Maundy Thursday(A): Whose Feet Would You Refuse to Wash?
By: The Rev. Lori Walke
The ritual that comes out of the gospel reading for Maundy Thursday is incredibly beautiful—the central image of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, patiently explaining to them that service is the highest expression of love. Many congregations re-enact this ritual because it is such a counter-cultural and humbling practice.
On Maundy Thursday, it is easy to skip over the introduction to the entire scene because we focus so intently on the ritual and the new commandment, but the text begins, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father” (John 13:1, NRSV). Jesus heard the clock ticking and was aware that there were precious few teachable moments left. Jesus knew his fate.
This, of course, is not a surprise to those who believe that Jesus understood himself to be sent by God as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world. It was his life for humanity’s sin. Everything about his life and ministry led up to his death on the cross because it was The Plan.
But Jesus’ knowing that his time was short is also not a surprise to those who do not hold said theological understanding. Divine or not, Jesus would have known “that his hour had come to depart from this world” because he had seen firsthand what the Roman Empire did to agitators and status-quo disrupters. Crucifixion was a “form of Roman execution used for a specific class of offenders, those who systematically defied Roman authority, whether chronically rebellious slaves or leaders (and sometimes members) of resistance movements, violent or nonviolent.”
Jesus would have been aware with every healing, every pardon of sin, and every act of inclusion of someone deemed unclean made him more of a threat. Given that Jesus had been welcomed into Jerusalem with a joyful parade just a few days before (what we celebrate as Palm Sunday), the authorities desperately needed to discourage his followers using “a very public and prolonged form of execution deliberately designed to be seen and be a deterrent” so no further protests or uprisings would be organized. But Jesus never changed his message to cause less trouble because being faithful to death to living the kingdom of God, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) was The Plan.
While it might seem easy to skip over the introduction to the foot washing scene and the giving of the new commandment on Maundy Thursday, it is arguably our sole focus the other 364 days of the year. There has been much time and energy spent debating why Jesus knew his time was short. Actual wars have been fought over the person and substance of Jesus, scattered the Church with capital “C” to the four winds, and cause more than a few congregations to splinter.
This continues today. We still spend an incredible amount of time differentiating ourselves from one another. So-and-so believes this. So-and-so denies that. What we believe about what someone else believes makes them either in or out, no matter one’s theological bent. We divide into factions, denominations, and teams, all declaring not to be “that kind of Christian.” We have explicit and implicit lists of beliefs by which we measure each other, self-declaring who is a “real” follower of Jesus who and who is not.
Perhaps this was something else Jesus knew would happen, just like his death.
Maybe this is why he not only gave us the examples of humble service to one another in the act of foot washing, but then directly said that love is how his disciples would be identified—not by creeds or doctrine or litmus tests.
As we prepare for Maundy Thursday, the text gives us an opportunity for multiple considerations. We might wonder not only whether others identify us as followers of the Prince of Peace, but also about what gives us away. Are we marked as Christians by our love or because of a list of beliefs? Are we more interested in being right or being loving? Then we can turn the question around: how do we identify others as followers of Jesus? Who have we written off as heretics instead of partners in Christ’s service?
Put another way: Is there someone whose feet we would refuse to wash?
It is not hard to imagine what Jesus would have to say about that.
The Rev. Lori Walke, J.D., is the associate minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC, a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, Oklahoma State University, and is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Raised by faithful Baptists, she found in a home in the United Church of Christ, where she is part of the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, a program focused on energizing and sustaining younger, emerging UCC local church pastors. She is married to Collin Walke, an attorney and State Representative for House District 87, and together the “Rev & the Rep” try to make as much trouble in the name of Jesus and justice as they can.
 Borg, Marcus J., Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power And How They Can Be Restored (p. 99). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.