By Dr. Keith Wagner
I know of some ministers who actually practice “foot washing” during worship. It is an attempt to recreate this scene where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Peter was surprised that Jesus wanted to wash his feet. I can identify with Peter since the whole thought of washing someone’s feet doesn’t sound very appealing to me either.
Jesus said to Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” He goes on to say, “If I then, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” I have no doubt that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. But, I don’t believe that Jesus was setting a precedence for foot washing rituals.
For me, washing the feet of his disciples has a deeper, symbolic meaning, not to mention a theological one. You can wash people’s feet until your arms fall off, but that in of itself will not make you any closer to Jesus.
A few weeks ago I performed a wedding ceremony for a couple who wanted to be married by a minister. But, no area clergy-person would marry them since they had a two-week old baby. The couple didn’t want a civil ceremony because they wanted their marriage to be blessed by a pastor. The groom’s mother knows our church secretary and she asked her to ask me if I would do the ceremony. I agreed and now the couple is legally married.
I’m not telling this story to boast of my liberalism, nor am I sharing this story to be critical of my colleagues. They are free to accept or reject anyone that wants to be married. I tell this story because of what I took away from the event. I was aware that the woman had a child from a previous relationship. It turns out that her first child is bi-racial. The mother is part American Indian. But what impressed me was the sincere genuineness and interaction of the family members that were present. What I witnessed was complete acceptance and unconditional love. I felt honored to be part of that union.
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When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples he was demonstrating unconditional love. Later in this chapter Jesus said these words; “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men (and women) will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In other words, you can wash the feet of anyone, but when you fail to love them you might as well have walked with them through a car wash.
At this point Jesus had very little time left to teach his disciples. In order to leave the world with followers who would truly “get it” he had to demonstrate the importance of unconditional love. If the disciples didn’t love each other, how could they possibly build God’s Church? How could they possibly teach others how to love?
The disciples had to understand themselves as equals. None was more deserving than any other. None was more faithful than the others. Each had to accept the others with out bias or judgment. They were to love as Jesus loved them. “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.”
Are you getting the picture? Anyone can wash feet. Loving another person unconditionally is quite something deeper.
After I finished the couple’s wedding ceremony they started taking a few pictures. They had no one to take pictures so I was asked to take a few snapshots. At that moment my role changed from minister to photographer. Taking those pictures reminded me of the times I helped the funeral director carry a casket to a grave site. Last Sunday we ran out of bulletins and hastily I made a few more just prior to the worship service. When we learn that no task or role is superior to another we are beginning to understand what it means to wash each other’s feet.
Besides equality, the unconditional love of Jesus had another dimension. That was inclusiveness. Just in case you missed it, Jesus washed every one of the disciples feet, including Judas. (vs. 12) Jesus did not exclude Judas from the foot washing. Nor, by the way, did he exclude him from the Passover meal.
What makes this so extraordinary is the fact that Jesus knew what Judas was up to. He knew he would reject him, but that didn’t prevent Jesus from washing his feet. Not only that, Jesus excused Judas from the meal without embarrassing him. When Judas left, none of the other disciples were aware of what was happening.
The inclusiveness of Jesus was simply beyond our comprehension. Everyone is included in the kingdom of God: sinners, adulterers, tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves, lepers, children, women, the poor, the deaf, the blind, even Judas. Even me.
Although we may not find ourselves in the company with these folks, we are nevertheless not without sin. There are times when all of us reject God’s love. But, what’s so amazing about God is that God does not reject us. God includes each and every one of us and in God’s eyes we are all equally deserving of God’s love. Perhaps what Jesus really intended with the washing of the disciple’s feet was that every one of them needed to be cleansed. By washing their feet Jesus cleansed the dirtiest part of their bodies, thus washing away their sins.
I believe that real foot washing has to do with our willingness to love others, especially those we don’t know and particularly those who are in need. In chapter 15 we find the climax to Jesus’ message in these words; “Greater love has no man (or woman) than this, that a man (or woman) lay down his/her life for his friends.” Here in verse 15 Jesus said, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Onetime there was a Far Eastern missionary, named Sadhu Subhar Singh. He was climbing a mountain road in Tibet. With him traveled a Buddhist monk. The two wayfarers were well aware that a storm was rising and that they must reach a monastery before dark or perish in the piercing mountain cold. As they hastened up the mountain in the icy wind they heard a groaning voice. A man had fallen and lay in a precipice, badly hurt and unable to move.
The Tibetan said, “In my belief, here we see Karma; this is the work of fate, the effect of a cause. This man’s doom is to die here, while I must press on upon my own journey.” But, the missionary replied, “In my belief, I must go to my brother’s aid.” So the Tibetan hurried on his way, while Sadhu clambered down the slope, packed the man on his back and struggled upward again to the darkening road. His body was dripping with perspiration when at last he came in sight of the monastery. Then he stumbled and nearly fell over an object on the ground. He stood there, overwhelmed with pity and amazement. Huddled at his feet lay his Tibetan companion, frozen to death. Sadhu had escaped the same doom because of his hard exercise in carrying an injured brother on his back which kept his body warm and saved his life. (By Fulton Oursler, Wellsprings of Wisdom, C.R. Gibson Co., Norwalk, CT)
Copyright 2003. Keith Wagner. Used by permission.