Foot washing—it’s a little uncomfortable, isn’t it? I’ve only done foot washing once or twice in my many years of serving congregations for this reason. We feel too exposed, it’s too intimate—we don’t want anyone seeing our feet up close and certainly not touching them.
If we had a third Sacrament, most of us think it would be coffee and donuts, but many scholars and church leaders in our tradition say that it would actually be foot-washing. We could have a baptistmal font there and foot washing fountain over here. (Whew! Good thing that didn’t happen!).
But why foot washing? This was an essential practice in the Middle East because walking was the primary mode of transportation. The roads weren’t paved and the only shoes were sandals, so the moment you walked out the door, your feet were getting dirty from the arid, dusty ground. Foot washing was an essential act of hospitality--any time a guest arrived at the house, it was the job of the slave or servant to wash the feet of the guests. If the household had no slaves or servants, it fell (of course) to the woman of the household.
So you see why Peter protests when Jesus kneels down to wash his feet—Jesus is assuming the position of a slave—the very bottom rung of the social and economic ladder. They had just called Jesus Lord and Teacher who can heal and calm storms--and a man to boot—Jesus didn’t belong on the floor doing a slave’s or a woman’s work.
Jesus says Peter, the disciples and us—must be willing to receive Jesus’ hospitality and service in order to be a part of him. That’s why it’s uncomfortable—it not only takes humility for Jesus to kneel on the floor and wash feet, but it also takes humility and vulnerability to receive it, especially for us, since we don’t need to wash people’s visit when they visit our house. We take their coat, offer them a seat and give them something to drink—no feet are involved unless we ask them leave their shoes at the door.
And foot-washing the way Jesus does it requires even more from us—it’s actually harder than we thought. Are you ready?
You’ll notice that our passage is missing some verses, and those verses are the ones that tell us what Jesus really means. Jesus foretells that one of them will betray him. He takes a piece of bread and hands it to Judas Iscariot, saying “Do quickly what you are going to do.”
The passage says that Satan entered Judas and he left them and went out into the night. This is the dramatic moment of the passage because the night symbolizes that Judas has gone to the dark side (for you Star Wars fans). Not only that, Peter is beside Jesus and will deny him; the rest of the disciples sharing the meal with Jesus will abandon him. The only exception is that in the Gospel of John, John stands with Jesus’ mother Mary at the cross.
Nearly every last one of them will fail Jesus in some way. So it is in this setting of serving those who will betray, deny abandon him that Jesus gives them a new commandment: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Jesus isn’t saying love your family, love those who are good to you, love those who love you back--all of which are good things to do. Jesus is saying—kneel on the floor and wash the feet of your enemy—the one who has betrayed you; serve the one has denied you; love the one who has abandoned you. We have heard this in Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
That’s easier to do when they’re far away—enemies in another country over there somewhere. But here Jesus says, show hospitality to and serve those who have betrayed you, denied you, abandoned you; wash their feet, show that kind of love. That’s how others will know that you follow me—because you love and serve those who have hurt you.
Perhaps you, like me, have a had a relationship where you felt hurt, abandoned or betrayed. It’s hard to let go of that kind of pain and the anger. One such person came up in my prayers this week—the Spirit showed me that I was still hanging on to some of the hurt.
The painful truth is, I’m not sure I’m ready to wash this person’s feet, but the miracle of God’s love is that Jesus still washes mine—Jesus loves me and serves me and forgives me—even though I don’t deserve it. And because Jesus loves and forgives me today for hanging on to resentment, I know that through the power of his Spirit working in me, I can forgive this person, and finally let go of those remnants of pain.
Jesus kneels in front of all us tonight, ready to wash us clean of sin and doubt and hurt and resentment and unforgiveness. Through his power working in us, we can be healed and even love and pray for those who have hurt us. If there's someone in your life that you are struggling to forgive, then I encourage you to start praying for that person every day, so through Jesus' love and power, you can be set free from anger and resentment. That’s the hard, soul-work of following Jesus—opening ourselves to being transformed by his love, to love, as he loves.
Yesterday I had lunch with the pastors in this northern are conference of our Synod. One of the pastors told us about giving the children’s sermon in the preschool this week. He had a picture of Jesus doing the foot washing and asked the children who were those people with Jesus. One little kid couldn’t say the word, “disciples”, so he said, “the di-bibles.”
Perhaps that’s a better pronunciation of the word! I can’t remember who said it, but I love the saying, "Your life may be the only Bible some people ever read." We’re not just disciples, we’re "di-bibles"—the only bible some people may ever read. "By this everyone will know that you are my 'di-bibles,' if you have love for one another." When through Christ, we can forgive, and even enter the freedom of serving our enemies, that's a life--that's a bible--that shows forth Jesus.