Title: To practice love
Date: April 9, 2009; Maundy Thursday, foot-washing service
Texts: John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Author: Isaac Villegas
In a few minutes you will walk up here and stand in line, waiting your turn to wash feet and have your feet washed. You will sit down on a chair. Take off your shoes. Then someone will take your foot, pour water over it, and dry it with a towel.
As you sit there, with your foot in someone’s hand, you will think to yourself: Wow, this is really strange. What a crazy religion! At least that’s what I think to myself when this time of year comes around. It’s a very odd experience to have your feet washed. You think to yourself, I hope my feet don’t smell bad. I hope they aren’t too dirty. Did I make sure scrub between my toes this morning?
But then you realize that you just washed someone else’s feet, and none of that crossed your mind. You were too busy worried about other things. If you are like me, your thoughts were consumed with making sure that you didn’t spill water all over the carpet. You think to yourself, Did I pour enough water over her feet? Maybe a little more? How long am I supposed to hold onto each foot? Was that too short? Maybe too long? I don’t want to be weird or anything.
At some point the internal dialogue ends and you realize that this foot belongs to someone. The foot is ultimately attached to a face, the face of someone you love, and someone who loves you—someone that God loves. When you wash their feet, you learn what it means to love their life.
That’s what foot-washing is all about. We bow down before one another, an act of submission, the movement of a slave, a gesture of complete humility. And we take the lowliest part of someone’s body and wash it—their dirt is all over our hands. This is how we begin to learn Christ’s new commandment. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:34-35).
To “have love for one another” isn’t something secret that happens in the hidden depths of our hearts. Love isn’t always about warm fuzzies—which aren’t bad, of course. But when we think of washing feet as the form of Christian love, then we discover that we are materialists. Yes, materialists—not in the sense that we want to amass material wealth, but materialist in the sense that our faith has everything to do with bodies, with flesh and blood, with matter, with dirty feet that we take in our hands and wash.
That’s what love looks like. That’s what love feels like—a foot in your hand, a hand on your foot. Love isn’t simply some flighty emotion that comes and goes depending on your mood. Love happens when you pour water on someone’s foot and wash it and dry it and send them on their way to love and serve God.
There’s a great line from Wendell Berry about how we easily spiritualize love into oblivion and reduce it to feelings, to something that happens in the recesses of our hearts. He says, “though we still recognize the feeling of love, we have forgotten how to practice love when we don’t feel it.” We have forgotten how to practice love. (Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community, p. 140).
When we wash feet, we begin to learn again how to practice love. The movements of our bodies teach us what love looks like, what love feels like. Footwashing is our re-education in love.
As you wash each other’s feet, remember that with your hands, with that water, comes the love of God. As you bow down like a humble servant, you learn the obedience of Christ that ushers in the kingdom of God’s love. The mystery of God isn’t some ethereal, spiritual reality. That’s not it at all. Remember that we are materialists.
The mystery of God is the love that happens when you let someone take your dirty feet in their hands; the mystery of God is the love that happens when you take their feet in your hands. That’s what love feel like; that’s what God feels like.