John 13:1-17, 31b-35
April 5, 2012
The last time I was in the Minneapolis airport, I noticed several things. Like other big airports, there were lots of gates and terminals. There was a wide selection of overpriced places to eat and drink. And there were also rows of elevated seats with foot rests. Usually the folks sitting in those seats are business people; they’re reading papers, talking or texting on their smart phones or just staring straight ahead. While they’re doing these things a person sits at their feet, shining their shoes.
A wise professor of mine once said that this is the modern day equivalent of having our feet washed. Because we don’t spend most of our day walking on dusty roads with only sandals for protection, we don’t require foot washing the way they did in the Near East in Jesus’ time. Certainly we don’t see foot washing as a sign of hospitality when we have a guest in our home like the folks at that time did. But we do occasionally need our shoes shined.
Jesus would have been the one shining the shoes.
At a family reunion several years ago, I heard a story about a great aunt of mine. She wasn’t ordained in any way, but she did a lot of ministry. People would come to her and tell her about an elderly relative – their mother or father or grandparent. And they would say to my aunt, “My mom isn’t doing so well. She feels old and useless, and I think she’s given up. Do you think you could sit with her a while?”
So my aunt would make a batch of her famous bread pudding, and she would gather her Bible and she would go and visit the mother or the father or the grandparent who was feeling old and had given up on life. Sometimes my aunt was as old or older than the person she was visiting. But my aunt would sit with them, and feed them her good bread pudding; she’d read them passages from the Bible and she’d rub their feet. A huge health problem in elderly populations is foot trouble. You use your feet for so many years and they’re bound to hurt after a while. Yet after all this ministry, bread pudding, scripture and the foot rub, the person would begin to feel a little better about life. They’d feel more hopeful.
Jesus would have rubbed their feet.
Whenever I read this passage from John I feel uncomfortable. That’s because I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with footwashing services in general. Trust me, considering we’re about to participate in a footwashing service, I get the irony of me stating that. But the idea of washing someone’s feet or having someone wash mine has always given me pause. It seems to be such a menial task.
That isn’t much of a change from the time this passage took place either. Normally a servant would have been designated the foot washer. But in this passage Jesus washes his disciples’ feet to teach them that no form of service was too lowly, no one who truly followed him could be above doing that kind of humble chore. To truly love one another means to serve one another. Jesus was willing to serve his disciples even in this most subservient of duties.
Jesus was willing to go to the feet.
Today, Maundy Thursday, we read this passage from John because it gives us Jesus’ new commandment to love one another. The word Maundy comes from the Latin word for commandment. Loving one another as Jesus has loved us is our new commandment. And to illustrate this commandment Jesus wraps a towel around his waist, fills a basin with water, kneels before the disciples and washes their feet.
This wasn’t his way of initiating a new religious ritual. I don’t say that as a way of dismissing the ritual of foot washing or any other religious ritual – rituals provide a framework for our lives – instead I think that Jesus wanted the disciples to understand that loving, really loving, meant action. It meant service. Even the master must take the job of servant and wash feet. Jesus was willing to go to the feet.
So the question before us is are we willing to do as Jesus did? Are we willing to go to the feet? In my ministry I’ve sat at bedsides, held shaking hands, prayed and wept and rejoiced with the people I’ve served. I've been with them as they died, but have I ever washed their feet? I’ve realized that if I’m not willing to go to the feet, to wash them, to put away my old ideas about pride and dignity and kneel at the feet of the people I serve then I’m not really doing as Jesus commanded. I’m not truly loving as Jesus loved. On this day when we consider the cross and the man who went there for our sakes, let us think about the love he showed. Let us think about what it means to love and serve others. And after this reflection, let us pick up our towels, fill our basins and go to the feet. Amen.