Feetwashing in the Church of the Brethren

For Brethren, the traditional love feast, held once or twice a year, remains the profound central act and symbol of the church's life. It is as close as ‘low-church’ Brethren get to a high holy time. Based on a literal reading of the New Testament, Brethren have shaped an agape meal or love feast. When Brethren gather for this special meal during Holy Week they are able to see themselves as part of the events of Jesus’ final week with the disciples. Whenever the community gathers around the love feast tables they are reminded of the relationship of all disciples to one another and to the Christ they serve.

The love feast begins with a period of examination. Brethren cite Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:23-24, calling for reconciliation before offering gifts to God, and Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 about the dangers of participating in the love feast in a thoughtless fashion. At one time deacons visited each member’s home to challenge members to examine whether they remained firm in their covenants with God and brothers and sisters. Today some opportunity for self-examination and prayer remains a vital part of the love feast.

Following this time of examination, participants ponder the powerful meanings in Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, recorded in John 13. These meanings include God’s cleansing and forgiveness, as well as our need to give and receive service. Jesus’ command to wash one another’s feet is a clear reminder that if we do not live in the spirit of feetwashing, we have no part in him. The exchange of an embrace and kiss that usually follows feetwashing expresses the Christ love that binds members of the community to one another, recalling the insistence in I John 4:721 that the love we share with one another validates our knowledge of a God of love.

The love feast meal recalls the meal Jesus shared with his disciples. The unique character of the relationship envisioned for those who are members together in Christ’s body is described in John 14-17, and some segment of that text is often used to frame this portion of the service. Christ is the centre, the source of the unity. The sharing of food symbolizes the sharing of life and looks toward the messianic banquet of the future. Some congregations choose to eat in silent reflection. Others believe the bonds that bind them to one another are more adequately rehearsed as they talk with one another around the tables, much as they do on other occasions when they eat together as a church family.

Finally, the Brethren share the bread and cup, remembering Christ’s supreme gift of life and renewing their commitment to embody Christ and to follow his path of sacrificial love for the world.

After a closing hymn, it is a pattern in many congregations for everyone to join in the necessary chores. Hymnals are returned to the sanctuary, chairs and tables are folded and put away, dishes washed and dried. The sharing of these simple tasks also expresses the covenant that binds members to one another. They become another part of the feast of love.

General Considerations

Although some are concerned to maintain total conformity to a traditional pattern for the love feast, others find that creativity in the framing and interpretation of the various elements intensifies its meaning and power for participants. Some ministers involve committees of lay people in the planning. Themes are chosen, worship centres created, drama and music used. Leadership is shared throughout. As innovations are introduced it is important to consider carefully the biblical foundations from which the service has been drawn and the values that have been central to our Brethren heritage. Planning should be done with respect for the traditions and with attention to the congregational setting. For example, the concept of servanthood may require sensitive handling. Some women and certain racial-ethnic groups bring past experiences that radically affect the way this biblical teaching is experienced. The intent is to enable this particular congregation to reaffirm and renew faith in a way that connects people more meaningfully with Jesus Christ and the community of believers.

Although sanctuaries have many advantages as a setting for worship, few sanctuaries are equipped to accommodate all the facets of the love feast. Congregations will want to consider how best to use their facilities to provide a worshipful atmosphere and preserve the unity of the whole experience.

Consider whether there will be people present whose physical limitations affect their ability to participate fully. Remember the visually impaired in your plan for lighting and the size of print to be used in the bulletin. Try to plan for voice amplification if there are those who have difficulty hearing and provide one skilled in signing if there will be deaf people present. Be sensitive to any adjustments that will avoid embarrassment or awkwardness for those not easily able to kneel to wash feet.

Preparation or Examination

A time of preparation normally begins the love feast service. As an alternative, a congregation may provide direction for individual self-examination and penitence, or design a corporate worship experience in a setting prior to the love feast.

Feetwashing

Basins of warm water, along with a towel that can be fastened around the waist and used for drying, should be conveniently placed in preparation for the feetwashing. In addition, there is need for water and towels for washing hands afterward.

At the proper time, designated people wrap towels around their waists and begin to wash the feet of another person. As soon as the washing and drying are complete, the two people who have shared the feetwashing exchange an embrace and/or ‘holy kiss’ or kiss of love (Rom 16:16; 1 Pet 5:14). This is often accompanied by simple words of blessing such as ‘God bless you’. The towel is moved from the one who has served to the one who has been served. Then the one whose feet have been washed proceeds in like manner to wash the feet of the next person and so on until all have participated.

Traditionally, men and women are seated at separate tables. Some congregations are adopting alternative models to allow men and women or families to be seated together. Whatever the seating arrangement, an atmosphere of devotion and reverence will be fostered by a room lighted by candles and the use of either instrumental music or congregational singing. Although some choose to move to separate rooms for feetwashing, this has a tendency to disrupt the flow of the service and break the sense of community.

The Symbol of Service

Scripture John 13:1-17

Remarks Concerning the Feetwashing (minister)

Some will say that to wash another’s feet is an outdated act, that the symbol is no longer common in our time. That is true, but we are not seeking to learn a common lesson, rather a deep one. This symbol takes us radically from our own world back to the time of a most important teaching. Only as we relive those moments can that message become contemporary and live with us now.

