Wednesday a friend related to me a disastrous encounter with the women’s pastor of her church. She had gone to her with her story that was marked by deep pain inflicted by men, especially as a former radical feminist who had come to Christ and started a journey of reconciling her feminist beliefs with the truths of Scripture. The advice offered? Wash the feet of men.
That was not helpful. It was a misguided and unfortunate application of what I believe to be completely opposite of Christ’s intent in washing the feet of his disciples.
How timely that the next day was Maundy Thursday. Holy Thursday, a Christian observance of the Last Supper and for many a reenactment of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. In that simple and profound act Jesus revealed something of the Father that dumbfounded them in the moment yet defined them for their journey toward a new community.
The Apostle unfolds the story in John 13 in such a way to help us understand Jesus’ intent for the foot washing.
In 13:1, we read Jesus’ thoughts as he anticipates the days ahead: Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
Jesus loved deeply and forever that initial band of misfits, the beginnings of a new community that he called, taught, lived with and sent into the world to be his hands and feet, his body. But he knew his days were numbered and he would be leaving them behind. So the Passover meal was prepared, an appropriate last supper before the events of the next day would thrust him away from “his own who were in the world” toward his Father in heaven. Then in the middle of dinner, Jesus got up, stripped off his clothes and washed their feet.
Shock. Embarrassment. Resistance.
During his interaction with Peter, Jesus was patient but clear. Christ’s community was to go beyond the reality of chosenness and cleansing. His followers were to embrace a divine love that humbles itself for the uplifting of the other, serves for the good of the other, and washes for the healing of the other.
In this scene, I don’t think that Jesus’ act was primarily a teaching moment on servant leadership. I believe Jesus was demonstrating the one quality he desired his body, the community of his followers to be marked by. Love. Mutual, inclusive, humble, self-giving, naked-and-not-ashamed love.
After Judas leaves to betray not only his Master but his community, Jesus looks around the room at the eleven with clean feet who will walk a difficult path to build a new radical community and he says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
So wash one another’s feet.
The pastor should not have asked my friend to kneel before men and wash their feet. Instead if she had gathered the men in the church office to kneel before my friend and wash her feet, the pastor and the men would have been doing as Jesus did. If my friend had been in the Upper Room, I am confident that Jesus would have washed her feet.
Thankfully today is Good Friday. Where we have failed to love, we also find forgiveness at the foot of the cross. Where we harbor pain and bitterness, we also find at the cross freedom and the possibility of reconciliation.
In light of my passion for gender reconciliation, I believe Jesus’ act is one key to understanding how men and women can move toward each other with divine love, acceptance and healing. The metaphor-example of foot washing is a powerful image-act for a community of men and women who seek reconciliation and seek to remove the barriers to collaboration and community.
This Kingdom dance between male and female image-bearers must flow back and forth between the foot of the cross to the feet of each other.
Note: For those who are interested, New Wine, New Wineskins' Gender Conference audio recordings are available. Really good stuff.