In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Feet! Most people find them pretty unattractive. I certainly do. I am grateful for the podiatrist I see every so often who checks on the condition of my feet – pulses, sensitivity, ingrown nails and other potential problems – and then cuts my nails and sands back the hard, dry skin. But there is no way I would want to do her job. On the other hand – should I say “foot” – the fact is that those of us who experience her care very much appreciate this service
In the time of Jesus, of course, people wore open sandals, or more often bare feet, as they travelled dusty roads in Mediterranean heat. By the end of a day’s journey, the feet would be pretty unpleasant. And the job of the lowliest servant in the house was to wash the feet of the master, his family and his guests. A humble and unrewarding job, we might well understand.
On Sunday, I spoke of “the ministry of donkey-fetching” – how much of what we are called to do in service of Jesus is very ordinary and mundane; how not all ministry is highly visible, rewarded and famous, just necessary and almost routine.
Today, the obvious title for the sermon is “the Ministry of Foot-Washing”.
In this evening’s Gospel, we see Jesus sharing a meal with his twelve disciples – probably the Passover meal.
And then we read that “during supper, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”
Jesus takes on the lowliest of jobs for those who are by definition lower in status than he. He is their rabbi, they his disciples; yet he takes on the role of the lowliest servant, washing their feet.
Peter, the regularly outspoken one in the group, objects, realising that this is all about-face: by rights, he should be washing Jesus’ feet. But Jesus insists, later saying to them all, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
It’s not about status, Jesus says. In the Kingdom, none is greater or lesser than another. All are called to serve equally, without discrimination. Do you notice that Jesus even washes the feet of Judas Iscariot, into whose heart, we read earlier in tonight’s Gospel, “The devil had already put it … to betray him.”
The love with which Jesus “loved his own who were in the world” incorporated even the traitor. In this situation, we would almost certainly call out the traitor, refusing to perform for him any service, however elevated or lowly.
Of course, as the story continues, we will read that all the disciples flee from Jesus at Gethsemane, and Peter denies three times even knowing him. The element of service, the ministry of foot-washing, is not dependent on past activity or potential future outcomes: it is to serve high and low in the here-and-now, without prejudice, without reluctance, without discrimination or favouritism.
You and I are people who have declared in our Baptism and Confirmation that we will “strive to live as a disciple of Christ, loving God with our whole heart, and our neighbour as ourself, until our life’s end?”
And living as a disciple of Christ is to “follow in his steps”, to do as he did and taught. We are called to the service of others – within and outside of the church – without prejudice, without reluctance, without discrimination or favouritism, as I’ve said.
For many centuries, Jesus’ action in washing his disciples’ feet has been “re-enacted” with the clergy washing the feet of lay people in what is an action more symbolic than physically necessary. As a parish priest for over thirty years, I suppose I have washed well over three hundred feet (or perhaps pairs of feet) in my time.
A bit of a problem with this is that it can still seem to elevate the priesthood in a way that is unhelpful. Surprising as it may be to you, I am not Jesus! J If anything, my washing your feet is to say that you are special, not I. It is an annual redressing of any sense of imbalance between “laity” and “clergy”.
At the same time, Jesus’ command to the disciples was to “wash one another’s feet”. So this evening, I’m going to start the washing, and ask you to “pass it on”. And somewhere in the line, I hope someone will wash mine.
By the way, if foot-washing is a problem for you, feel free to offer your hands to be washed. The symbolism of service is not limited to feet!
So, the call of Jesus to us is to the ministry of donkey-fetching and to the ministry of foot-washing.
And there’s more!
Part Three tomorrow.
The Lord be with you