We must note that the servanthood assumed by Jesus in this drastic act is related to the dedication of his coming. It is eternally bound to the cause for which he came and died. As the bread and cup are symbols of the sacrifice and giving of his life, so the kneeling to wash one another’s feet is the symbol of the purpose and the living of his life.

By demonstrating the servanthood of his life, Christ called all disciples to be servants. He called them from disputes about position to a life position that left no doubt about the intent to serve. We do violence to the heart of this act if we suppose that by stooping to wash another’s feet we rise in status in the kingdom. We do not kneel to demonstrate humility, but to remember the service of the life of Christ, and to let that memory till us with inspiration and determination. Preparations have been made for us to relive those moments.

Here the minister will give whatever simple instructions are necessary for all to participate comfortably.

Let us with eager, searching hearts do this in remembrance of Jesus, the Christ, that the meaning and message of his act may work its miracle in our lives.

During the service of feetwashing, the participants may sing favourite hymns or appropriate music may be played.

Washing Feet: Remembering Jesus Our Servant

Youth

(Sister/Brother), why do we wash each other’s feet before this meal? Before other meals we wash only our hands, and maybe our faces. Besides, I already had to wash before I came. Aren’t we clean enough? And why all the hugging and kissing afterward?

Pastor

Our brother Peter asked questions too when Jesus bent down to wash his feet. You are right in assuming that washing feet has something to do with getting clean. Yet the main reason we wash each other’s feet is that Jesus commanded us to do this. Let us listen to the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. It may help us understand.

Reader

John 13:1-17

Pastor

There is a cleansing element in feetwashing that in some ways is related to the cleansing we receive at baptism. In feetwashing we are symbolically washed of our sin without having to be repeatedly baptized. Most of us washed before we came tonight. Yet I need you to wash my feet. I need you to help me in my Christian walk. We need each other.

I also need to wash your feet. Jesus, through his example and commandment, teaches us to serve one another as humble servants. In Jesus’ day, washing feet was an act of hospitality performed by a servant. After a long journey travelling on dusty roads in sandaled feet, washing feet was a welcome act of kindness. It was unheard of for a rabbi of Jesus’ stature to bend down and wash his disciples’ feet. Through this act, Jesus taught that we are all brothers and sisters in his community and that leaders are servants of all. And as Christians we need not only to serve each other but also to wash the feet of the poor and homeless of the world.

Why do we kiss and hug? To show our affection for each other as sisters and brothers in Christ. We often call this the holy kiss. In several of his letters, Paul tells us to kiss one another in greeting.

Let us now participate in the ordinance of feetwashing. As we begin, let us sing ‘When We Walk with the Lord.’ Then we will choose other hymns to sing while we wash feet.

Pastor

We remember how Pilate took water and tried his best to accomplish what none of us can do for ourselves. As we take basins and water tonight, we remember that in a startling action long ago Jesus knelt and demonstrated for the disciples in that time and for later times a new way to become clean.

We cannot cleanse ourselves. However, as we kneel to wash one another’s feet, we extend God’s cleansing grace to one another. In our giving and receiving, God’s cleansing love is made manifest.

The Washing of Feet

Pastor

Pilate tried to wash his hands of the responsibility for the life of another human being. We do not have the legal power Pilate did to impose a death sentence. Yet each one of us is bonded with many others in a complex web of relationships that begins at home and extends around the globe. Our actions contribute either to life or to death for others with whom we are inextricably linked. Quite honestly, there are times we would like to simply wash our hands of any responsibility for, or any connection with, the enormous complexities of pain, injustice, and need in the world. Sometimes the same is true even in the church.

As we have washed one another’s feet and expressed our affection with an embracing warmth, we have symbolized our intention to live by a different standard: to care about and for other people, to value their salvation as well as our own.

This connectedness, this love we proclaim, is an inseparable part of what it means to know and love God.

Meditation for Feetwashing

Feet!
Just plain, ordinary,
Tired feet.
Jesus cared
About feet.
He didn’t ignore the head,
the heart and the soul
– spectacular things like that.
But I’m especially glad
That he cared about feet.
How many Messiahs ever did that?
You can wax eloquent
And be beautifully abstract
About people’s heads and hearts and souls.
But it is hard to be
removed from human need
When you’re kneeling down on the floor
Washing another’s feet.
Dusty roads are scarce
And very few sandals are worn now.
But feet trapped in leather
Are just as tired
And just as ignored.
There still aren’t many
Messiahs around
Who care about feet.

Prayer for Feetwashing

Eternal Creator and Loving God,
In the act of kneeling to wash one another’s feet,
may we kneel also in our hearts
so that our lives may bow in service
to your will and not our own.
In allowing our feet to be washed,
may our lives be cleansed with your forgiveness
so that we may go forth
freed from the bonds of guilt and despair
to live in freedom and hope.

O Lord,
In our washing of feet,
cleanse our relationships with one another as well.

May we, in washing one another’s feet,
forgive and accept forgiveness from one another
for any hurts or wrongs or misunderstandings
that have passed between us,
so that we may rise to sit together at your table
in a renewed and strengthened fellowship in your love. Amen.

Text (adapted slightly) from For All Who Minister: A Worship Manual for the Church of the Brethren (Elgin, Ill: Brethren Press, 1993), pp183-184, 187, 191-192, 204-205, 214-215, 225-226.