FOOT WASHING John 13:4-15

A meditation at St. Paul's Church, Kingston, Ontario, Maundy Thursday, March 28, 2002

by Robert Brow    (

Jesus told many parables. In each case you have to picture the story as he told it, then ask yourself what it might mean for you and for the church. Today we look at the footwashing at the last supper as an acted parable. And first we have to picture what Jesus did and said on that occasion. Then we ask ourselves how it applies to us in our situation in the modern world.

This is why I am opposed to Popes and Bishops and Anglican ministers putting on a ceremony of foot washing in our churches. It impresses people with an example of humility, but it may hinder people from understanding the powerful meaning of the acted parable.

In Jerusalem in Jesus' day, if you were invited to dinner, you would have a complete bath or shower at a fountain before leaving. You would be wearing sandals, and on the way through the streets your feet would get dirty. On arrival at the meal a servant would bring a basin of water and wash your feet before the guests reclined with bare feet around the table.

At the last supper, which we celebrate this evening, Jesus had sent the disciples to prepare the upper room. But they didn't remember the need for a servant to wash the feet of the guests. So Jesus took off his outer garment, tied a towel around himself, and took a basin of water to wash each of the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him (John 13:4-5). Now obviously that is not a situation we can duplicate on a cold March day here in Canada. Men wear socks and boots. And imagine women being asked to take off their panty-hose!

That is why we should not try to duplicate the scene of a parable, and certainly not of this acted parable. If we see an accident with someone bleeding by the road side, we don't worry about oil and wine to pour into the wound (Luke 10:34), or trying to get a donkey for the wounded man to ride on, or getting him to the Holiday Inn for treatment. We do need to ask what we would want done if we were in the bleeding man's shoes.

As we read the Gospel account, I want you to picture exactly what happened. We will then focus on two questions. How does having a bath and having our feet washed apply to us? And how do we wash one another's feet?

Reading of John 13:4-15

So let's focus on the first question. When Peter objected to having his feet washed, Jesus said "Unless I wash you, you have no share in me" (13:8). Peter immediately wanted his hands and his head also washed, but Jesus said "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet" (13:8). What is the difference in our spiritual life between having bathed one's whole body and having one's feet washed from the dust of the road?

Responses from the congregation to illustrate the experience of total forgiveness and the cleansing we need along life's road

Before we leave this first topic, I want to remind you of the supreme importance of knowing that you are totally washed and forgiven.If anything comes to mind that you think remains between you and the love of God, please accept the fact that God has forgotten it. It will never be held against you.

For our second question we wonder about the application of the words "If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet" (13:14). There is another question about the meaning of servant ministry in the following verses, but we will leave that aside for today. As we come to share in the Lord's Supper on this Holy Thursday, let us focus from our experience on the meaning of washing one another's feet.

Responses from the congregation to illustrate the spiritual experience of washing one another's feet as we share in communion

Every minister who knows his or her congregation is very conscious of this and that fault in even the most effective members of the body. And of course those same members know the minor and sometimes major faults of their priest, pastor, or minister. I know you can observe much more that is wrong with me than I will ever be conscious of.

Certainly if a crime is being committed, the person should be handed over to the courts to assign the proper consequences (as in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5). We remember a terrible case of that right here in our city. But is there ever a situation where a person is too bad to be welcomed to the family meal? And when they do come to eat with us, how do we keep washing away what is still so obviously wrong with them?

Any time we see someone going up to communion this acted parable asks us to "wash the feet of our brother and sister immediately. "Lord, I cannot understand some of the behavior of this person, but I leave it in your hands. Wash away anything that you see is wrong, and meanwhile I love and accept this person as part of our family. And I realize I may also have serious faults that I am not conscious of. I trust you to deal with them in my life in due course.

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