Why foot washing terrifies me but I do it anyway

How many times have we heard this story? How many times have we heard the words of institution, consecration: this is my body, this is my blood, do this in remembrance of me?

Goodness knows.

So I was rather surprised that, when I sat down to write this sermon, with this service in mind, how moving and difficult I found it. Why was that?


Well, it was the foot washing that did it. I wonder how you feel about the presence of foot washing this evening. If I’m honest, the idea fills me with horror. And I know, that it has had a similar effect upon some of you. Foot washing is an enormously divisive action.


Sure, we can live in a culture in which many, many people pay large sums of money to go to spas, to have massages, to receive chiropodist and podiatrist treatment. But foot washing. In church. Done by the ministers. That is surely beyond the realms of taste and decency.


And on this point, you and I will be glad to note, that we are completely in line with S Peter. He was very clear on this modern nonsense: foot washing is what slaves do for their masters. It’s not what the Messiah does for his followers. It’s not even what friends do for one another. We have the right people, in the right social setting, who do this for us.


So what was Jesus up to? 


Look at the things that Jesus instituted in addition to foot-washing: a common cup and loaf, giving one’s coat to strangers, allowing enemies to strike you on both cheeks, helping others on the Sabbath… I could go on.


On the surface, we can see that Jesus was getting his followers to take seriously the business of serving one another. But actually, there’s more to it that that. What Jesus was doing, I think, was much more radical, and certainly less wooly than ‘serving one another’. There’s something about these things, particularly the foot-washing and food sharing of Maundy Thursday, that goes to the very centre of what it means to be human.


Those things move us from having a relationship at arms length, using words and body language to communicate, to a much greater intimacy where we actually touch one another.


What is it about touch that so terrifies us, yet is also something we so desire?


Like S Peter’s view of who should wash people’s feet, we may be happy to pay for a massage or spa treatment, but there are social rules there that keep it safe; it’s a transaction, and we all know who we are. But what Jesus is doing here breaks those rules.


And it is terrifying. Certainly, for me, that’s the right word. Yes, I can dress it up by saying foot washing’s disgusting, or it’s silly etc. But actually, if I’m honest, I don’t like it because it terrifies me. And it does so because touch, the touch of another human being, shocks me into realising how close humans are intended to be, and yet the reality of how far apart our lives really are.


Central to understanding the answer that comes back to S Peter is found in what Jesus instituted at supper: you want me to stay around, you want me to be present with you, then carry on what I’ve begun. In the lead up to that moment Jesus has had disciples fighting over who’s the most important, a disciple planning to completely betray him, and all of them questioning what on earth he’s doing. And in the midst of their politics and agendas, he picks up a bowl and towel, and washes their feet. Touches their arguing, selfish, betraying feet, in the hope that they will wake up to what it means to be alive.


So, it’s no surprise that so many of us are uncomfortable with the foot-washing tonight: and whether you have your feet washed tonight, or not, there will be a sense of discomfort and uncertainty for us all. Just as there was for the disciples. 


It’s no wonder I’m terrified. I’ve built up my defense mechanisms, I’m happy with my distance. But the seemingly useless act of foot-washing challenges me to stop hiding. It’s an intentionally emotive act that reminds us of relationships we’ve lost; it’s a childish act that can evoke both good and bad memories; it’s a risky act that can make me look silly, that I might get wrong; it’s an exposing act that not only reveals all the lumps and bumps on my feet, but some of my own fears, hurts and hopes within me.


But, so much more than words, it challenges the way we live. Your politics, your need to hold grudges, your anger, your need to be important, in control, your need to keep people at a safe distance; all these things we do to make us strong, independent, modern people are challenged, not only for being unnecessary, but actually as lies that stop us from being all that we can be. 



About fancourt

I'm the Parish Priest of St Luke with St Bartholomew in Reading, U.K (http://www.lukeandbart.org.uk). This is mainly a blog of sermons, and I'd welcome your thoughts on what I write. I've taken a bit more time to write about my thoughts about the church in today's world in a little book called Brand New Church? (Review of it here: http://admiralcreedy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/book-review-brand-new-church.html).
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