Over the years of ordained ministry, I have heard some words about foot washing. Some of the words contained the idea that only certain Christian denominations did that sort of thing. Some of the words included the thought that it was icky because a person had to touch another person’s feet. Yet even after hearing these words, I don’t know of any ban in the United Methodist Church of having a foot washing service.
Then I have noticed the trend in the UMC and other churches that have foot washing services of adapting how we show love to one another. At least in this type of worship setting this love showing has been done through hand washing or shoulder massages. The idea that since we have shoes with laces in our post-modern world, we can symbolically serve one another by washing someone’s hands or give a massage of the other person’s shoulders.
Part of the reasoning that I notice for either the hand washing or shoulder massaging is the notion of intimacy. That is when a man washes a woman’s feet, and vice versa, there can be some sort of emotional or romantic arousal. It would be reasonable to presume that either gender could control their state of arousal during a worship service! This is where the alternatives of hand washing or shoulder massages aid in the displaying of love between people in a church. As a man participates in the hand washing or shoulder massaging, that man would do this service for another man. And likewise for the women, a woman would show love to another woman by washing the other woman’s hand or giving the other woman a shoulder massage. This alternative could also be used for the original idea of foot washing. That is the men would wash the other men’s feet and the women would wash the other women’s feet.
Ah, this sounds complicated!
Does the idea of washing another person’s feet still have power today? Does this simple act of caring for another person by washing their feet have to be so complicated? Maybe we do the alternatives to foot washing so that we do not weaken the faith of those who already have weak faith? That is a consideration that the apostle Paul brought up in one of his letters. Though Paul was not necessarily thinking about foot washing!
What is it about foot washing that can be such a hindrance to our post-modern world and the churches that are in this world? From the people who responded to a recent question I posed on social media, foot washing is a humbling experience. To place another human being before ourselves is humbling. Kneeling before another human being is humbling. But maybe that was Jesus’ point as the writer of John’s Gospel records Jesus washing the disciples feet.
As translated by the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version), Jesus says in John 13:14-15 two verbs that place an emphasis on foot washing that requires a response. In verse 14 the wording is, “you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” It is not an idea of a suggestion that doesn’t have to be followed. It is more along the lines of how we live. When we don’t wash one another’s feet, then we are lacking an important aspect of faith in Jesus Christ. Then to add more emphasis, Jesus adds in verse 15 these words: “For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.” Since we know that foot washing is a requirement, from verse 14, we respond by serving other Christians through washing their feet. With our lack of self-control in this post-modern world this washing of feet might be best performed by those of the same gender. But nonetheless, foot washing still has power today.
In continuing to read John 13, we find Jesus saying in verses 34 and 35: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” As this was spoken after Jesus washed the disciples feet, which means that even Judas Iscariot had his feet washed by Jesus, we see that there is a connection between loving one another and foot washing.
I told my wife that I was going to say we are going to have love-making at the church. She told me not to say it in that fashion. Her consideration is the connotation of the phrase “love making.” In this overly-sexualized world, I can understand my wife’s thought process on this terminology! For when “love-making” is emphasized we miss the meaning of loving one another and serving one another as Christians. Yet, there is even part of the love that a man and a woman share, as they are married, that also contains the idea of serving one another, even and especially outside of the bedroom. Maybe there can be some humbleness in a marriage that enhances the length, breadth, and deepness of a marriage.
At first I thought I was digressing from Christians and the service of foot washing. But as I ponder this idea, being humble, as a choice of the individual that is not forced by another person, foot washing is a great way to display how we love one another as followers of Jesus Christ. Knowing that Christians desire to spend eternity with God in His Kingdom, experiencing love between and among Christians is vital to our life of following Jesus Christ.
With the length of our relationship being eternity, starting now to love one another sounds like a great idea! Realizing that the number of Christians we can love during this earthly life can be a large number, serving each other just makes sense. Then there is the deepness to our faith that comes through living the love we have for Christ and other Christians. Yes, I believe this simple act of serving one another is a way for us to grow in our love for God and one another. Foot washing is an idea that doesn’t lose it’s power.