Maundy Thursday 14
Feet. Both our readings mention them. The Gospel centres on Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet, of course, but the Old Testament reading included feet as well. The Israelites were told on their last night in Egypt to eat the Passover with their shoes on – they were going to have to leave in a hurry when the Angel of Death passed over the land with that final deadly plague which killed the firstborn of Egypt. Their escape had been a long time coming and they were only going to get one shot at it.
Feet matter. They get us to where we want to be. They support us. They are a symbol of our independence. We learn to “stand on our own two feet” as we grow up. We “find our feet” in new situations.
Feet are the things which keep us in contact with the ground on which we stand, with the reality of life. We need to have our “feet on the ground”, not our “heads in the clouds”, if we are to live our lives consciously and well.
But feet can take a real battering. They bear heavy loads – us, and all that we carry. When something goes wrong with your feet, you really know it. Even a small thing – an ingrowing toenail, a bruised toe, can make it painful, or impossible to walk. If our feet don’t work properly, it affects our whole lives.
Yet we expect them keep on going, day after day, no matter what the terrain. No wonder they ache sometimes at the end of the day. No wonder we are glad to kick our shoes off and put our feet up.
But despite their importance people often don’t like their feet much. They’re a long way away from our heads, for a start, which often seem like the most important bits of us, where all the decisions are made and the clever ideas thought up. And after a lifetime of walking about they aren’t always pretty to look at.
It’s no surprise that human beings eventually came up with the bright idea of covering their feet in shoes. Originally we just wanted to protect them, wrapping them in animal skins to keep them warm and stop them being cut by stones and thorns. In some parts of the world shoes are still a lifesaver, protecting their wearers against infections and parasites they might pick up from the soil.
But shoes themselves have sometimes become the problem. Whenever I was taken shoe shopping as a child I would be told the cautionary tale of great-grandma who had ruined her feet by wearing unsuitable shoes when she was young. This was supposed to make me feel better about the sensible, flat Clarks shoes which were what I was going to get…Of course, my mother was right, but good sense never stopped anyone wanting the glamorous, impractical shoes too from time to time at least, the ones which look good, but put you through hell to wear. In some city centres, local churches have set up teams of Street Pastors who are on hand late at night to help deal with young people who get into trouble after a night out clubbing. One of the most important bits of kit they carry are free flip flops to give out to young women who have found that they just can’t get home in those vertiginous shoes which looked wonderful when they first put them on, but who are now picking their way barefoot along the pavements because they’ll never get home in those heels and they’ve missed the last bus. It’s not just women who put vanity above comfort either – otherwise men would have long ago protested about the fashion rules that make them wear closed in shoes with formal suits all through the hot summer weather!
The problem is that we often use shoes to cover up the truth, or to distract from it by projecting an image of the people we’d like to be. Top shoe designers can charge hundreds or even thousands of pounds for shoes which will proclaim to those in the know that their wearers have the money to buy them. It’s often said that you can tell a lot about people by their shoes. Being “down at heel” or “on your uppers” with the soles of your shoes worn through, is something to be avoided if you want to dress to impress. And you’d certainly never go to an interview barefoot. But the message our shoes send out doesn’t necessarily tell the whole truth – who we really are, where we have been and what loads we might be bearing. It takes the naked foot to reveal that.
They might be grimy or sweaty, scarred or battered from the journeys they’ve had to make and maybe that is why we find it so hard to let others see them as they are, let alone wash them. Maybe that’s what lies behind the disciples’ reluctance to let Jesus wash their feet on the night before he dies.
There are only really two categories of people who we will normally allow to provide intimate care – and somehow foot washing seems to come into that category. The first are paid carers who, in our society, are often low-paid and regarded as low status. In the ancient world it was servants or slaves who would wash feet. These are people who are often treated as invisible, anonymous – as if they don’t matter. We prefer it that way. If they don’t matter, then their thoughts on our feet don’t matter either. The second category is those who are nearest and dearest to us, who already know us through and through anyway so there’s no point pretending, people who we don’t mind seeing us as we really are, bunions and all.
The struggle the disciples feel is that Jesus is neither of these things. They know Jesus too well, and respect him far too much, to let him be their servant, but they aren’t completely at ease with the idea of letting him come this close as a friend. It’s one thing to follow him around, to discuss theology, to help with his ministry, to feel they are part of a band of brothers who are on an important mission. It is quite another to acknowledge their vulnerability, their need, their mess, and to accept the love and tenderness he wants to give them.
Peter, who is first to object to having his feet washed, is also first to get why it matters, though. If being part of Jesus’ mission means doing this, then he is literally all for it. Wash the rest of me too! he says. Jesus doesn’t need to do that, but Peter has at least got the message. Following Christ, being part of the kingdom of God, isn’t just about being strong and clever and brave. It is also about being tired, wounded and helpless, and yet finding God within that helplessness.
Jesus’ own feet will be pierced with nails when he is crucified, and the wounds will still be there when he is raised. His followers will find that their journeys will not be a short triumphant victory march either as they struggle to lead the early church. It will more often be a faltering, stumbling, painful, costly path as they struggle to build a new sort of community together. Their feet will ache – spiritually as well as literally – as they try to carve out a new path, take the wrong roads, have to back track and try again.
It is no different for us now. Life is often spoken of as a pilgrimage, a journey, and often we come to a point when we feel the end of the journey is no closer, that we are going round in circles, and that our feet just won’t get us there.
The promise of this story is that we follow a saviour who knows that, and, if we will let him, is ready to kneel down and ease off our shoes – whether they are sensible or ridiculous, worn for comfort or for show – so he can bathe our aching feet and give us the strength to carry on. The challenge of this story is that he calls us to do the same for all whose feet are aching. Amen