:3-4 starts us off ‘And during the supper, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the take, took of his outer robe and tied a towel around himself.’ The fact that it takes place during supper makes me think that this is a symbolic act. If it was an act of necessity it would have taken place earlier. The act takes place because of the certainty and security that Jesus has about what is to unfold. He washes feet because he knows that he will die on the cross and return to the Father. Washing feet exemplifies the servanthood of Jesus’ incarnation; his willingness to come from God the Father, to do the work he was sent to do, and to complete the work with the ultimate selfless act of dying for us. Washing the disciples’ feet foreshadows what is to come, the self-sacrificing humility of Jesus Christ.
And we presume the disciples found it profoundly shocking and disturbing too. It disturbs the hierarchy, the proper order of things. Imagine if the Queen instead of handing out Maundy money in Windsor took off her coat and hat, put on an apron and washed feet instead.
Imagine if Donald Trump walked out of the White House, downtown a few blocks and into a local homeless shelter and got on his knees to bathe the feet of a street sleeper. Or if the CEO of Tesco went down onto the shop floor and bathed the tired feet of those who had spent an 8-hour shift stacking shelves? The moments when the hierarchy is reversed and the powerful serve the meek are shocking to imagine, let alone witness. True, Jesus didn’t hold power in the same way that Pilate or Herod or the Chief priests or scribes did. Yet he was and is even more powerful. The creator of the world kneeling at the feet of the ones who would deny and betray him. Washing their feet, reminding them that this is what they must do for one another. Overwhelming.
Which is why Peter responds as he does, as ever showing us the human way of reacting to the love and grace of God. First he refuses – ‘you will never wash my feet’, how can Peter accept that the Messiah would do such a humiliating act for him. He can’t bear it. Yet once Jesus reveals that accepting this act of humility is essential for Peter to stay with Jesus then he tips the other way, saying that he needs washing from head to toe. Such extremes of response.
As people of faith we must accept the self-sacrifice of Jesus for us, that he died for us, to cleanse us, to forgive us. We don’t deserve it, it feels uncomfortable. Yet that is what he has done so that we can forever have a share with him, be included in his Kingdom. We are not called to die for each other, the sacrifice has been made once for all. But we are called to live in self-sacrificing relationships with one another, as Jesus teaches in John 13 v14 ‘So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, your also ought to wash one another’s feet.’
The symbolic act of feet washing is a reminder and a challenge to us. In it we see the self-sacrifice of Jesus. He gives away power, becomes human like us, suffers with us and then gives his life for us. Jesus asks us to enter the same relationship with one another that he has with us. Loving, forgiving, self-sacrificing, humble relationships with one another. Relationships that puts others first, that considers the needs of all, that do not expect us to think we are better than others or more important than others. The son of God, the creator of the world, the Light of the world, the Saviour of the world can kneel and wash the dirty feet of 12 everyday blokes. He does it to show his love and his servanthood and his selflessness. And then he asks us to do the same.
What does foot washing look like in the lives of 21st century disciples? It might involve being prepared to strip off our socks tonight to put ourselves in the same place as the disciples and to feel and to reflect on how uncomfortable it might make us.
It involves thinking about our own power in relationships and at work and within our communities and reflecting on how we hold that power and use it and how we treat others.
It involves exploring how our communities of faith should be serving the wider community in practical action: foodbank, Fairtrade, litter picking, Eco church, offering hospitality, teaching faith, walking alongside others, challenging power, speaking truth, demonstrating compassion.
And it involves reminding ourselves how we treat one another, our friends, families, brothers and sisters in Christ and the lost, the least and the stranger.
Finally, it draws us back to the closeness of our relationship with Jesus. That he would wash our feet. That he would die for us. That he loves us.
Here is the source of every sacrament,
The all-transforming presence of the Lord,
Replenishing our every element
Remaking us in his creative Word.
For here the earth herself gives bread and wine,
The air delights to bear his Spirit’s speech,
The fire dances where the candles shine,
The waters cleanse us with His gentle touch.
And here He shows the full extent of love
To us whose love is always incomplete,
In vain we search the heavens high above,
The God of love is kneeling at our feet.
Though we betray Him, though it is the night.
He meets us here and loves us into light.