I wonder if your least favourite time of the church year is Maundy Thursday? And not because it’s the day before Good Friday but because it’s the ‘Washing of Feet Day’, where you are invited to place your dainty feet into the hands of another?
Pope Francis often makes headlines about foot-washing. He’s gone to prisons and washed the feet of young offenders. He’s been to an asylum centre and washed the feet of Muslims and Hindus. And, I kid you not, he’s even washed the feet of a pet ferret called Wilbur.
His point is that this act is open to all the people of God – and all of God’s creatures too – just as we are called to serve all of God’s people and all of God’s creation. No-one or no-thing should be excluded.
But because of Covid restrictions, the jug, bowl and towel that you see here will remain unused tonight.
What was Jesus thinking that evening? What was he doing by this act of washing the possibly smelly, probably dirty, and, almost certainly, calloused feet of his disciples? And part way through a meal at that?
John’s already told us that Jesus knew what was going to happen in the hours and days to come. He’s already told us that Jesus had absolute power, that he knew that he had come from God and was going back to God.
But in that moment of clarity, when Jesus could have done absolutely anything… he chooses to wash feet…
If we look at the story again, told in tremendous detail by John, Jesus gets up from the table and takes off his outer robe. He puts a towel round himself, pours water into a bowl and begins to wash the disciples’ feet, wiping them with the towel.
You can tell in Peter’s reaction that he’s even more unhappy and even more uncomfortable than we are.
You hopefully each have a picture by German artist and priest, Sieger Koder. It’s Jesus washing Peter’s feet. Beside is the table set ready with the bread and the wine. You can see Peter is objecting but Jesus is bending so far over that you can’t directly see his face. What you do see, most prominently, is the bottom of Jesus own hard-skinned and unwashed feet.
Jesus is bowed low in service. We too are called to serve. With the poor, the sick, those in prison, the hungry, the naked. If you return to the picture and look closely you will see the face of Jesus. It’s reflected in the water which is now dirty from washing feet. And it’s amongst the dirty, dark and dangerous places, where we are most vulnerable, where we too will see Jesus looking back at us.
But spare a thought for Jesus. He goes to each of the disciples, washing the feet of them all. Foot washing was a mixture of hospitality, hygiene and purification, normally done by the most junior servant. And in John, it’s something more. Our passage comes just a few days after Mary has washed Jesus feet with spikenard and wiped them with her hair. It’s a recognition from Mary of her friend and Lord who had raised her brother from the dead; an insight from one who knew that Jesus was on a path to his own death.
I hope you noticed a fragrance when you came in this evening. That was spikenard. It has a woody, spicy, musty smell. Mary put a whole pound of it on the feet of Jesus – and I wonder if a whiff of that was still on Jesus and the hem of his robe as he’s sharing with the disciples that night. Did he catch a hint of it and impulsively do his own act of perhaps un-planned service as an interruption to the meal rather than at the more normal washing time of when they first arrived?
I wonder too if the soldiers noticed it a day later as they nailed those feet to the cross and divided his robe?
After the protests, Peter requests the full body-wash option. Peter, who would deny Jesus before the cock crowed the next morning. And Jesus knew Peter would do that… And yet he washes his feet.
Then Judas, who for his own reasons would betray Jesus. And Jesus knew Judas would do that… And yet he washes his feet.
Indeed, in John’s Gospel there’s only one disciple who would be with Jesus at the cross – the inference is that it’s John himself. The rest would make themselves scarce. And Jesus knew that… And yet he washes their feet.
What does he know about you and me – and yet still washes our feet?
Within hours, he would be betrayed, denied and abandoned – and he knew it. Yet he gets down on his knees and, well, you know the rest.
It’s remarkable really. Knowing all that he knew about what was to come, Jesus chose to show love, rather than to show condemnation or disappointment. And with the detail that John gives us it’s as if he deliberately slows the action down, so that we see each little part, each discrete action, of what Jesus is doing. John dwells on each movement – and makes us do the same.
None of us are perfect. We fall out. We let each other down and we disappoint. We would do well to reflect on this passage and consider how we chose to react and respond to each other when that happens.
What I have done
And Jesus asks: ‘Do you know what I have done to you?’ Then, for once, he explains that he’s set an example for them to follow. Odd then, isn’t it, that most weeks we follow Jesus’ instruction literally to eat bread and wine together, yet for us foot washing is but once a year? It’s as if we choose to take this one instruction metaphorically – but just in case we’re wrong we take out an insurance policy of Maundy Thursday to cover ourselves.
Why don’t we do this more often? Is it about our personal space being invaded? Or is it because this isn’t how our relationships with each other normally work? It feels disruptive and unsettling?
But isn’t that the point? In Lent we’re asked not just to consider our personal habits but to think about how we behave as a community too. How we publicly as well as privately live out our faith.
On his knees
And Jesus didn’t say ‘What have you learned’ or ‘What have I taught you?’. It was ‘What have I done to you?’ This time he didn’t teach them with one of his cryptic parables that they struggled to understand. He got down on his knees and showed how a humble, self-giving community should behave together when they meet to remember him. His real body to their real bodies – he did something to them.
