The washing of the feet.
Jesus said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples.”
Perhaps one of the mistakes which we often make today, is our inability to distinguish between types of love. Our language has only one word for love, whereas Greek has four. C. S. Lewis’s little book entitled “The four loves” is well worth reading, not least because of the distinctions which he makes between the different kinds of love. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line we seem to have lumped all love under the heading of what Lewis calls “Eros”.
So, when we talk about love in the Christian sense we need to move away from “Eros”, and start moving towards what Lewis calls “Agape” love. And this is the kind of love which Jesus was talking about and demonstrating at the Last Supper.
Now, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he was doing for them one of the most menial tasks of his time. Foot-washing was only ever done by someone who occupied the lowest position in society. But here was the Word made flesh laying aside his status and putting on our human nature in order to do the work of a slave.
Now, we need to be quite clear about something here. It isn’t just that Jesus came from God and washed his followers’ feet. The point is that he did it precisely because he came from God. This is the nature of divinity. The foot washing and the crucifixion to which it pointed, was the way in which Jesus showed just who God was and is. God is like this. It’s his nature. He doesn’t do it in order to win us over as it were; he does it because he can love us no other way.
And after he’d done this, Jesus said that he’d established a pattern which his disciples should follow. Now, in many churches on Maundy Thursday this little part of the Last Supper is re-enacted, but can you see the danger here for the person who plays the part of Jesus in the foot washing ceremony? Usually you see, it’s the priest; and in a sense, unless we are very careful there is the danger that this role becomes one more sign of leadership. And it really shouldn’t be like that at all. In a strange kind of way this ceremony carries the possibility of enhancing the authority and status of the professional clergy. And we need to get far beyond this.
In order for the ceremony to carry any validity for you it would have to be performed by someone who, in your experience, was prepared to carry out all of the menial tasks for which foot washing is just a symbol. Unless the priest has also shown that he’s prepared to get up in the middle of the night in order to sit with a dying and frightened man. Unless he has shown that despite his own wishes and concerns, he is prepared to jettison his own plans in order to be at someone else’s disposal. Unless, without complaint, he is prepared to get stuck into all those dirty menial little tasks that we always hope someone else will do; then he has no right to wash anyone’s feet.
Now, I know that sometimes I can put my hand up to all of these things, but I also know that there have been many occasions when I’ve failed. I know there are Christian people in every congregation who have a much greater right than me to represent Jesus in this little ceremony.
And yet, this in itself can be cause for rejoicing because it reminds me of just how much I need to go back time and again for Jesus to wash my feet in order that I might wash yours. And I rather imagine that it will be the same for most of you.
The clearest, simplest and yet hardest command of Jesus is “Love one another”. And before anyone says there’s nothing new in that and points to the central position of love in, for instance, many parts of the Old Testament ,let me remind you of the last part of this love command. Jesus said, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” In other words: “Love one another in the same way that I have loved you.”
And it’s when we look back at the whole life of Jesus that we see the pattern for our love. The danger of washing someone else’s feet is that as you think of yourself as a slave, so you unlock the possibility of producing a sort of inverted pride in your own humility.
Agape love is about as far removed from this as it’s possible to be, because it’s all about the other person. It overflows into service, not to show off, but because this is the natural thing for it to do.
This is to be our Christian badge, and if we are honest then we should cringe in shame before those in the watching world. Is there any wonder that sometimes they are able to say in caricature of us: “See how these Christians love each other!”
And yet we mustn’t be downcast. Yes, we need to go back time and again for Christ to wash our feet; but when we go to him with sorrow on our hearts he will, as the hymn says, welcome us, pardon us, and cleanse us.
In the strange purposes of God, love and betrayal, glory and denial go closely together. Christ wants to wash your feet. And he knows that they will get dirty again. The greatest sin of which you are capable is the pride within you which stops you from going to him. Remember this when, please God, normal worship is restored. Remember that as you hold out your hands, the broken body and poured out blood which you will receive are tokens of this. And yet also more than this, because they will give you the grace to love. They will give you Jesus himself.