From 2015 to 2018 I preached a series of messages on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. This messaged was preached in 2016. Article 13: Foot washing.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one anotherʼs feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.John 13:12-17 NIV
The 13th article of our Confession of Faith is titled “Foot washing”. Foot washing is important to Mennonites, but not every Mennonite Church celebrates this rite. The church I grew up in never celebrated foot washing and I would say that if I could, I would try to persuade them to change that. As an article in our confession, it comes after Communion making it fairly important. It is before church discipline, it is before marriage, and I think the reason for this is that when you understand foot washing, you will understand church discipline and marriage a lot more fully. And so the great challenge of foot washing, is understanding it.
From the first paragraph of Article 13 of our Confession: We believe that Jesus Christ calls us to serve one another in love as he did. Rather than seeking to lord it over others, we are called to follow the example of our Lord, who chose the role of a servant by washing his disciples’ feet.
Foot washing isn’t explicitly mandated by the Mennonite Church as a practice that we need to perform. It is more important to understand it’s meaning and recognize what Jesus is telling his disciples and us through his actions.
The first time that I did foot washing was at summer camp just with the other staff before campers arrived. Our feet were dirty since we wore sandals all the time and our work was outdoors. When I looked at my feet, I realized that I probably should have clipped my toe nails. My first impression of foot washing was an awkward experience.
I think that primary reason churches do not celebrate foot washing is that it’s awkward. For bigger churches, it becomes a bit of a challenge to organize, but I do think that awkwardness is the biggest reason for skipping it. And when we take a look at scripture where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, it is also an awkward experience. At that Last Supper, Jesus was giving his disciples another look into the true nature of God’s Kingdom and the result was that they felt awkward. They were not fully ready for God’s Kingdom because it felt awkward. And so, in some way, when we feel awkward doing foot washing, we are actually experiencing what the first disciples felt on that evening of the Last Supper.
Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”Mark 4:30-32 NIV
In this parable, Jesus makes the point that God’s Kingdom seems insignificant compared to anything else around it, yet it grows into great significance. Parables were one of Jesus’ best tools for describing God’s Kingdom.
The prophets that preceded Jesus often used stories to make their points. In some cases, the prophets would act out their parable to the leaders of Israel to emphasize their point. Foot washing is a living parable that Jesus invites us to act out prophetically pointing to a fundamental characteristic of God’s Kingdom.
From paragraph 2 of our Confession: Just before his death, Jesus stooped to wash the disciples’ feet and told them, “So if I, 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 as I have done to you.”1 In this act, Jesus showed humility and servanthood, even laying down his life for those he loved. In washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus acted out a parable of his life unto death for them, and of the way his disciples are called to live in the world.
The big challenge of foot washing is understanding it. Jesus is challenging his disciples to continue to practice washing each other’s feet like he washed theirs so that, after enough repetition, they might understand what it is about.
While foot washing might seem insignificant, like a mustard seed, it grows into great significance and it’s when you start living out foot washing in all parts of your life, that you understand God’s Kingdom.
Who is the greatest?
A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.Luke 22:24-26 NIV
From the 3rd paragraph of our Confession: Believers who wash each other’s feet show that they share in the body of Christ. They thus acknowledge their frequent need of cleansing, renew their willingness to let go of pride and worldly power, and offer their lives in humble service and sacrificial love.
Foot washing is about belonging and including. When Jesus comes to wash Peter’s feet, Peter objects, but Jesus tells him if he wants to belong, he must submit to be served. Why did Peter object? Isn’t it because of how he understood power and authority? Peter needed to humble himself so that he can meet his humble master.
The parable of foot washing illustrates another fact of living life in the world: We make mistakes and sin against God and each other. Jesus said that we’ve had the bath, but our feet need washing, because dirt happens. Foot washing is about submitting to each other’s authority to be served by the other so that we can get out of the mess we make as we walk in the world.
Foot washing shows us how God views greatness. Foot washing represented a task that, in most cases, people would wash their own feet. If you were a master with disciples, like Jesus, one of your disciples, out of respect and love, might wash your feet. Jesus had his feet washed by Mary on one occasion. In some situations, if you had servants, the lowest ranking servant in your house might wash the feet of your guests.
At the Last Supper, Jesus takes the role of the lowest ranking servant and reverses cultural expectation. And so the first thing we notice, and perhaps the part we understand best in the Mennonite Church, is that we need to serve. We serve one-another. We serve the community around us. If your understanding of foot washing ends here, then you’re about at 50%, because the other half is submitting to have your feet washed.
In the world, greatness is often measured by how much you can accomplish using your power. In God’s Kingdom, greatness is measured in how much you show love to others. In the world, greatness causes isolation and division where you’ll often hear great leaders saying it is lonely at the top, but in God’s Kingdom, greatness causes belonging and community.
Do we understand?
In John 13, Jesus asks “Do you understand what I have done for you?”
That is the question we still have to answer. If you do foot washing without asking this question, and just do it because that’s what we’re supposed to do, even if it’s awkward, you might never come to understand this fundamental characteristic of God’s Kingdom. And how can you fit into God’s Kingdom if it makes you feel awkward?
What is servant leadership? Does our church institution demonstrate the servant leadership that Jesus showed us? What should servant leadership look like from Millie and me?
As a ceremony, I still think foot washing is awkward, but then, I still have a lot to learn about what it means to be great in God’s Kingdom. And despite it’s awkwardness, I will still practice foot washing so that I can come to understand what it means to serve in love and submit to be served in love. This is what Jesus showed us.
[Jesus Christ] Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!Philippians 2:6-8 NIV