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 Rueben 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, as well as several books: 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), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.


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