Maundy Thursday is the day in the Christian year when we enter into the Upper Room on the night that Jesus was betrayed to rediscover the love that characterizes the Christian life. Churches typically celebrate two practices on this day: the Lord’s Supper and foot washing. Far from being empty rituals, the Gospels say that it is these practices that teach us to love each other with the love of God.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke we get similar stories about the Lord’s Supper being instituted on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. But John’s Gospel tells us a different story. John skips over the meal part of the evening to tell us a story about foot washing (John 13) that becomes a concrete action and precursor to the message of Jesus’ farewell exhortation to love each other (John 14-17).
Anabaptists have traditionally put more emphasis on foot washing than other traditions have. Because of this, I want to take a second look at the message of love that John’s gospel uniquely shows us as being at the heart of our Maundy Thursday celebrations.
A commandment of love, not legalism
Maundy Thursday is the day where we act out two of the greatest signs of Christ’s love for us. In the process, we learn to love one another, discovering in the process that there are only friends in Christ’s kingdom.
The name “Maundy Thursday” comes from a corruption of the Latin word for commandment (maundatum). After Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, he gives them a “new commandment” or novum maundatum, which is to love each other (John 13:34). Maundy Thursday is the institution of the new law, the law of love, the law of friendship. Just
as Moses and the people of Israel were given rituals and celebrations to remember to keep the Law (Exodus 25), so, too, are the disciples given the practices of foot washing and the Lord’s Supper to remember to follow the law of Christ, which is to love one another.
Of the two practices that Maundy Thursday represents, foot washing is by far the more controversial. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas once said in a sermon at his church’s Maundy Thursday service, “Episcopalians do not come to church to be touched.” I have found this sentiment to be common even among some Anabaptists!
Nevertheless, it is particularly in the Anabaptist tradition that foot washing has long been given special attention. Foot washing is understood to be an ordinance, which is a practice that is ordained or commanded by Jesus. But the washing of feet is not simply some legalistic requirement for us. Foot washing is an invitation into a vulnerable love-reality where we both learn what it means to be friends, both of God and each other.
Jesus says, “A new command I give you” (John 13:34). What is that command? It is simply that we have love for each other (John 15:17). In the practice of foot washing, we learn the posture of humility necessary to love one another as Christ loved us. We do not continue to wash one another’s feet simply because Jesus commanded us.
Foot washing is a sign-act that Jesus performs to give us a concrete practice to accompany the sermon he delivers in the following chapters. In John 14-17, Jesus describes a picture of mutual indwelling love that both reveals to us the inner love life of the Trinity and invites us to participate in that love through our relationships with one another (see John 15:4-14).
In the Gospels we see that Christ humbled himself, put on the garment of a slave and ultimately climbed upon a cross in love. It is no surprise therefore, when God forms our lives through the practice of foot washing to begin looking like the life of Christ.
Following Jesus’ commands
We are to love one another; to be characterized and even saturated by love. In fact, the Bible says that it is by this divine love we have for one another that we are recognized as being God’s people (John 13:35).
At the center of all of our claims about God is Jesus, the one whom “we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands” (John 1:1). Jesus is God revealed to us (John 1:18). The wonderful news of the gospel is that the God who is revealed to us is the one who takes on his glorious outer garments, puts on a towel, the mark of a slave, and does the task which only a slave may properly do—wash the feet of the disciples.
The disciples are shocked and appalled that the one whom they rightly call “Lord and Teacher” is doing something so humiliating for their benefit. Of course, it is not just in the washing of feet that we see Christ humble himself to the role of a slave; in just a few hours Jesus will die on the cross the death of a common criminal, a rebel-slave, a non-citizen.
Just as we see Christ take on the role of a slave to show his disciples the type of love he is about to pour out from the cross, so, too, should we humble ourselves to the lowest levels. We should show love to the homeless, to care for the disabled, to sit with the dying, to visit the prisoner, to feed orphans and comfort widows.
Jesus becomes a slave for us, and in so doing declares us to be his friends (John 15:14- 15). When we humble ourselves to serve one another in foot washing, and through serving each other in our daily lives we see our divisions disappear and discover that we have been made friends in Christ.
We servants are not greater than our Lord Jesus (John 13:16), and as such, there are none who’s feet we are too important to wash. Foot washing is an uncomfortable practice that prepares us to love even when it is most uncomfortable to do so.
We have been made friends of God and God is working in us to make us into the likeness of Christ. When we wash each other’s feet, we know that we are being formed more and more into that likeness because Christ has said that this is how we become ready to start having love for one another (John 13:8).
Why do we refuse this practice to one another? Be careful lest we refuse to humble ourselves to serve as Christ served and so we say that we are our own masters and we will decide how we are to live. There is no room in the Body of Christ for us to declare ourselves our own masters. That’s why on Maundy Thursday we are invited to wash one another’s feet in love and become friends of God.
This essay was first published in the March 2018 issue of The Messenger, the publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference.
Ryan Turnbull is a doctoral candidate at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, where he is studying Christian theologies of place. He is an adjunct professor at Thorneloe University. Inspired by his upbringing as a fifth-generation farmer in Western Canada and coupled with his work in the immigration sector, Turnbull is passionate about discovering unexpected friendships in unlikely places.