You'll Never Wash My Feet!
March 24, 2016
this sermon was preached by carol tolonen.
When I first offered to preach tonight, I knew I wanted to talk about foot washing but I had planned to talk about it from a very different perspective than I was eventually led to. I had planned to tell the story of my personal journey toward finding a calling and my realization that the most basic and central calling for all of us is not some great and admirable accomplishment but simply the everyday washing of one another’s feet. This is the most obvious message we see in the story of the foot washing in today’s Gospel.
A little background: This story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples appears only in the Gospel of John. It is part of what is referred to as The Farewell Discourses, stories told by John ofJesus preparing his disciples for his departure and giving them instructions in how he wanted them to carry on his message. In washing their feet, Jesus was modeling for his disciples how he wanted them to behave toward one another and toward all people. Foot washing was an especially symbolic gesture because in Jesus’s day it was a demonstration of status. Servants washed the feet of masters. Masters did not wash the feet of servants. So by washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus was taking the role of the servant and modeling breaking the rulesof socially accepted behavior, indeed challenging the boundaries that supported the status quo of power in the ancient world. This is the same boundary breaking that he had modeled in countless ways throughout his ministry: sitting down to eat with unsavory characters, healing without any regard to whether the person was “deserving” or not, telling parables such as the story of the Prodigal Son (that we heard last week) that turned both society’s rules and the common understanding of the nature of God on it’s head. God’s love, Jesus was trying to tell them, is not conditional upon good behavior, upon deserving it. It is unconditional. This was the Good News that Jesus came to tell and the message that he was commissioning the disciples to take into the world. I have loved you unconditionally. God loves you unconditionally. Love one another as I have loved you.
Because this story is told in the context of Jesus telling the disciples what he wants of them, we often focus on the proscriptive part of his message. This is what I expect of you, to love one another. We focus on this introduction of the Law of Love as a new commandment that asks us to go beyond the laws of Moses to a higher moral plane. But this is only half of the message, a half that is, in fact, impossible for us to carry out without the other half.
Let’s look at the story of the foot washing more closely. As Jesus went around washing the disciples’ feet, he wasn’t just modeling what he wanted them to do, he was offering to each of them the unconditional love that was his message. And in the process he was also giving them a lesson in the necessity of being able to accept this undeserved gift. For unless one is able to accept unconditional love, one is unable to give it. This vital link is often overlooked but is essential to Jesus’s message. Let me say it again: It is impossible to follow the commandment to love one another unconditionally unless one is also able to accept that one is loved unconditionally oneself. Unless we are able to accept that God loves us despite all our flaws and all our weaknesses, we are in no position to love others despite their flaws and weaknesses. This is the position that Peter found himself in in the foot washing story. When Jesus came to Peter, Peter asked
“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
But Peter balked.
“You will never wash my feet!” he declared.
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”
His meaning is clearer in Peterson’s contemporary version of the Bible called The Message:
“If I don’t wash you, you can’t be part of what I’m doing”
Jesus is not saying “I won’t allow you to be part of what I am doing but that you will be unable to be part of what I am doing. In other words, if you can’t put aside your shame and accept this gift of unconditional love despite your imperfections, you will be unable to pass it on.
There is much of Peter in all of us. It is this that Marilyn observed when she noted that many people cringed at the suggestion of allowing someone else to wash their feet. We are conditioned to avoid showing our imperfections, our vulnerabilities, she pointed out, because we equate vulnerability with weakness and we have been taught to be ashamed of weakness because if others see it they will think less of us or even take advantage of us. (We accept that we live in a Darwinian world of survival of the fittest.)
We are taught this lesson of shame as very young children to protect us from doing something that will get us hurt. Perhaps you even remember such a lesson. I do. I recall when I was about two years old and my mother was getting me ready for my bedtime bath. Not wanting to submit, I wriggled away from her and ran downstairs naked. Following me, my mother stood on the stairs and, rubbing one index finger along the other in the classic gesture of shaming she intoned “Shame, shame, shame!” (Fortunately, my father burst out laughing and my mother couldn’t help but smile too.) Parents do such things in good faith because they see it as their obligation to pass on the morays of society so that their children will fit in and not be rejected or hurt. But it is a high price we pay for this protectionbecause internalizing these values keeps us from believing there could be such a thing as unconditional love. We learn that we are loved only if we are good. We learn we are unworthy unless we live up to sometimes impossible standards. We are full of self criticism and it is this self criticism that is the greatest barrier to being able to be tolerant and loving toward others. If we are quick to judge ourselves, we will be quick to judge others. This is the other half of the lesson that Jesus was teaching his disciples while washing their feet. To be able to love one another unconditionally as he wants us to, we must first accept the unconditional love that God offers us. It is this love shining through us that then allows us to offer it to one another. And if we feel loved unconditionally by one another, we are further able to pass it on and thisis theupward spiral that Jesus envisioned to bring the Kingdom of God to earth.
So, let us not only go in peace to love and serve the Lord, let us also go in peace knowing without a doubt that we are loved by the Lord, with all our faults and ugly toes.