FOOTWASHING - THE FORGOTTEN SACRAMENT? "Now that I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also should wash one  another's feet." (John 13:14) At   the   Last   Supper,   as   we   read   in   the   Synoptic   gospels,   Jesus   by   His   symbolic   act   of   breaking   the   bread and   sharing   the   wine,   instituted   the   practice   of   the   Eucharist,   which   He   commanded   His   Church   to continue   to   celebrate   in   remembrance   of   Him.   In   almost   all   Christian   churches   this   has   been   obediently done, with greater or less frequency, throughout history. Immediately   prior   to   His   Ascension,   Jesus   gave   another   command   :   "Go   and   make   disciples   of   all nations,   baptising   them..."   (Matthew   28:19).   This   command   to   baptise   has   likewise   been   obeyed   with relatively few exceptions by the Christian Church throughout history. In   John's   gospel,   however,   the   story   of   the   Last   Supper   is   differently   told.   Nothing   is   said   of   the Eucharist.   Instead   John   tells   us   in   vivid   detail   how   Jesus   symbolically   washed   His   disciples'   feet   and commanded   them   to   do   likewise.   And   the   New   Testament   church   apparently   did   (1   Timothy   5:10). However   with   few   notable   exceptions   such   as   some   of   the   black   gospel   churches   today,   some   house churches   and   some   historic   Maundy   Thursday   traditions,   this   command   has   very   largely   been   ignored by the Christian Church ever since. The   reason   is   hard   to   understand.   Jesus'   command   to   wash   each   other's   feet   is   every   bit   as   emphatic   as that   to   remember   Him   in   the   Eucharist;   more   so,   in   fact,   given   the   interchange   when   He   told   Peter "Unless   I   wash   you,   you   have   no   part   with   me".   It   is   difficult   to   see   how   the   importance   of   this   practice could   have   been   spelled   out   any   plainer.   Yet   today   the   vast   majority   of   us   continue   to   do   otherwise.   It   is sad. By   disobeying   Jesus'   command   we   impoverish   ourselves. There   is   so   much   power   in   the   loving,   delicate act   of   washing   the   feet   of   another.   Feet   are   sensitive.   Feet   are   often   tired.   Feet   are   dirty.   Feet   are   smelly. They   need   loving,   stroking,   massaging,   caring   for.   It   is   very   difficult   to   wash   the   feet   of   someone   with whom   we   are   at   odds.   Doing   so   gives   us   the   opportunity   to   come   back   into   line.   Few   Church   Councils,   I suspect, would not yield to this treatment! All   feet   are   equal. An   archbishop's   feet   are   as   important   as   those   of   a   tramp. There   is   too   the   dynamic   of humility.   In   the   kingdom   of   heaven   the   greatest   and   the   least   swap   places,   as   Jesus   took   pains   to reiterate   on   the   same   occasion.   The   greatest   is   the   one   who   first   dons   the   towel   -   whose   privilege   is   this going   to   be   ?   There   will   be   life   and   laughter   among   the   saints   as   they   seek   to   outdo   one   another   in   love. There   will   be   holiness   in   the   church   where   humility   comes   to   the   fore,   where   the   desire   to   serve   in   the most menial way reintroduces Christ into our relationships. It   is   humbling   to   allow   someone   else   to   wash   one's   feet.   Some   will   be   angry;   some   will   refuse   to   submit; some   will   walk   out. All   will   be   given   ample   opportunity   to   examine   afresh   the   terms   of   their   discipleship. For many, like Peter, there will be a rededication to the will of the Master. There   is   also,   as   I   have   personally   experienced,   a   healing   power   associated   with   this   act,   just   as   there   is with the Eucharist. We   are   offered   a   practical   way   of   reintroducing   life   and   commitment   to   serving   one   another   within   the church;   a   way   of   resolving   tensions,   of   restoring   fun   and   humour;   a   way   of   establishing   true   leadership from   humility   and   service;   of   making   the   Church   utterly   unique   and   distinct   from   every   other   body   on earth; a sacramental way of bringing down rich blessings upon the people of God. It   is   frequently   suggested   in   response   to   this   thesis   that   since   the   washing   of   feet   is   not   a   part   of   western culture,   Jesus'   command   is   adequately   met   by   other   acts   of   service   such   as   making   coffee   for   one's guests   or   doing   the   washing   up.   It   seems   to   me   that   none   of   the   suggested   alternatives   begins   to   match the original in terms of either the humility demanded or the personal intimacy involved. It   may   come   as   a   surprise   to   learn   that   in   Bible   times   footwashing   was   not   as   a   general   rule   done   by servants.   Instead   it   was   the   duty   of   the   host   to   provide   water,   with   which   the   guest   would   wash   his   own feet.   Examples   are   to   be   found   in   Genesis   18:4,   19:2,   24:32,   43:24,   and   Judges   19:21,   the   only   counter- example   known   to   me   being   1   Samuel   25:41.   In   Luke   7:44   Jesus   makes   plain   that   this   is   what   he himself   would   have   expected,   even   at   the   house   of   a   wealthy   Pharisee.   It   would   appear   that   this   task was for the most part considered either too lowly or too personal for even a servant to do. I   conclude   that   western   culture   knows   NO   equivalent   act   to   footwashing   in   these   two   respects,   in   which case our only way of obeying Our Lord's command is to do so literally. Further,   to   the   objector   who   rules   out   footwashing   on   the   ground   that   it   is   foreign   to   western   culture,   I want   to   reply,   "How   do   you   feel   about   the   Holy   Communion   ?"   Millions   of   Christians   all   the   world   over partake   each   Sunday   of   what   they   believe   to   be   (either   actually   or   symbolically,   depending   on   their   point of   view)   the   body   and   blood   of   Christ. This   act   of   simulated   cannibalism   has   no   ancestors   but   itself   in   our western culture. Yet Jesus said "Do this", and so we do it. The   Jewish   people   at   least   had   the   Passover   feast   to   provide   a   context   for   the   Lord's   Supper.   Gentile Christians   have   no   such   background   within   their   culture   and   yet   nevertheless   continue   obediently   to partake.   The   objection   to   footwashing   on   the   grounds   that   it   is   foreign   to   our   culture   would   if   valid   also rule    out    celebrating    the    Eucharist.    I    conclude    that    obedience    in    the    one    case    necessarily    implies obedience in the other.   "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news." (Isaiah 52:7) Martin Mosse, January 1991.
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