28 March 2013

Why I Don't Wash Feet In Church On Maundy Thursday

It's Maundy Thursday today.  The word "Maundy" is a bastardized version of the Latin mandatum, meaning "commandment."  Liturgically, we remember this day as the day Jesus gave his last meal and commandments to his disciples before his betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection.  We will gather in worship tonight to remember Jesus' last words to his disciples:  "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." (John 13:34)

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
When Jesus gathered with his disciples that long-ago night in Jerusalem for the Passover, he was gathering his family together.  These were men and women (we can be fairly certain there were women present, even if the gospel accounts don't mention them) who had walked, sweated, toiled, fought, talked, rejoiced, wept and lived with Jesus for three years.  They were his family, his closest friends, the people who knew him as well as anyone could have known him back then.  These friends and companions had come to see Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the Christ - Emmanuel, "God with us."  They were prepared to worship Jesus.  But Jesus turned the tables on his friends as well as his detractors during that last week in Jerusalem.  He did not overwhelm his disciples with power and authority - he filled their lives with humble, serving love.  He gave all he had to his family and friends, loving them "to the end" as John's gospel tells it.  

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.


  1. Scott you make some great points in your post and I agree with many of them. However I felt compeled to share one of the reasons we did do foot washing at Salem last evening. In my experience many of those who are uncomfortable with the entire foot washing part of the service are not coming at it from the same point of view that we as pastors often do. At Salem I only wash my wifes feet and each person is invited to come to one of several stations with bowls and disposable towels to wash the feet of a friend or family member. Thus allowing for that opportunity for the intamacey that you discussed so elequently. No one is asked to allow me to wash their feet or to wash the feet of anyone they have not agreed to do so with ahead of time. We announce for at least a couple of weeks that the opportunity will be given on Maundy Thursday and that people who would like to participate should seek out a family member or friend to share the experience with. But back to the point about why I feel this is an important opportunity. Yes the service part is important to realize we follow the example Christ set for us but to me the equally important opportunity is to allow someone to serve you in an intimate way. It seems it is much easier for many of us to serve than to be served and so it is a chance to truly humble ourselves in front of another and hopefully feel what it is like to be in the position of receiving the gift of service from others. An important thing for all of us called to serve to have an opportunity to do so that we are reminded of how difficult it is for so many of us who are proud and desire to always be in control to give over that control for another. I love your perspective as a pastor and invite you to also spend some time with what I have shared and see what that might speak to you. I certainly will continue to reflect upon your post and discern where God is calling me in the future in regard to this act of symbolism in the future..

  2. Hey, Darwin - thanks. I'm glad you had that time at Salem. Like I said, it just doesn't work for me in a congregational setting, but for others, if it does, mazel tov. :-) And of course, I'll ponder this - great to know my beloved home congregation is led by a caring, thoughtful leader such as yourself.

    1. This is a wonderful place to serve the body of Christ. I love reading your blog posts and listening to your sermons. I may have to try this myself sometime. It is a great opportunity to expand the conversation and share the Gospel. Thanks for your ministry!