Footwashing in the 21st Century


'Jesus Washing Peter's Feet at the Last Supper' by Ford Madox Brown, 1865This is in response to a couple comments in my Love Feast post. Matt and Andrew both brought up footwashing. Originally, I was responding as a comment in that thread, but decided to turn this into a post.

When I was younger—and most of the Jesus People stuff had not yet passed into history—I was really into footwashing. In fact, I had planned that I would wash the feet of the woman I planned to marry (no one in particular on the horizon at that time, though) as part of my proposal.

But then, for whatever reason, footwashing fell out of fashion with me.

Sometime last year I was reading a blog where the writer (who escapes me) said that the whole point of footwashing was that it served a practical purpose in the days of dusty roads and sandals. We don’t really walk dusty roads and the washing of a traveler’s feet is no longer a daily, hospitable act. The writer asked then to consider what today is a practical need that would serve in its place.

I’ve thought about that a lot and have come up with no single thing. We are a disconnected people, so I think that letter writing (real letters, not e-mail) or a phone call just to chat would work. Cutting a neighbor’s grass or washing and waxing her car are good ones, too. Offering to babysit a couple’s kids so they could go out for a date is thoughtful.

The spirit in which Jesus washed feet was to compel humility. It’s humbling to give a footwashing (and for some of us today to receive it.) In that same spirit, perhaps our practical substitution for footwashing today would be the action that spurs humility in us and blesses the receiver. I’m not sure that washing someone else’s car is humbling, but it at least reinforces the idea that we are servants. Most of the truly humbling acts that we have in our modern society have been farmed out into professions. I think there is nothing more humbling than being a hospice worker or in-home caregiver who deals with the aged who cannot perform even the simplest acts. Maybe the man or woman who works with the profoundly retarded, brain damaged, or AIDS patients in the beginning throes of decline is today’s designated footwasher.

All I can say is that the servant is not above the Master. We are called to service and yet daily opportunities for service elude us, either because we have have so distanced ourselves from others or because we have forgotten how to recognize an opportunity to serve.

A prayer:

Lord Jesus, open our eyes to the practical needs of the people we encounter daily. Give us servant hearts that can lay down our own lives and address the simple needs of others, no matter how much humility is needed to meet them. In a day where pride reigns, let us be those who are not so proud that we ignore others in their time of need or think that someone else will be up to the task we neglect. Let us reflect your love in a way grasped by both the lost and the brother in dire need. Amen.

8 thoughts on “Footwashing in the 21st Century

  1. Julana

    I don’t agree with you on this one. I grew up with washing feet as part of communion, and have deeply missed it, at times. There is a physical humility involved in washing someone’s feet that you just don’t experience any other way. Just like physical kneeling for prayer affects your inner attitude.
    One of the archetypal moments in my life was seeing a Bible school president wash the feet of the school custodian, up on the stage, during his inauguration.

  2. Scott

    Just some items to think about concerning footwashing.

    My wife grew up in a tradition (the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches) where footwashing is part of the communion service, and I have participated on several occasions. It’s quite beautiful. Their entire communion service is the Eucharist, Footwashing, and the Love Feast (a complete meal with one another).

    Now sure it was practical to wash people’s feet in the first century and, yes, Jesus was making a point about humility and service toward one another. However (1) Just because it was practical then, was Jesus making it something more when he said we ought (moral obligation) to wash one another’s feet (Jn 13.14)? And blessed those that did (Jn 13.17)? (2) Is baptism a cultural thing in our country? In other words, do we go around dunking things as a matter of course or do we do it because of its practice in Jesus’ day?

    Now, I’m not going to take a bullet for footwashing, or argue with anyone over this, but I think that Jesus may have intended something bigger for footwashing. Paul talks about the good deeds of widows who “washed the feet of the saints” (1 Tim 5.10) – that seems a strange thing to mention if it were merely an everyday practice.

    It’s a work in humility, having your pastor wash your feet, or someone you’re having trouble getting along with. At the very least, it may be a good discipline to practice on occasion. My wife and I washed one another’s feet at our wedding – in fact I posted about it last week on our anniversary, July 4, if you’re interested in a gushy anniversary post.

  3. Brian Colmery

    I think Dan’s point is excellent, in the sense that we far too often let tradition get in the way of (rather than spur us on to) the lesson behind it—in this case, humility and service.

    At the same time, what strikes me about the passage in John is the beauty of the theological lesson behind the footwashing-the idea that we “dirty ourselves up” with everyday sins and need them to be washed away, though they don’t make us unclean as a whole because we have already been washed (aka, saved). Not only did the footwashing of Christ underscore Peter’s need to cleanse his “spiritual feet,” if you will, but it also illustrated the greater truth of the complete efficacy of Christ’s atoning death for our forgiveness and salvation, despite the “dirt” we accrue.

