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Love them anyway: Foot-washing during Holy Week

John 13's foot-washing scene leads Aaron Neff to remember people who have hurt and betrayed him. “Love them anyway,” Jesus says.

Photo by Shawn Pang on Unsplash

I’ve been the pastor of my current church for nearly two years. On Maundy Thursday this year, I will be leading a foot-washing for the first time ever, which will also be the first time ever that my congregation has participated in one. I’ve participated in foot-washings before, but I’ve never led one. As a result, I’ve been reflecting on the theological and liturgical significance of foot-washing as I prepare for Maundy Thursday.

It is commonly observed that Roman Catholics recognize seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, communion, penance, anointing of the sick, marriage, and holy orders) while most Protestants recognize only two sacraments (baptism and communion). Some Protestants do not recognize any sacraments and simply practice baptism and communion as “ordinances.” Presbyterians are among those Protestants that recognize baptism and communion as the only sacraments. Historically, Protestants have defined a sacrament as something that must have been commanded by Christ, uses an earthly material, and is a means of God’s grace. Baptism and the Eucharist each were commanded by Christ (Matthew 28:19 and Luke 22:14-23, respectively), each use earthly materials (water and bread plus wine, respectively), and each are a means of God’s grace (by communicating the saving death and resurrection of Jesus to us).

However, when we look at foot-washing, we see that it was commanded by Christ when he said to his disciples, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). (Now, this wasn’t said using the imperative mood – a class of verbs used for direct requests – but it seems fair to interpret this as a command.) Foot-washing also uses earthly material, namely water. Surely foot-washing is a means of God’s grace in that it communicates to us the importance of humble, selfless service to our salvation. So … why isn’t foot-washing a sacrament?

There are people who could argue against some of the reasons I gave for foot-washing meeting the sacramental criteria. Nevertheless, I think the reasons are close enough to elicit the question: why don’t we do foot-washing more often? In my experience, it is such an incredibly meaningful and personal experience. While my bare feet may not be covered with dirt and excrement from walking the streets in open-toed sandals like the disciples of Jesus, I still think my feet are gross and shudder at the thought of anyone getting near them! I feel vulnerable and exposed, yet met with acceptance and humility by the one washing my feet. (By the way, because of how inherently vulnerable it is to have foot-washing as part of public worship, I think it should always be communicated as a voluntary part of it.)

Of all the reasons I find foot-washing meaningful, one of the most significant reasons comes from the text of John 13, where it is obvious that Judas is among those whose feet are washed by Jesus. Jesus, knowing Judas was going to betray him, got down in front of Judas and rinsed the grim and filth off his feet anyway. Jesus, knowing Judas had already decided to turn Jesus over to the religious authorities, essentially said to him, “I will serve you anyway.” I wonder if Jesus looked at Judas and saw underneath his act of betrayal some unresolved trauma, an overwhelming sense of fear of the Romans or deep-seated grief that motivated his actions. Whatever he may have seen, Jesus helps me to see that even the Judases among us need to be loved.

This scene from John’s Gospel brings to me a deeper and more personal meaning for foot-washing. I think about the people whom I’ve known in the church – the ones I feel hurt and betrayed by – and hear Jesus telling me, “Love them anyway.” The church member who shouted profanity at me on the phone because I forgot something she said to me in passing during a very busy Sunday morning — love her anyway. The church elder who accused me of breaking my ordination vows because I believe the book of Jonah is a parable — love him anyway. The stranger who came to worship and then stole money from the church office — love him anyway.

I’m not sure I’ll ever get the chance to actually wash the feet of those people I just mentioned. But I do hope that the message communicated through our foot-washing service on Maundy Thursday is that, as the Gospel of John tells us, “Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end” (13:1). May we learn to love all the people of the church (even the ones who are hard to love) to the very end.