“Foot Washing–I Now Understand It” (April 17, 2014: Maundy Thursday–Canterbury Episcopal Chapel, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama)

“…Do you know what I have done to you?”—John 13.12[1] 

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!

Throughout my now 12 years as an Episcopalian, I have been in parishes that either did or did not do foot washing as part of their Maundy Thursday liturgy. Foot washing was never really my thing and whenever I was in a parish that did do it, I took its voluntary option to heart by completely avoiding it. The reason why I never elected to have my feet washed had to do with the simple and honest fact that I found the action too graphic and repulsive. The very thought of somebody touching and rubbing my feet and, worse, me having to do the same to somebody else’s feet just freaked me out too much and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Foot washing may have been up other people’s alleys, but it surely wasn’t up mine.

A couple of month’s ago, while I was flying back to Alabama from a trip to New York City, the Vestry was at Camp McDowell having its annual pre-Icicle Retreat meeting, during which it was decided that after years of it having not been done, foot washing was, once again, going to be a part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. When I finally got to the retreat and was made aware of this decision, I immediately thought to myself, “Oh crap!” And being that the Rector, my boss, was in support of it happening, there was no way that I could get out of it. Suddenly, I found myself forced to rethink my stance regarding foot washing. I had to find some way to get over the repulsion I had toward the act.

I found myself getting over my repulsion just a few days ago while reading today’s Gospel, preparing for this sermon. What particularly jumped out at me was the question that Jesus asked His disciples after He had finished washing their feet: “…Do you know what I have done to you?” At that moment, my mind was driven to consider the circumstances of the situation forthcoming. Jesus is about to be betrayed and He is going to die. All of the disciples, whose feet Jesus had just washed, are going to turn their backs on Him: Judas will betray Him to the authorities; Peter will deny Him three times before cockcrow; all the other disciples will scatter away and hide in fear. But despite all that was about to happen, Jesus still stooped down, lowering Himself to the place of a humble servant, and showed honor to His disciples by washing their feet. When considering all of this, I imagined Jesus’ communication to His disciples through His action: “Despite the fact that you will betray Me, that you will turn your backs on Me, that you will leave Me at my most fearful hour, I still love you.” I felt Jesus saying to me, “Brandt, in spite of all your failings, shortcomings, and flaws, I still love you.” Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.[2] What Jesus did to His disciples (as well as open my eyes to) was show them His unconditional love.

Thinking about that humbled me. It made me think about my own sin, my own failings, and how I have oftentimes fallen short of God’s glory and that if the disciples, who were just as sinful and broken as I am, could still be recipients of Christ’s unconditional love by having their feet washed, who am I to think of such an act as being too graphic and repulsive? It made me realize that by not letting my feet be washed, I was missing out on an opportunity to share in the life of Jesus at that very moment. No longer do I have a repulsion of foot washing on Maundy Thursday. I’ve gotten over my apprehension and I repent of it. So when we recommence, momentarily, the practice of Maundy Thursday foot washing, instead of trying to wiggle my way out of it, I will be taking part, seeking to live into Jesus’ command: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”[3]

Having my attitude humbled by today’s Gospel has reminded me that I am in need of help and that Jesus is the only One that can help me. As hard as I try to do all that our Lord commands us to, I always find myself falling short. There are times in which I find it extremely hard to love someone that has offended and hurt me. There are times in which I have a hard time honoring my neighbors that offend and hurt others. There have been times in which I have offended and hurt others and have beaten myself up for it. Today’s Gospel, I believe, not only shows us a glimpse of Jesus’ unconditional love, but also a glimpse of His grace, which gives me hope. It gives me the hope to trust that whenever I fail and fall short and ask for forgiveness for my hardness of heart, I will not be turned away. Not only Jesus’ actions, but the Person of Jesus, Himself, moves me to trust the words of Saint John: “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”[4]

Today we have been given Good News: the love of Jesus Christ is truly unconditional. Let us live into that love and our continued striving to spread the love of Jesus to others, aided by God’s help. Amen!

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] John 13.1b

[3] John 13.15

[4] I John 2.1b-2

Published by Brandt Montgomery

I am a Priest and boarding school chaplain in the Episcopal Church (USA).

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