Footwashing and Church Renewal

by Tom Goodhue

The Gospel According to John records that during the last meal which Jesus shared with His disciples, He did something which greatly shocked them: He washed their feet. The idea of a master washing the feet of his disciples was without precedent in His culture – it was a job performed only by a child, a wife, or a slave. This was such a powerful display of the new, radical nature of Christ’s loving service that it had to be preserved in the ritual of the church.

But traditions have a way of growing stale unless they are periodically renewed and reapplied to contemporary use. As a Methodist minister who has only recently begun to use footwashing in worship, I find it sad that in many the churches which endorse the ancient practice of footwashing, interest in it is declining. What value is there in this practice? Why does it need to be revived?

In the ancient Middle East, to bring a visitor a bowl of water for his feet was an act of hospitality, a response to a specific need. Maybe if we walked in sandals on dusty roads on a hot summer day we could understand better how it could feel to have one’s feet washed. Luke 7:36-48 shows that Jesus valued this hospitality and the kiss of brotherhood and that He did not find physical contact distasteful or embarrassing, not even when it came from a ‘woman of the streets.’

In the same way, Jesus did not shirk from touching the most dirty part of the body Himself during the Last Supper. (Bernini’s panel on Peter’s chair in St. Peter’s Basilica even shows Jesus affectionately kissing a foot after washing it, and Roman Catholic prelates do this in the Catholic celebration of Maundy Thursday.)

The World Needs Affection. What does this have to do with twentieth-century America? While most of us have been conditioned in our society to be a bit embarrassed by any show of affection, we are also discovering how much more warmth, love, and affection our world needs. Footwashing can be both a symbol and an act of warmth, love, and affection, helping us to deepen our ability to express affection. If the youth in many churches refuse to participate in footwashing, it may be due not only to their embarrassment, but also to the mechanical way in which they see many people performing the ritual, or because adults refuse them the holy kiss because of their dress. I have seen the youth in several mainline Protestant churches respond enthusiastically to footwashing and the exchange of .the kiss when the congregation expressed genuine warmth through these acts.

And footwashing can be a moving occasion for growth and reconciliation. A Mennonite student from the Lancaster Conference told me the story of what happened once in his church on a communion day. The pastor asked two men who had been quarrelling bitterly to wash together. The bitterness between them was broken, and they were reconciled. Somehow, we must restore this warmth, love, and reconciliation to the tradition.

The washing can also be a powerful symbol of how our lives are transformed through faith and growth. The use of the washing basin by physicians in the ancient Mediterranean world for washing, massaging feet, and applying oils might have suggested to early Christians that footwashing was connected with the restoration of wholeness to the sick, broken body. After going through the powerful experience of baptism – dying to the past, and re-emerging to new life – any action in the early church which involved water would also have been associated with baptism, that is to say, with the complete transformation of a person’s life.

In fact, through the Middle Ages, footwashing was a part of baptism in the churches of France, Milan, and Ireland. Apparently it was used in baptism earlier in Spain, North Africa, and other areas. The ancient Egyptian church’s mass for Maundy Thursday connects footwashing not only with baptism but also with the liberation of Israel from oppression (cr6ssing the Red Sea) and entering a new land (crossing the Jordan).

Footwashing, then, can serve as a dynamic symbol of the renewal of the church and each of us, signifying growth and change, liberation and new life. Like communion, it reminds us we need continual growth and periodic renewal.

The footwashing in John 13 also tells us something about the politics of Jesus and how we are to respond to His politics.

In the time of Jesus, Passover was the season in which Jewish hopes were focused on the coming of the Messiah and the kingdom of God. His disciples are pictured throughout the Gospels as wrestling with Jesus’ refusal to be a military Messiah; they continued to expect that the kingdom would be brought in through military victory and conquest. When Jesus, during Passover, washed the feet of His disciples, He dramatically rejected the role of conqueror. The new kingdom comes not by conquest but by the reordering of our lives and our society. Authority in the kingdom of God, He demonstrated, comes not from dominating others but, as theologian Peggy Way put it, from those to whom we minister.

How to Achieve Greatness. The footwashing also fits together with Jesus’ teaching about how to achieve greatness (Mk. 9:33-37; Mt. 18: 1-5; Lk. 9:46-48; Mk. 10: 41-45; Mt. 20:24-28; Lk. 22:24-27; Mt. 23:8-11). In John 13:14-17 Jesus tells a group of men to wash feet as He has, to take on the role of a servant, child, or wife. Likewise, all the teachings about how greatness comes through serving (which was also seen as the work of slaves, children, and women) are addressed to all-male audiences. It seems as if men in particular need to hear this message, since it is men who worry the most about proving how great they are. (For women He had a different message. In Luke 10:35-42 He tells Mary of Bethany that she had ‘chosen the better part’ in seeking learning, which Palestinian society thought women had no right to.) Our society is just now beginning to realize how much anxiety we give men by making them prove their greatness in all sorts of distorted ways and how it is unjust to think of subservient roles as being only ‘women’s work’ or work for servants. To teach His male disciples that they would find greatness through serving Jesus Himself took on the role of serving (Jn. 13:1-17; Lk. 12:35-38; 22:27).

From time to time various parts of the church have taken seriously another lesson from John 13: Jesus identified with the poor and taught His disciples that to do this makes possible a new relationship between them. Beginning at least as early as the fifth century, monks in many monasteries regularly washed each other’s feet and the feet of travelling strangers, especially the poor, binding the monks and the poor together in Christian community. Menno Simons likewise made several references to the importance of welcoming ‘those on the road’ with the hospitality of footwashing.

It is striking to me that the churches in America whose members (over a million in all) regularly wash feet are mostly either churches where almost all members are poor or else the descendants of those Anabaptists who refused to follow Martin Luther because of his hostility to the lower classes in the Peasant Wars of 1525. When we wash feet, we participate in Christ’s identification with the poor and the powerless who were commanded to do this work, the women, the children, the servants.

All Are Accepted. It is probably no accident that in many parts of the church, the practice of footwashing is connected with communion and the shared meal. The communion and the agape or love feast have embodied love and affection between Christians and our need for periodic renewal. Moreover, the early church remembered and celebrated in the communion and the agape the table-fellowship which was instituted by Christ in which all were accepted – men and women, rich and poor, Pharisees and tax collectors, the afflicted and the well, prostitutes and the pious.

This, of course, was not the way things were before He came, Indeed, His table-fellowship caused scandal, as it might upset people today. The mealtimes became something which the early church was built around – the first Christians remembered how when they ate with Jesus they were bound together in a new, community of love.

Jesus shattered the distinctions between master and servant, adult and child, man and woman, by the simple act of washing feet. The washing of feet can be one of the most powerful, most intimate expressions of how we are bound together in a community of faith which breaks through social barriers, identifies the powerful with the powerless, deepens our ability to love, and transforms our lives.

(Reprinted from Gospel Herald, May 7, 1974, pp377-379)