Updated: Dec 10, 2020
I had the privilege recently, of preaching at an induction in Govan parish where I live. There was no set text, which is something I normally dread, but in the weeks before, I came to a settled conclusion that I should preach on John 13, the story of Jesus’ washing his disciples feet.
I can’t quite explain why I fixed on it, but I was looking for a passage which spoke about the nature of ministry and of beginning again in ministry. As I looked back through my archives, I realised I’d not often preached on it before.
As I read and reflected, thoughts began to gather. The Pentecostal denominations which view this as a third sacrament and hold regular feetwashing services. An episode of Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert’s Work Experience on TV, which I caught by chance one night and was captured by; the one where he went to work in a care home; it included a memorable scene where he worked with another carer to give someone a bed bath. You could see the anxiety and apprehension on his face before they started – the discomfort he felt – and then the way in which the other care worker helped him get on with it – you saw him relax and realise he could do this after all.
And then there was the hymn by Brian Wren which I knew well – it’s in CH4 ‘Great God Your Love Has Called Us Here’ and which contains this remarkable line – ‘we strain to glimpse your mercy seat and find you kneeling at our feet’.
I also listened again to John Bell’s haunting paraphrase – “I heard the voice of Jesus calling – here’s what he said to me – if you don’t let me wash your feet – I can’t your Saviour be”.
Those words set by John refer, of course, to a classic Peter moment in this passage when Peter says – “no way Lord – no way are you ever going to wash my feet – it’s never going to happen”; only to have Jesus, gently but very firmly say to him “Well Peter if I don’t wash your feet – you can’t be part of this” (or more precisely – you don’t have a share or part in me).
As I worked and waited with the passage, I kept thinking back to Brian Wren’s image: we are looking for Jesus, straining the eyes of our hearts; and most likely we are looking up to heaven, but when we read John 13 we need to look through Peter’s eyes, through the disciples’ eyes: “no Jesus, that’s all wrong – I’m so embarrassed; I don’t even like my feet – I should have changed my socks – or shaved my legs! But forget the feet - it feels wrong for you to kneel in front of me; so quick let’s change places – I’m sure if Rhod Gilbert did that for that old man, I can do this for you; anyway your feet are holy and they probably smell like roses…
Those are my instincts and I guess they might be yours? But Jesus is unmoveable, unyielding, stubborn in his insistence that this is where it has to begin.
In the context of an induction service, it reminded me very forcefully that is where all of our ministries begin. All that we want to do for Jesus begins with what Jesus does for us.
Even if we’re in a hurry to move to praise and worship, to lift up the name of Jesus, we don’t get to look up to heaven until we have first looked down. I was struck by the thought, which I shared with the congregation, of an Ignatian exercise in which we visualised this happening to us; perhaps even slipped our socks/tights and shoes off – thought about Jesus kneeling in front of us. Jesus saying: ok are you ready? I’ve got water and soap and a towel; let’s do this…
The ministry of the church, comes from the ministry of Jesus it’s Head. It is a sharing in his ministry and our ministry begins not with what we do for him, but with what he does for us. We cannot talk about forgiveness, unless we have been forgiven. We cannot talk about grace unless we have been graced. We cannot talk about washing others, unless we have been washed ourselves. We cannot talk about serving him, until we see how he has served us. We cannot help people to look up at the ascended Christ in worship, unless we have also looked down to the incarnate Christ waiting on his knees to remind us of what we mean to God and of the lengths God goes to, to show us that.
There is something profoundly awkward and difficult and unsettling about this story and I think we must embrace that. The humility of our Lord is overwhelming here, undercutting all of our pride and pretension. In this moment when all of our expectations have been turned upside down, Jesus says to us ‘if I do this for you; if this is how I treat you; if I do this for you, then you do it for one another. I have set you an example”. I said in the sermon, I guaranteed there was someone there or someone watching the live stream whose feet I would struggle to wash! Someone who annoyed me or had offended me; someone I felt was already too full of themselves, too entitled, maybe even too squeaky clean…
But Jesus says – I have set you an example.
There is a profound mutuality about the example we are given here. We are called not just to serve, but to be served by one another. A minister being inducted is called to wash their congregation’s feet, but also to let them wash hers or his. The mutuality of what Jesus calls us to is a picture of the ministry of the whole people of God.
I once heard someone speak, who belonged to one of the churches which treats foot washing like a kind of third sacrament and who saw it as also at the heart of a ministry of peace making. ‘It’s harder” he said “ to be cruel to someone, to be mean or violent towards them, when you have had to wash their feet and let them wash yours”.
In v 17 of John 13, we read that there is a blessing promised by Jesus to his church when they follow his example and serve one another in humility. In verses 33-35, the command to wash one another is amplified into another (new) commandment: to love one another. A command which will have powerful consequences for the mission and witness of the church, because this is how all the world around us will know we are disciples.
The sermon was preached in November and I haven’t got round to writing this blog until the second week in Advent. What has been powerful for me this year is that this ‘Easter’ image, has also become a Christmas image. In these weeks, I like all of you am watching, waiting, looking for the coming of Christ. I look up to the choirs of angels, carolling in the skies, but they tell me to look down. That is where you will find him. In the manger. Kneeling at the feet of humanity. God coming to you, to be with you and for you. This is where it all begins again. This is where to look for the Christ. This is where you will find him and he will find you.