If you knew you were going to die in under a week, wouldn’t you prioritize and take care of the really important things? So what would they be for you?
John Robinson, Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge in my time of theological study and earlier Bishop of Woolwich whose little book ‘Honest to God’ caused such an uproar in the 1960’s comes to my mind when I think about that question of priorities. Robinson was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he said this made him look at what he called was his unfinished agenda. He said he had to face, not just to come to terms with, but embrace things about himself he had tended to hide away. He then, with only a few months to live, re-examined his priorities and decided to do only what really mattered. He went on holiday with his wife, finished off some scholarly work and above all really tried to live life: life with a capital L and not merely existence. This life is what the New Testament calls ‘Eternal Life and is begun, continued but not ended now. It is not ended with death but it has to begin and develop now.
In John’s Gospel Jesus is faced with setting priorities knowing that he is about to be betrayed. So what does he do? Unlike the synoptic gospel writers John does not explicitly give an account of the institution of the Last Supper. He concentrates on underlining what his new commandment to love one another means. He takes time to wash his disciples’ feet! I don’t know why but the thought of foot-washing, especially in a liturgical setting, is something I find difficult. It just makes me feel uncomfortable. Possibly I’m not the only one. But then, if we take Christ seriously, at times we can be made to feel uncomfortable by what he says and does.
Dr. Alyce M. McKenzie, in a reflection on the foot-washing tells of the experience in one church where 12 members of the PCC were asked if they would take part in the foot-washing on Maundy Thursday. Six didn’t want to but six agreed. The rest of the congregation got to watch while the minister washed the six best smelling pairs of feet in the entire town.
John’s alone of the gospels has the foot-washing. Why? Well, as John’s Jesus explains, it is to set an example for us of service to others.
Jesus takes on the role of the servant whose job is to wash the guests’ feet, underlining once again that his calling is to be the servant of all. We in return are “mandated” (that is the root meaning of Maundy, this evenings celebration) to do the same. It is he who has invited us to this meal and so it is actually Jesus who put his hands on our feet. Not all of us want that. One reason maybe is that we’re embarrassed about our feet. As I look at my feet I just wonder, “how did these odd things get on the end of my ankles?!”
In one sense, though, our feet are instruments of our will. They are how we put our decisions into action, get to places, do things. We have the choice to walk along side Jesus in the challenges we face in living the Christian life. We can literally take a stand with and for him. Here Martin Luther – “Here I stand, I can no other” and also the numerous Christians persecuted for their faith taking their stand. Yet, how often do we hesitate, shifting uncertain and uncommitted from foot to foot. Sometimes we even walk away from him. But one thing is certain. Jesus will never walk away from us.
‘I wish to me some Pumas like dem’ was the phrase the athlete Ursain Bolt used in a TV advert to endorse Puma running shoes. I am sure he was richly rewarded for saying that in addition to getting the desired foot-ware. But I could not imagine him wearing shoes that would not allow him to perform at his best. He needs his feet to be in the very best condition along with the rest of his physique to be the fastest man in the world.
To allow Jesus to wash our feet is to allow him to remove all that prevents us from using our feet and to be in the best condition to follow him.
With feet properly refreshed and shod we may not be able to keep up with Ursain Bolt but we are able to do what feet do in scripture, in both the Old and the New Testaments; To follow God. Be bearers of good news. To stand for truth, righteousness and justice.
Jesus performed the foot-washing at the time of Passover, the feast to celebrate the release of God’s people from bondage in Egypt :
“This is how you shall eat the Passover lamb: with your loins girded, your staff in your hand, and your sandals on your feet” (Exodus 12:11) Be ready to use your feet to walk to freedom!
The psalmist also reminds us:
“Thy Word is a Lamp unto my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)
St Paul also says you should have:
‘your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.’ (Ephesians 6.15)
And Jesus himself says:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
We’re going to need our feet to follow that way.
Tonight is our chance to allow Jesus to cleanse our feet so we can follow him from this place.
As the events of this Holy Week unfold not everybody wants Jesus’ hands on their feet. Peter didn’t. Pilate didn’t. Caiaphas didn’t. Pilate chose to use his feet to pace about his palace, back and forth searching for some salve for his sore conscience. Peter chose to use his feet to stand by a fire warming himself while denying his Lord before running away.
Just before this foot-washing scene, Jesus says to his disciples, “Whoever looks at me sees the one who sent me.” (John 12.45)
The symbolic, liturgical foot-washing that the Pope performed today, that Fr David along with thousands of other priests world-wide performs tonight is a reminder that it is the Son of God who takes off his outer robe, ties a towel around himself, and kneels before us, requesting the honour of washing our feet in the hopes that, this year, he will not have to walk the hard, uphill road that lies before him all by himself. May we go with him.
So… on your marks, get set, go!
Best foot forward!