In some congregations, this service will be marked by foot washing. It won't be in ours. Here's why.
I love the people of our congregation. They have welcomed our family warmly, constructively criticized to help us minister with them more effectively, provided a wonderful parsonage and financial compensation commensurate with our years of experience in ministry and the gifts we bring. We have made some friends here, people with whom we've connected even more deeply than the bonds usually established between pastor and congregation. This is a good place for us and we are humbly appreciative for the opportunity to gather in worship with such an exciting, diverse group of disciples of Jesus Christ. But with all that having been said, there's a gigantic difference between what Jesus did for his disciples and what we do as members of a congregation, and that difference is what makes me think foot-washing just isn't right for us here.
|"Divine Servant" by Max Greiner|
Contrast this to the congregation that will gather tonight in our churches. As much as I love my congregation, they aren't my family and friends. My family is my family. My friends are my friends. As a pastor, I can and will be accompanying the members of our congregation in their darkest hours, as much as I'm allowed. But I'm the pastor in those moments. I'm not family - claiming to be family because I'm the pastor would be presumptuous in the extreme. The pastor is the one who carries the promises of God into those dark valleys, to remind those who mourn that they do not do so alone. But I'm not Jesus. The promises are not my own. I'm not "God with us" - I point to the One who is.
I have washed the feet of my beloved wife. We did so privately the night we were married, as a sign to each other of our promise to love and serve one another for the rest of our lives. In the same vein, I have washed every inch of my little girls, more than once, and should I live long enough, there's a good chance they might return the favor someday. I know, ewwwwwwwww, right? But this is the sort of humble service Jesus engaged when he washed the feet of his friends. As I read it, that was a family moment. I've washed the feet of kids after a week of mission trip service, and that felt right, too - we'd been intimately close in service away from home, establishing stronger bonds than our "normal" lives would allow. But those are the only times I've done it where it felt right. I've done Maundy Thursday services with footwashing in other places in the past, but it just didn't feel right. Here's why.
As a pastor, I'm especially leery of taking that sort of intimacy into the congregation. For one, it puts the pastor on par with Jesus in the congregation, something that makes me extremely nervous. For another, the symbolism just doesn't feel genuine in that moment. As a sinful human being, I'm simply unable to love like Jesus loved. Washing the feet of someone I don't particularly like feels like the worst sort of insincere religious ritual to me - I'd rather forego it than do it in such a way that makes of it an empty observance. We've got enough of that in the church already - why add more?
I don't think Jesus meant that sort of intimacy for everyone in that moment. I DO think Jesus meant for his disciples to show that sort of love to their own family and friends. I DO think all of us should have those people in our lives for whom we would gladly bend, caress, scrub and dry their feet. If it works in your context, great. Knock yourselves out, and I hope it's as meaningful as you intend it to be. But I'm very, very nervous about promising something to my people that isn't really there. Love, when it is genuine, knows the difference between empty ritual and humble service.
So, tonight we'll gather in worship. We will confess our sins. I will invite our folks to come forward for individual absolution. I will place my hands on their heads, mark the sign of the cross with oil, and say to them, "In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." It will point to Jesus, and I believe it will point to his love for them in ways foot washing just doesn't. I hope they will go home and love their friends and family better in the light of what they hear in our church. If they want pointers on how to do a footwashing ceremony with their own family, my Beloved and I will gladly provide instruction. Through it all, we will love as genuinely as we know how, and our hands will stay dry. I think Jesus will be okay with that, and he'll be okay with those who express their love with wet hands and puddles on the floor. The commandment isn't to wash, or not to wash. The commandment is to love. So long as we're following that love, it's all gonna be okay.