“You will never wash my feet!”
I like planning Maundy Thursday services. I like presenting the idea of a foot-washing ritual in the midst of a worship committee meeting because I think it’s the one service that gets the most reaction from people in the planning stages. I don’t think I have ever been met with incredible enthusiasm – cautious worry that I might say that we are, in fact, washing feet is probably the most recurrent of reactions.
Which I find interesting.
Because we try to make a foot-washing service as symbolic and hygienic as possible. Which isn’t really hard. We come to church with layer upon layer between us and the dirt of the ground around us. Socks, shoes, carpet, flooring, concrete – layer upon layer between the dirt and our toes.
Despite all those layers between relatively clean toes and the dirt, there remains a sense of deep embarrassment about someone else touching our feet.
“You will never wash my feet!”
Maybe it’s not something that I understand very well. The thing of it is: I like feet. I like bare feet. I like a good foot rub – which I am not very good at giving myself. And I feel a deep spiritual connection to God through my feet.
I love my feet for that.
So, I treat them well. Every month, I get my feet pampered at my favourite go-to foot spot. The wonderful lady there looks after my feet: washing them, tidying them, massaging them, lotion-ing them, and then painting my toes. This is a routine that I look forward to every month, and while my wonderful lady tends to the physical needs of my feet, I spend some time in prayer, thanking God for the work she is able to do and for the work that I am able to do. I want my feet to be a blessing because I love the passage in Isaiah:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of a messenger
who proclaims peace,
who brings good news,
who proclaims salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God rules!”
A curious verse about the beauty of feet, for a time and context when feet maybe weren’t at all beautiful. Open leather sandals, if there were shoes at all, covered in the dust of the roads, the filth of common pathways where animals and people traveled together. Feet from this different time would quickly get filthy. It was common for hosts to offer water for washing to their guests.
Maybe there were people back them who didn’t like feet either, because the wealthier of hosts would offer a servant to do the washing so that guests didn’t have to touch their own feet!
Even with all the layers to protect our feet from the filth of the ground, I still know a lot of people who aren’t as keen as I am about feet. Perhaps even a little like Peter – who don’t want anyone to touch their feet. For any reason. And I can honour that.
But I still want to talk about the foot-washing that happens, because it’s more than just a removal of the dirt and grime of traveling feet. Because the foot-washing that Jesus is doing is part of a larger point. A sort of object lesson, if you will.
Jesus is taking this time together with his disciples to teach them about something important:
Not the remembering of calling something back to mind, or even keeping something in mind as an idea or image. But, the activity of ‘re’ ‘membering’ ourselves. The opposite of dismembering.
Once again we find ourselves in the midst of a story that is about our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us.
“Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God.” (John 13:3) Jesus Christ, a member of the Holy Trinity, of God, was soon going to be re-membered.
And in a way that the disciples could understand, Jesus teaches the disciples, once again, the entirety of all his lessons in one simple act. Jesus takes off his robes and washes the feet of each disciple. He takes the dirtiest part of each of his disciples, and cleans it. He takes the visibly worst part of each person in his hands and changes it into something fresh again. He re-members each of the disciples and they are beautiful and whole again.
This act of washing each disciples feet is like a foretaste for what Jesus is about to do about the un-visible part of each living thing in all of creation. Jesus will take away the sin of the world and change it into something fresh. He will re-member us all into the loving relationship of the Holy Trinity.
The foot-washing is a pretty significant lesson, but it is only a part of the larger point.
Because Jesus then takes the time to tell the disciples that they too now need to do: “Just as I have done, you must also do.”
In one way, the work of the disciples is just beginning. And Jesus is encouraging them to use their hands, as much as they have used their feet – to lower themselves to the dirtiest parts of humanity and re-member the people around them. To love them, just as Jesus has loved each disciple.
And Jesus loved each of them. There were no feet or hands that were not loved – not even the ones that belonged to Judas – the one Jesus knew would betray him to the authorities. Yet, Jesus knew that God had given everything into his hands…
Jesus’ hands are God’s hands. Just as Jesus’ life is a reflection of God’s life. Jesus lived in a way that showed us clearly a God of love and mercy. And the way we are invited to see that most clearly is through today’s gospel reading, at a time when we know that Jesus life will end and he will go where the disciples cannot go. Jesus takes on the role of a household servant and actively washes the filthy, battered, smelly, feet of his friends and disciples.
And I think that the work of those hands – God’s hands – are doing what a God of love and mercy would do. Like the Psalmist of Psalm 40 says: God picks us up and cleans us off. And gives us a firm place to stand.
We are a people who proclaim to be members of the body of Christ. We are a people who are made up of feet and hands ourselves. We are all the disciples of Christ, re-membered into the body of Christ each time we lift the cup of salvation and receive and place bread into our mouths. We are encouraged to think about our hands, to think about how we will serve those who are hungry and thirsty and perhaps dis-membered from the rest of the body of Christ.
Who are those that our hands can help clean off and lift up? Who can we encourage and re-member into God’s midst of love and mercy? Will we allow our hands and our lives to do this?
I pray that we may all be like Peter and exclaim:
“Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”
- Faith Church. “Maundy Thursday – Into Your Hands | Sermon from 3/28/2013.”
- K. Mulhern. “Jesus Loves Us Down to Our Toes: A Maundy Thursday Reflection.” Patheos.
- Lucy Nanson. “Maundy Thursday: wash my hands.” Courtesy of Ann Kristin Haldors Fontaine. what the tide brings in.