Each year on the Thursday before Easter, Christian worshiping communities around the world gather in remembrance of the last evening Jesus shared with his disciples. On that night Jesus and his disciples ate together, as we do tonight. On that night Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.
Some of you know of my love for camp and conference ministry. So the first camp where I worked sits down in a valley in the mountains of North Carolina. I was a counselor there for two summers, and both times, staff training ended the same way. After ten or elevens day of training on everything from canoeing to crafts to CPR, there would be a closing devotion. At the end of training, before the organized chaos that was our six weeks of summer programming, we read this same Scripture and we washed each others’ feet. Now keep in mind, we were a bunch of camp counselors. Outside. Pretty much all the time. Let’s just say we weren’t exactly getting pedicures every week. But we gathered on the dusty floor of the Pavilion and washed each other’s feet. Some of us had known each other for years. Some of us were brand new to the camp family. None of us knew exactly what would happen over the course of the summer. But we washed each other’s feet, promising to serve not only our future campers, but each other.
Not all foot washing happens in communities of new friends, or even acquaintances. Room In the Inn is a Nashville, TN-based organization that ministers to the city’s homeless population. Many congregations across the country provide shelter for a night under the same organization’s name, but in Nashville, Room In the Inn has a large day center that provides tons of resources — everything from a mailing address, to meals, to art classes and other education. Another ministry of Room In the Inn’s day center is their foot clinics. Homeless participants simply sit, as volunteers wash and care for their feet. This care is especially needed, as these homeless people have to spend long hours on their feet, often in ill-fitting donated shoes. The list of foot-related health concerns can be a long one. Room In the Inn’s foot clinic is free. The volunteers doing the washing don’t necessarily know anything about the people whose feet they wash. It’s one stranger willing to wash the feet of another, over and over.
There are plenty of uncertainties in these two examples. But Jesus knew something as he washed his disciples’ feet that night in the Upper Room. He knew a few somethings.
- “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world”
- “Jesus knew that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God…”
- Jesus “knew who was to betray him…”
That last one doesn’t say “Jesus had a hunch that someone might be considering betraying him.”
And he washed the disciples’ feet anyway. Jesus knew that he was about to face the betrayal that would lead to his death, and that one of his closest companions would be the one to betray him. And still “he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.” “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” If we want to talk about Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow again — I’d say this fits into the “wow” category.
I’d venture a guess that the disciples were pretty confused by Jesus, as we washed their feet. They didn’t yet understand all of the deeply significant things Jesus knew in that moment, but here was their leader, kneeling on the ground, washing their feet. Feet which were no doubt even dustier than those of my fellow camp counselors. They all might’ve wondered if it should’ve been the other way around. Simon Peter definitely wonders this, when he asks Jesus “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” and continues “You will never wash my feet.” There were some things the disciples needed to know, so Jesus gets to explaining.
He tells Peter “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Jesus washing the disciples’ feet brings them closer to him, and closer to each other as his followers. It’s an intimate act, washing someone’s feet, and maybe the physical closeness it requires is evidence of the internal, spiritual closeness that saturates this act of service.
At this point the meaning of Jesus’ actions has, evidently, begun to sink in with Peter, who pleads “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” And Jesus gets deeper into the significance of his cleansing gesture when he says “servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” Everyone stands on equal footing as they experience the self-giving love that Jesus shares with his disciples. At Room In the Inn’s clinic, the occupation or social status of the volunteers and participants doesn’t matter. It is two people seated face to face, one serving the other.
But even after Jesus’ disciples begin to understand, their work is not done.
I realized recently that I wasn’t sure I had ever heard an actual definition of the word “maundy.” Maundy Thursday is how we and many other Christians refer to this day, when we remember the Last Supper and this washing of feet…but I wasn’t too familiar with what the word actually meant. As it turns out, maundy is usually a noun. It can mean an act of service — an act of foot washing. It also derives from the word for mandate. Both definitions are pretty fitting for Jesus’ evening in the Upper Room, I think. Jesus hasn’t just washed the disciples’ feet, he has set an example for how they are to treat others.
Last year, on the first day of one of my seminary classes, the professor was describing some of what we could expect from the course. In addition to lecture time, we’d be preaching in front of the class. Our job as classmates would be to affirm each other, but it would also be to challenge each other, to help one another grow. In describing the kind of community we’d need to be to accomplish this, she said: “You don’t have to like everyone in this room,” our professor said. “But you have to love them.”
This is not unlike the mandate Peter and his fellow disciples receive from Jesus. They have just begun to understand Jesus’ actions, but now they have to do something about it. Jesus says “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” and later he continues with a new commandment. He doesn’t just sort of shrug and say “okay everybody, you got it. Now here’s a nice suggestion that you should follow if you’ve got the time.”
He says “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.” Maybe the disciples didn’t have to like everyone, but they had to love everyone, and as followers of Christ we, too, are charged with the same task.
Jean Vanier, a writer and the founder of L’Arche, says this: “To wash the feet of a brother or sister in Christ, to allow someone to wash our feet, is a sign that together we want to follow Jesus, to take the downward path, to find Jesus’ presence in the poor and the weak. Is it not a sign that we too want to live a heart-to-heart relationship with others, to meet them as a person and a friend, and live in communion with them? Is it not a sign that we yearn to be men and women of forgiveness, to be healed and cleansed and to heal and cleanse others and thus to live more fully in communion with Jesus?”
There’s not one mold for the way we can try to live more fully in this communion. It can happen on a summer camp staff, in a day center for homeless people, in a fellowship hall on Lanier Drive in Atlanta, GA. By nurturing service and love in communities with other people, we can more fully experience our relationship with God. By this everyone will know that we are his disciples, if we have love for one another.
Washing someone’s feet can be uncomfortable. Loving and serving others can be uncomfortable. It requires some vulnerability even at the risk of being betrayed, and an openness to the challenge of living in communion with each other as forgiving and forgiven people. As Good Friday looms we are guaranteed that the path won’t always be easy. But with God’s help, the self-giving love Jesus showed his disciples can become a love we show for each other. Amen.