    So I think we need to appreciate both sides-to acknowledge that the act of footwashing has connotations that reach beyond humility and service, but not to forget that humility and service must be acted out in ways relevant to today’s culture. Which, I think, might have been Dan’s point in the first place.

  4. I understand that footwashing is considered a sacrament in some Christian circles. I almost addressed that in the original post. My only contention here is that our modern age offers up occasions for humble service that reflect our realities today more so than footwashing.

    WARNING: Graphic story follows!

    I had a friend tell me the story of a young pastor who, upon hearing that the teenage son of one of the families in his church had blown his head off with a shotgun, went over after the police were done and cleaned up the mess that was left behind so the parents, who were gone for the day, would not have to come home and see parts of their son splattered on the floors and walls.

    I can’t see that footwashing surpasses an act like that. Is this pastor’s act not a sacrament? What could be more humbling than picking up the brains of a dead human being who was loved by his parents? Can you imagine what that pastor spared that tragic boy’s family?

    Julana, I have to ask whether the Bible college president will be there when the custodian can’t hold his food after going through round one of chemotherapy. When no one else is watching but God and the person in need, will any one of us be there? Will we do the hard thing when no accolades are possible and the cameras have been put away?

    We can hold to a traditional mode of service that we often practice in circumstances far removed from most people’s realities OR we cen meet them humbly and as servants in their need. In this we demonstrate to people whose needs are met that we Christians are not above them. Wasn’t that one of the major points of Jesus’s action?

  5. Julana

    I agree with what Brian says.

    I understand what you are saying Dan. I have to say that there can be a sacramentalism connected with footwashing that gives it a value beyond the act itself. (I am not saying it is more humble than cleaning up after a suicide.)

    The Bible school president was also the minister of a mission church I attended, in a small town, for a couple of years. Believe me, he’s the kind of guy that would be around for the nitty-gritty tasks. (Most traditional Mennonites are.) Unfortunately, he left to serve several years in Turkey as a missionary, then went on to head up the Eastern Board of Mennonite Missions (not sure about that word order).

    Incidentally, he grew up as a Conservative Mennonite, and I believe attended Fuller, and some school in Chicago. He developed a brain tumor and was expected to die. This resulted in a very deep spiritual experience. He was healed, and he ended up becoming a Mennonite version of a charismatic.

    I had grown up witnessing a church split resulting from the charismatic movement, and was very wary of it. This minister changed the way I looked at charistmatics. I came to believe that some of them were “real”.

    So he is partly the reason you, and the Vineyard movement, have credibility with me. 🙂

  6. Scott

    “My only contention here is that our modern age offers up occasions for humble service that reflect our realities today more so than footwashing.”

    I absolutely agree, Dan. That doesn’t necessarily take anything away from footwashing, however. For instance, there are also occasions for our proclamation that we are Christ followers that are greater and more relevant than baptism. But that doesn’t mean we should not be baptized.

    I suppose my frustration lies in how quickly our churches gloss over the possibility that in John 13 Christ is asking not only service from us, but regularly practicing a picture of that service as saints. It isn’t even allowed to become a discussion. It usually gives the leader a chance to make a few jokes about how we’d all have cleaner feet and then we move on. That’s the treatment/view that I find so discouraging.

    The young pastor in your story certainly did something holier than footwashing, no questions – and praise the Lord for his service.

    Man, sorry for taking up so much space. Good thing I decided not to argue this, huh? : )

  7. This has been an incredibly interesting post and thread of comments. I am inclined to look at footwashing as Dan does…an act of humility.

    I went on a mission trip to Acuna, Mexico with a group from my church. Anyone who’s been there, or areas similar know the living conditions of the citizens of Acuna are quite different than here in America.

    We were there to build a mission church, paint a building, and begin work on a house for a young couple that was about to have a baby but didn’t have a place to live.(Another mission group was going to finish the house.)

    One of the hardest parts of the trip for me was using the restrooms there. They were…um…really gross…and rarely functioned well.

    Well, one of the ladies on our trip, went to the store, bought cleaning supplies and cleaned the bathroom at the church. This was no small task but one of great humility. (Imagine… several times worse than any neglected gas station bathroom here in America)

    This in my opinion, was the equivalent of footwashing. Now, I don’t think this story compares to the story of the pastor involved in the suicide story above…but footwashing nonetheless.

    My Sunday School teacher often encourages our class to look for opportunities in the week to be “footwashers”.

    Thanks for this post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *