Head to toe

  • Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.  (Jn 13:3-4)

Some biblical passages attract more confusing sermons than others.  It isn’t the stories’ fault.  The ones that do are often among the most powerful and vivid of them.

And this is definitely one of them.

There are a lot of reasons…

Feet are a big part of it.  Open-toed shoes with manicured nails, swimming pools, the beach — feet don’t attract a lot of attention.  But talk about taking off shoes in public — paddle-footing around in church in your bare feet, rather than in dress shoes — that’s an attention getter.

So is the business of washing feet.  Some people are terribly conscious of the whole process — one woman I know who is in her eighties had her toenails painted black just for the occasion (and for the satisfaction of shocking the Cathedral’s dean) — and one group of little girls even announced in anticipation of the event, “You know, you can get infections that way,” reflecting evidently on conversations among far older adults about the perils of getting a pedicure.

For us — not for ancient Jews who tromped around on dusty steets with lightly-clad feet — foot washing is an unfamiliar, awkward experience.

But that’s where the confusing sermons come from, too — people run with the symbolism and assume that they know what it’s all about.  The result?   Sermons on service, servant leadership, doing good, submission, and humility.

Now, these are not bad things in and of themselves.  But reading the foot washing passage this way has led to a lot of strange theology — not the least of which is basically the storyline that says, “There are lots of good people out there, but Christians are good people, servant leaders, submissive, humble or ‘all of the above,’ because Jesus set the example for them by washing the disciples’ feet.”

Small wonder we have these crazy conversations about whether you really need to be a Christian to be good, and about whether or not there are good people who aren’t Christians.  Duh, yes.

Small wonder, too, that for a lot of Christians the spiritual journey is a strange, disconnected two part story: part one, “get saved” — part two, “be good.”

As good as service, humility and all the rest might be, that just isn’t the point of the story.  The key to its meaning lies in the exchange with Peter:

  • He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  (Jn 13:6-8)

Jesus knows that Peter is on his way spiritually.  He has left his fishing business, tromped around the countryside with Jesus, and he’s been on mission trips.  But he hasn’t arrived and he’s about to face the biggest set back yet in his journey.  He has been cleansed, but he is still picking up road dust.  And unless he is willing to let Jesus continue that process of cleansing, then there is no way for him to find intimacy with his Lord and a place in the Kingdom of God.

Service in the Kingdom, then, is not a matter of doing good for others for no particular reason — or doing good for the sake of doing good.  Service is about a life of service lived out of a recognition of one’s own deep dependence upon God for forgiveness and cleansing.  And it’s about service that points others to the same need for God’s forgiveness and cleansing.

Now, inevitably, some will complain, “Oh, I see, so we are good to others so that we can get them into the church.”  But that’s a matter of getting your shoe on the wrong foot (if you will forgive the pun).

The Christian’s availability to others is not about serving them in order to “get them for God.”  It is a life so deeply, comprehensively shaped by the journey into God’s Kingdom that no one could ever read your life as anything but a journey into God.

Among my cherished friends during my Cathedral days in Washington was a man by the name of John Crause.  John was a deeply devoted Christian and a Cathedral volunteer. When I was there he would still come around on Sunday morning for conversation, coffee, and donuts with some of us on the staff.

John had a blood disease that finally morphed into Leukemia and claimed his life and I had the great privilege of being there for his funeral.  The preacher said: “John left strict instructions that there were to be no eulogies.”  He told me, “One man lying in the Cathedral is enough.”

“But,” the preacher observed, “to know John was to know his Lord.”

And that, dear friends, is what washing feet is all about.  Many will serve and do good works.  Many will be vulnerable, accessible, humble, and giving.

But our lives are meant to be inspired and shaped by having “a share” in Jesus — by a life of intimacy with our Lord and a journey into the Kingdom.  The epitaph by which any of us should be remembered are the words, “To know him — to know her — was to know her Lord  — his Lord  — your Lord — mine.”  Beginning to end, from head to toe.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.