What has Jesus ‘done’ to you? He’s led me to be here tonight speaking to you. I’m not sure how much my Evangelical Free Church grandfather would have approved – but maybe he thinks I’m doing Missionary Work to the Church of England.
Our passage skips the bit where Judas leaves the room. And I do think about Judas since it’s hard to second guess his motives. Bob Dylan famously asked in his song ‘Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side’. We know that the betrayal by Judas precipitated the death and resurrection of Jesus. Judas wouldn’t have known that though. Was he trying to start a rebellion or stop one? Was he just after the money? We don’t know. But the authorities would have found a way to arrest Jesus with or without the help of Judas. He unnecessarily became the bad boy, not just in this story but through all of history since. His name still a byword for betrayal and disloyalty.
What if Judas hadn’t died when he did and Jesus had found him, after the resurrection, like he found Peter? What would that meeting have been like? Remembering what Jesus said to Peter, what would Jesus have said to Judas?
A new commandment
Back in the room, Jesus gives them a new commandment: ‘Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another’.
Love is a verb here. A ‘doing’ word not just a feeling. They were to be a community marked by the same self-giving, humble love and service. A community that would wash each-other’s feet. Does that describe us?
Of course, the commandment to love wasn’t ‘new’ in the sense of not having been given before. Leviticus 19: 18, 34 tells the people to love their neighbour and the stranger. Instead, this was an invitation to the new life in which the disciples were called.
But it’s more than an invitation. It’s a command. It’s non-negotiable. It reminds me of Deuteronomy 6: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart’.
In both these scriptures we’re commanded to love. But how can you ‘command’ a feeling? Well, we are to love because God first loved us. It may not come naturally but we’re to do it anyway. And sometimes that might just have to come through practice. By day after day doing small acts of love until they become part of our very being.
In this closing narrative in the run-up to his arrest, Jesus says the word ‘love’ 31 times. The spoken word echoes again and again throughout that evening. But first he enacts the word in the washing of feet. He demonstrates the word before speaking of it. A word made flesh.
And all this takes place during a meal. A time to talk and get to know each other better. And in other Gospels it’s at this same meal where Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper. By washing in the middle of a meal, we have an act of service. It’s an act of lowliness, in the midst of holiness.
On the go
Our OT reading today also has feet in it. It talks about the Passover meal and then says: “This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand”. Are we with staff in hand, ready to move and serve the Lord?
Of course, after the arrest, the disciples used their feet to flee. With the stripping of the altar later tonight, we remember how Christ’s body was stripped and how he was left alone. How will we use our feet? To follow Christ and serve our neighbour, or to flee?
I remember, as a child, our church did an Open-Air service near the Town Hall. And I ran away because I was embarrassed about being seen by my friends from school.
Harder to receive
As Peter showed, sometimes it is tougher to receive this gift than it is to give it. He finally set his pride aside to allow himself to be washed by Jesus. We are challenged each Maundy Thursday to do the same.
Jesus said: ‘If you know these things you are blessed if you do them’. Deuteronomy 28:2 says: ‘All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you if you listen to the voice of the Lord your God’.
A blessing isn’t finished until we let it do its work and pass it on. It has to come upon us and overtake us. It’s what Jesus spent the rest of that evening talking about. His last words before being betrayed, denied and abandoned.
So, in normal times I would have appealed to you to receive the blessing that’s offered here tonight. To let ourselves be washed – and to let it then transform the way we behave as individuals, as church, as a community. We follow a servant King who came not to be served but to serve. In the final hours before the events to come, this washing of feet was a fundamental statement of who he was – and what he is calling us to do too.
We can’t do it tonight though. Instead, let’s miss it, let’s yearn for it. Let’s look for an opportunity to do it as soon as we can and not wait till Maundy Thursday next year. Perhaps being prohibited from doing it will make us think again about the events of that night and exactly why Jesus did this in the first place – and how he tells us, commands us, to do the same.
Be the verb of God
And if you find foot-washing uncomfortable but feel convicted to do it then perhaps you also need to challenge yourself about what kind of service you find uncomfortable – and do it anyway. I recall the Youth Group that I was in ‘adopting’ a pensioner who lived in a really grim flat near church. It was damp, dirty and smelly with a number of stray cats who ate better than she did. But for a time, we loved her as best we could.
So tonight, pledge yourself to be the verb, the doing word, of God. Make that phone call that you’ve been avoiding, feed the person that you know is hungry, restore that relationship, take that next step of faith…
Because we can do those things of which the washing is a symbol. We can take action and serve God’s people, both those inside and those outside the church. And, yes, like the Pope, we can look out for pet ferrets called Wilbur too. Amen
‘Washing of feet’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St John with St Mark’s Church on Maundy Thursday, 1st April 2021. It’s based on John 13:1-17, 31b-35. It can also be seen on our new YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/_wzfMCHF6h0