by Steve Byrnes
In the pageant of Easter Week, Maundy Thursday speaks about the last time Jesus ate with his Disciples and how He washed their feet in preparation for participating in the Passover meal (John 13).
I used to go to a church where there was actual foot washing. Although I don’t think there is a requirement for this sort of practice, I learned some things I would never have truly understood through another method:
How hard it is to wash another’s feet.
How hard it is to have someone wash yours.
How it is generally embarrassing for both parties.
It’s really tough when you have someone you look up to, like your pastor, working on your feet. And when you are serving some venerable person and their feet stink or they have a fungus infection… Eeesh!
I’m really glad we don’t do that at my church now. But I’m kind of glad that I went to a church for years where foot washing on Maundy Thursday was the norm. Someone reading might think that this is a contrived and stylized practice, like going from dueling, a marshal game of blood, which developed into fencing, a game of points.
I would agree, but even the domesticated version of foot washing carries with it some of the pangs of the original. We generally wash our own feet (thank you very much!). In Jesus day, it was hospitable (not necessarily customary) when someone came in off the dirt road to have servants who would wash the guests’ feet. It would have been totally over the top and downright improper for the host to dress as a servant and do this dirty, degrading work.
Jesus totally screwed with the Apostles’ perceptions of what was right, so much so that you get an outburst from Peter (which, admittedly, doesn’t take much) to the effect that he is aghast at the prospect and will NEVER allow it.
We should connect with this emotion that Peter had of his Lord washing his feet. We should be shocked at the audacity of it.
Of course there are two levels of conversation going on in John as is just about always the case. All the people in John, the whole cast of characters, is looking down at what their eyes can see and Jesus wants them to hear his voice and look up to heavenly realities.
Peter doesn’t want his feet washed.
Jesus tells him that if he doesn’t participate, he doesn’t have a chance.
Peter’s response is, ‘give me a bath then!’
And here, Jesus has a strange and gentle answer for Peter and for us. He says in John 13:10, ‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.’
So, Peter has already been washed ‘by the word spoken to him (John 15:3), but he still needs his feet washed. I just don’t think we’re talking about road dirt here anymore.
All I know is that this reminds me of the relationship between our baptism, where God’s word was spoken over us connected to the water, making us clean, and confession and absolution, where our Lord comes to us and washes the road grime off of our feet.
I don’t know how tight I can make that analogy, maybe someone could help me with that, but Maundy Thursday and the idea of Jesus washing the apostles feet before they have communion together will be forever connected in my mind with the condescension and humility of what is happening to me in Confession and Absolution, where Jesus girds himself like a servant and washes my smelly feet.
Steve Byrnes is a member of First Lutheran Church in Lake Elsinore, California. He is a graduate of Christ College Irvine (now contained within Concordia University Irvine), majoring in English Literature, and Westminster Seminary in Escondido, where he took a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies.By Ted R