Robert L. Getty, Ph.D. - April 2, 2015
Robert L. Getty, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
Wash One Another’s Feet
What does Jesus mean when He says that we ought to wash one another’s feet? Some Christians have taken this very literally and have thought that our Lord was here instituting another sacrament. Jesus is not giving us another sacrament to follow. What He means is that we need the cleansing and forgiveness of our Lord to maintain the sense of unity and refreshment of spirit in our Christian life. We need to extend to one another free forgiveness for guilt and for the injury that we may do to one another.
If Jesus asked the disciples (even on the road to the upper room), “Do you love Me?” they would have responded, “We love You with all our hearts.” If He had asked them, “Do you love one another?” His disciples would have replied, “We love each other and all of God’s children.” Jesus’ disciples knew the right things, but they did not do the right things, they fled in the face of adversity. Yet, James, the half-brother of Jesus said, “You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves.” Clearly actions speak louder than words.
Many cathedrals in Europe suffered damage as a result of bombing raids during World War II. The explosion of a bomb in one great cathedral blew the hands off a statue of Christ. Though the cathedral was repaired, the statue of Christ stands there today with His hands missing. An inscription on the pedestal reads, “Christ hath no hands but yours.” Today will we be Jesus’ hands and feet?
Like most of us in our day-to-day existence, the disciples were constrained by time’s linearity, living each moment as it occurs, one event after another. Unlike us, however, they lacked the advantage of knowing the end of the story before it happens. While we experience Maundy Thursday from the perspective of both sides of the cross — in our liturgical calendar Good Friday has not yet happened, even though we always live in the reality of Easter — the disciples must make sense of events only as they unfolded. So, when Jesus washes their feet and wipes them with a towel, it is understandable if the disciples do not quite get the point. Washing usually takes place before the meal, not in the middle of it. Masters usually have their feet washed by their servants, or teachers by their students, not the other way around.
Jesus states explicitly that his actions on this night are an example for the disciples. “You too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: just as I have done, you also must do.” (13:15). If washing feet is the particular example, the wider principle quickly becomes clear: “Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.” (13:34). It is on account of love that Jesus’ washes his disciples’ feet, and it is on account of Jesus that his followers will be able to live into that love with one another — whether or not they fully understand or are able to see the outcome.
It may be useful to consider what, exactly, is Jesus calling his followers to do? To display an attitude of humble service, such as Jesus has demonstrated by washing the disciples’ feet? To treat one another in such a way that love is more important than life itself? To have one’s own life and the life of a congregation or community modeled after the life of Jesus? To treat one another with love even if it is difficult, or it runs counter to prevailing norms, or if we cannot see the outcome, or even if doing so does not entirely make sense?
Like all the teaching of Jesus, there is much more in these words than that which appears on the surface. This means that Jesus had a deeper and more spiritual meaning he was seeking to teach from this action of washing the disciples feet. It is worth noticing that no disciple ever addressed Jesus casually. No one ever called Him “Jesus” and they certainly never used expressions like “Sweet Jesus” or “Dear Jesus.” They called Him “Master” or “Lord.” Let us observe the argument Jesus is using here. He is arguing from the greater to the lesser. He first of all reminds the disciples of how they viewed him, as Teacher and Lord. Then he says that if I, your Lord and Teacher, the one whom you look up to and call Lord, do not think it beneath me to do even the most menial act for you. You should be humble enough to act in the same way to each other and indeed to everyone. Jesus was seeking to improve the wrong spirit in the disciples which made them too proud to do such a menial task, even for their friends.
The example of Jesus goes much deeper than washing feet. Jesus so loved his disciples that he was willing to accept all the defilement and degradation of coming into this sinful world. Much more he was willing to accept the much more dreadful humiliation and defilement of taking on their sins. He took on their sins and without complaint accepted the responsibility for their sins, and to be punished for them, in the place of the sinners he loved.
If we had a holy sense of awe at the power and sovereignty of Jesus and recognized that He willingly served humankind, we would not hesitate to do so as well. It is when we have a great view of Jesus and a small view of ourselves that we get things done. Remember, actions speak louder than words. May you and I follow in the sandals of Jesus and become foot washers. Our actions for others must not simply be acts of sacrifice and humility, but these actions of sacrifice must be prompted by a deep love for the ones we serve. This love must be a impartial love, which does not take in to account worthiness or deserving, or even whether the people we serve are likable. Such love is only possible in Jesus, as we do all things for love of Jesus, and because we want to proclaim Jesus through our lives.
When we have this love in our hearts we feel no task is too humble to do for another. Yet in our loving, our supreme aim will be the good of the soul of the one we serve, and seek by our loving and our actions to bring that person to Jesus. He is the ultimate lover of their souls. This love is what Jesus is teaching us here. It is a love which does not consider our own image in other peoples’ eyes, whether a despised image or even an exalting image. This love excludes self altogether, and is concerned only for the one being loved. Such love accepts any pain and sacrifice which this love may call us to accept.
Dr. H. A. Ironside pointed out how wise it is to be concerned about the temperature of the water when we wash one another’s feet. An angry person will be so distracted by what has happened that he or she will use boiling water, but people don’t want their feet washed in boiling water. Some come with a holier-than-thou attitude, and attempt to use freezing-cold water to wash another’s feet. No one will allow it under those conditions. Others attempt to wash people’s feet with no water at all. They tear into another, attempting to scrape away the dirt, and the skin along with it. What they say may be true, but it is offered up with no love at all. But our Lord insists that we wash one another’s feet in love.
While considering the example that Jesus gave us, I began looking for contemporary examples of foot washing. I didn’t need to look far. You can turn to each other here in our church and see individuals whose actions depict the lesson that Jesus portrayed. There are those who visit folks in the health care facility. Others help another with grocery shopping. Some spend time ministering to ladies in the recovery council. Many bring food for the food pantry. Our generosity is represented by giving to special offerings and helping those in need. In the unique setting of Bristol Village, there is a continual eagerness to walk along side others who are suffering loss or are lonely, by just being a friend.
At times it may seem difficult, not only to perform loving service, but even to know where we may be failing in performing it. However, because we own Jesus as our beloved Lord, we will seek to love like he loves, however much we fall short of the ideal. Today, will we pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal to us a single person he wants us to serve? Don’t think about a list of twenty, just one single person that the Lord will lay upon our hearts. We need to ask him for the grace to love this person unconditionally and to serve him or her with our whole being. This is a prayer that God will answer. Amen.