It is very telling how one of the things Jesus explicitly told us to do is the one thing that almost never gets done in the church.
“You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:13-17).
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus knelt down and washed his disciples’ feet. These were dusty, crusty, don’t bathe every day, walk everywhere in sandals, first century-Palestinian feet. He even washed the feet of the one who was going to betray him immediately afterwards.
Footwashing is a real act of humility. The first time I had it done to me was on Maundy Thursday during my first post-seminary church. The pastor had already impressed this skeptic to no end, then he got down after service, along with the ministerial staff, and washed his parishioners’ feet. Even those who were conspiring to have the bishop transfer him received the sacrament. That had to be transformational on both ends.
Yes, I called it a sacrament, although the institutional church has conspired to exclude it from our routine practice. A sacrament is defined as a visible sign of an inward grace, especially one of the solemn Christian rites considered to have been instituted by Jesus Christ. The Protestant church considers only baptism and the Eucharist as fitting that standard. Those are two occasions that attract significantly more attendees to worship. The Catholic Church includes several other rites that do not have a biblical mandate because business is business.
The level of exposure footwashing produced was unprecedented for me. I had no time to get a pedicure or to bathe to ensure my dogs wouldn’t offend the pastor. Fortunately, my piggies were polished and I had not done much walking that day. Therefore, I was not terribly self-conscious. But I began praying for the ministers’ sake about what they might experience with others.
This occurred following an evening service. For the most part, the worshippers came straight from work and were thus not freshly showered. Not only that, we had homeless members of the congregation with cracked heels and overgrown toe nails that no rational person would volunteer to approach. It’s rare to observe high-ranking officials worshipping alongside the forsaken of society, even more so that they receive the same consideration. James would have been proud for he wrote:
If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you? (James 2:3-6a).
That’s what makes this act so astounding. Jesus—God incarnate—performed what is considered the lowliest of tasks. John the Baptist described Jesus as “He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie”(John 2:27). In some early Christian societies, footwashing was considered a prerequisite for service—ancient day hazing, if you will. How different would our communities of faith be if we returned to humility and sacrifice as the central focus of our relationship with God and one another?
Martin Luther criticized religious leaders of his day for washing feet, but demanding greater acts of humility in return from others. Not only do religious leaders not wash feet today, they typically prefer to be elevated above those they serve rather than relate to them as Christ did his disciples. Ironically, the Greek word diakoneo, which is translated “to minister,” means “to serve” or “to be an attendant.”
Being among the called, I must struggle with what God requires of me. Responding to the call must not be reduced to a set of tasks. Rather, it is a change in disposition, identity, and world view. No form of service is beneath me when it comes to God’s reconciling work in the world. However, I am not yet ready to be great as I still have not washed any feet and am in no hurry to do so.