“I have set you an example,” Jesus says, “that you also should do as I have done to you.” Love one another, just as I have loved you. This commandment to love is the commandment that gives Maundy Thursday its name: “maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum,” which means “commandment.” Jesus commands his disciples to love, and he makes his own love known by pouring out his body and blood for them as bread and wine. On this night, he also shows his love for them by kneeling before each of them and gently washing their feet – setting the example for his followers to imitate.
A couple thousand years later, we are still doing our best to follow Christ’s example – still sharing in his body and blood at this table – and still gathering on the night in which he was betrayed to wash one another’s feet. And I think it’s fair to say we still struggle with it as much as Jesus’ first disciples did.
Be honest: did anybody come here tonight totally jazzed by the idea of doing some foot-washing? Heh, yeah, I didn’t think so. I imagine that you – like me – are pretty deeply uncomfortable with the whole idea of foot-washing. Out of curiosity, which is more off-putting: the prospect of washing someone else’s feet, or the prospect of having to take off your shoes and socks and let someone else wash your own feet? I strongly suspect that it’s the latter.
It’s an uncomfortable experience all around, but especially uncomfortable to be on the receiving end. And we’re in good company in our discomfort. I mean, just look how Simon Peter reacts in our gospel reading! He and Jesus and the other disciples are having a nice holiday meal together. Then Jesus gets up, strips off his robe, and grabs a towel – and as Peter realizes what Jesus is doing, his reaction shifts from confusion to flat out denial (foreshadowing?). Peter says: No way, absolutely not – you will never wash my feet.
I wonder why it is that this practice makes us so uncomfortable. I get that, for Peter, it was at least in part that Jesus was taking on a job that was way beneath his status as their Lord and teacher – and for us, some of the discomfort comes from the fact that it’s inconvenient to take off our shoes and socks for this. But beneath the discomfort and the inconvenience, it seems like there is something deeper, a visceral, emotional reaction to the idea of having our feet washed.
It is kind of a vulnerable position to be in – we wear shoes and socks to protect our feet; and church certainly isn’t a place we come expecting to run around barefoot. And there’s also a real intimacy to the act of washing someone else’s feet and letting them wash ours. If you’ve ever cared for a loved one who was sick or dying and helped them wash, you know what I mean. Footwashing here takes this deeply intimate, personal act and makes it public. It often feels embarrassing – perhaps embarassing to reveal feet which we may find ugly, our feet with all their calluses and scars and janky nails and random hairs and weirdly shaped toes – or perhaps embarrassing to reveal the effects of aging on our body and our mobility, fearful that we might even need help to get our socks and shoes off and on again.
Whatever the particular reasons may be for each person, what this discomfort all seems to boil down to is a fear of being truly known – a fear of revealing parts of ourselves that we don’t want other people to know about. We’re afraid that if someone were to really, truly, fully know us – to know all of us – it would change how they feel; we might lose their love or their respect. We all have parts of ourselves that we keep hidden; parts of ourselves we don’t expect anyone else to love, because we ourselves don’t love them.
In a way, taking off our shoes and socks to have our feet washed is essentially an outward sign of opening ourselves and being vulnerable with one another. It’s a physical sign of letting our whole selves be known and seen and cared for – the good, the bad, and the stinky – and allowing ourselves to fully know and see and care for one another.
This is exactly what Jesus is doing for his disciples in our gospel reading. And they are just as uncomfortable and embarrassed and afraid – if not more so. I mean, just imagine how Judas must have felt sitting there at that table. Every second that Jesus kneels before him washing his feet, Judas sits there knowing that he is about to betray him. And in case Judas had any hope that maybe Jesus didn’t know, Jesus tells him point blank: I know you are the one who will betray me. And when Peter swears that he will go wherever Jesus goes and lay down his life for him, Jesus tells him to his face: before this night is over, you will deny me not just once, but three times.
Jesus knows his disciples better than they know themselves. And he loves them. He loves them better than they love themselves. Jesus knows the secret fears and shames they are too afraid to say out loud. He sees the parts of themselves they keep hidden – he sees all of them. And he loves all of them.
This is the kind of love that we’re talking about when we talk about the love of God. God fully knows us, all of us – the calluses and the stinky socks and the athlete’s foot and the hammer toe, all of it – and God loves us as we are. God doesn’t love us because we have no flaws. God loves us not because we’re perfect – but because God’s love is perfect.
This is the kind of love that we are commanded to share, however imperfectly we are able. We continue to practice the act of footwashing as a sign of our obedience to that command. But we also practice it as a reminder to ourselves that we are fully known and fully loved – loved by one who loved his own unto the end – loved by one whose love will never end.