Jean’s Gospel: Washing Each Others Feet
Jesus “laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’ Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, ‘Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.’ ” (John 13:4-15)
If you attend a church that follows the historic Church calendar, then during the season of Lent you may be accustomed to reading the story of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet. For some of us, this story evokes discomfort because we have never participated in a foot washing ceremony. We want to be faithful disciples, but this particular ceremony seems alien to our accustomed manner of living.
Culturally, a foot washing ceremony in America might come across as strange, forced or artificial. On the other hand, if carried out in a spirit of humility and servantship, a foot washing ceremony might be a good experience, particularly during Lent.
My focus in this article is not on the physical ceremony of foot washing or its application or relevancy for our various churches. Those are legitimate questions, which I will leave to the writings of others who may have thought deeply about them. Instead, I intend to focus on an underlying spiritual lesson that Jesus taught, using foot washing, which transcends cultures and time.
“Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’ ” (John 13:8b)
The first thing we recognize is that something very serious took place. According to Jesus, this washing was a matter of eternal significance for Peter. As the story unfolds, we recognize that the service Jesus gave, which the foot washing symbolized, was the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus distinguishes between two washings:
“Jesus said to him, ‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you’ ” (John 10:13).
Peter and the other disciples had already bathed and, therefore, were already clean, “by the washing of water with the word” (see Eph 5:26), except for the feet. But, Jesus said, “not every one of you.” Judas Iscariot was unclean, not because he had not taken a bath that day, but because he rejected the cleansing Word of Jesus. By reference to Judas, Jesus signaled that these washings signify more than the elimination of physical dirt from the body.
Even after “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (see Titus 3:5) in Holy Baptism, Christians continue to need regular (foot) washings, that is, the forgiveness of sins, because residual sin clings to our flesh like dirt to the bottom of our feet. Unaddressed sin defiles the conscience and hinders the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
The Apostle John also wrote of these (foot) washings in his first epistle: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9). These regular (foot) washings cleanse the conscience and keep us firmly in the grace of God.
“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. (John 13:14)
Once we recognize the spiritual lesson that foot washing signifies, we can recognize how we are to follow Jesus’ example and emulate him along these same lines – Disciples of Jesus are commanded to forgive one another. Thus, Jesus teaches us to pray: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12; see also 6:14-15).
Jesus further grants all Christians the following privilege: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). Regarding the scope of Jesus’ teaching, Lutheran theologian, Francis Pieper, summarizes:
“The words ‘Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them,’ clearly state three things: (1) Those who have received the Holy Ghost, namely all Christians, shall remit sins, or absolve; (2) this remission, or absolution, pertains to definite persons (individuals), ‘whosoever’; (3) this absolution pronounced by men ends the matter before God: ‘they are remitted unto them.’ “
This biblical role of the Church in proclaiming the forgiveness of sins is not a uniquely Lutheran interpretation. Other relevant passages include, without limitation: Matt 18:18; 2 Cor 2:10; and Col 3:13, 17. See also the first century Didache “4:14: In church thou shalt confess thy transgressions, and shalt not betake thyself to prayer with an evil conscience.”
“For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13:15)
Forgiving our neighbors can be as difficult (or more) than the outward action of foot washing, but it conveys grace and a salutary service to our neighbors. All of us defile ourselves daily with sin as we live our lives and can benefit from hearing the forgiveness of our sins.
Many of us are fortunate to hear this particular form of Gospel announced for us every week in our churches. Outside of formal church services, in our homes and among friends and neighbors, forgiving one another can heal divisions and foster reconciliation and restoration of relationships. For reasons of safety or otherwise, it is not always possible or prudent to forgive every offense in person; but we can pray for the offender and the situation, that Jesus would heal us and grant the offender repentance.
Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus shed His blood on the cross, atoning for all sins of all people of all time. Therefore, our proclamation of forgiveness does not atone for sins or change God’s mind; but it verbally proclaims in a personal way what Christ has achieved for all of us on the cross.
God always applies His grace through means. One of those means is the spoken word of forgiveness (also known as the exercise of the “keys”). Inside the church, pastors have the public office to exercise the keys on behalf of the congregation. But outside of church in our day-to-day lives, we, as Christians, all have the same priestly privilege of exercising these keys in service to our neighbors (and they in service to us).
The act of forgiveness is not only for Lent, but Lent is a good time to reflect on who in our lives might need forgiveness and, by the grace of God, to grant it to them. Amen.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.