The power of bathing feet

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What happens when we follow Christ’s example and wash each other’s feet

By Randy Friesen and Ray Harms-Wiebe

After switching taxis multiple times to lose anyone following us, we finally arrived at an apartment where several young house church leaders were waiting for us. In their North African country, converting from Islam to Christianity was a crime punishable by death. We were there to build relationships with these young men and to learn about the challenges and opportunities they face as church planters in their region. Given the security concerns and cultural differences, our conversation began cautiously. I (Randy) was praying for God’s guidance and favor.

As we talked, I clearly sensed the Spirit instructing me to wash the feet of these men. I initially dismissed this thought as impossible, especially in a cultural context where feet are considered unclean and showing the bottom of your feet to someone is the ultimate insult. Even as I tried to dismiss it, the prompting to wash their feet became stronger.

As I listened to their story, I argued with God that the logistics of washing feet seemed impossible. Finally I asked to be excused to use the toilet. There to my surprise was a basin and a towel sitting on the floor as if prepared for me. I re-entered the room and asked if I could wash their feet. The leaders were surprised but said yes. What followed can only be described as an outpouring of God’s love and presence. As we washed the feet of these young leaders and prayed for them, God melted away our cultural differences and fears. We became aware of our common need of God’s grace and love as well as the presence of our leader, Jesus. Trust and friendship were established.

The blessing of servant leadership

When Jesus gave his disciples the command in John 13:14-17 to wash each other’s feet and follow his example, he promised they would be blessed. In hundreds of foot washing settings over the past 30 years I have experienced that blessing and have been reminded of those words.

Foot washing has been the commissioning service for thousands of MB Mission short term mission participants over the past 25 years as they leave their discipleship training orientations and depart for mission assignments with SOAR, ACTION or TREK programs. Foot washing has also become a regular feature of our International Community of Mennonite Brethren global meetings each year, when some 20 MB conference leaders from around the world gather for equipping, renewal and reporting.

At the recent dedication of the new Hiebert Academic Center on the MB Centenary Bible College campus in Shamshabad, India, we learned that a statue of a person washing another’s feet would become the courtyard centerpiece of the redesigned common area. The MBCBC administration has adopted this symbol of servant leadership as their motto, along with the text, “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).

Several days prior to the building dedication, North American and India leaders fanned out into five different regions to hold equipping seminars for Indian pastors and lay leaders. In one location, one Indian leader struggled to have his feet washed by a North American. Although a church planter in South India, his mother had served as a temple prostitute. Was he worthy of being served and honored? Tears flowed as North Americans and Indians washed each other’s feet and embraced each other as one in Jesus, their leader.

While the practice of foot washing has been growing in our mission contexts, is it relevant at the local church level here in North America? What has been our history of foot washing as a Mennonite Brethren family? What are the transferable principles from John 13 that will help us understand the value of foot washing for Christ’s disciples today?

Of the various Reformation groups, the Anabaptists were the only ones who picked up the foot washing practices of the early church. You can consult the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online website (www.gameo.org) for a chronicle of foot washing in church history up to the current era.

Foot washing as MB ordinance

Early Mennonite Brethren leaders practiced foot washing in their house church meetings as a reminder of the values of humility, equality and servanthood taught by Jesus, and usually connected it to the communion service. Foot washing was treated as a general ordinance of the church in the 1874 copy of the MB Confession of Faith. MB congregations universally practiced foot washing from the 1860s until the 1920s.

When Mennonite Brethren immigrated to the United States, they brought the practice of foot washing with them and according to the GAMEO article, until the 1950s as many as 85 to 90 percent of U.S. MB congregations still practiced it regularly. However, among the later Canadian MB immigrant churches formed in the 1920s, a minority of the churches practiced foot washing. By the time the most recent MB Confession of Faith was drafted in 1999, the practice of foot washing was so limited in MB churches that it was not included in the Confession. It is mentioned as a footnote in Article 6: Nature of the church.

Perhaps the “rediscovery” of the value of foot washing in our current generation has occurred because it is no longer a prescribed and routine practice of the church, but a voluntary and thoughtful choice to apply Christ’s example at the Last Supper in contemporary ways.

Foot washing and the Last Supper

The Last Supper has been popularized by paintings that place Jesus in the middle of a long rectangular table. In reality this meal was probably served on a three-sided Roman “triclinium” table, says J.R. Woodward in Creating A Missional Culture. If this is the context for John’s account of the foot washing, which occurred at some point in this Passover meal, people would have sat around the outside of the table and the order of seating would have been very important.

At the Roman triclinium table, the host was usually second from the end on the left side of the table with his best friend to his right and the guest of honor to his left. The rest of the guests were then seated in descending order of importance ending with the last guest seated across from the host. Some have speculated as to which disciples sat where on that last supper. What we do know is that the disciples often argued as to who was the most important.

Jesus would have been the host, with John seated next to him as his closest friend. When Jesus states that his betrayer is at the table with them, Peter calls across the table to John and asks John to ask Jesus who the betrayer is. Perhaps Peter has taken the last place at the table because he remembers Christ’s statement, “The last shall be first.” Of course he doesn’t feel that he deserves to be seated last. The role of the last person is to wash the feet of others, and we know that hasn’t happened yet. So there is probably some tension in the air that evening.

Jesus identifies his betrayer as the one who dips his bread into the dish with him. Only John on one side or Judas on the other side could reach the bowl. Judas is seated as the guest of honor, to Christ’s left. Interesting.
At some point in the meal Jesus gets up and begins washing his disciples’ feet. This task should have been done when the guests first arrived by the lowest of servants. However, this supper is in a donated room with apparently no servants to greet them. When Jesus comes to Peter, Peter refuses to have his feet washed by Jesus. Interesting. Perhaps Peter feels if he shouldn’t be washing feet, neither should Jesus.

What Jesus can teach us

The foot washing that night exposes a lot of positioning and thinking that Jesus wants to confront. Here are three brief take-aways for us today.

John begins his account of that Last Supper by saying that, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love” (John 13:1). Foot washing was one of the ways that Jesus communicated his love to his disciples and we also communicate our love to one another.

John goes on to say, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he…wrapped a towel around his waist” (John 13:3,4). Power in Christ’s kingdom is expressed in loving and serving, even our enemies. Foot washing reminds us of that every time we do it.

When Jesus comes to wash Peter’s feet, Peter replies, “No, you shall never wash my feet” (John 13:8). Peter succinctly communicates the pride within all of us related to position, status and honor. Foot washing exposes our pride and gives us an opportunity to receive and share the grace of God with each other.

In a culture where most of us shower or bath daily, foot washing lacks the essential function that it served in Christ’s day. Some have suggested we should be washing each other’s cars or mowing each other’s lawns instead. While that may be true, there is still something very personal and powerful when we simply follow Christ’s example of washing each other’s feet and praying for one another. This could be one of Jesus’ ways of renewing our love for each other today.

Randy Friesen serves as the general director of MB Mission, the global mission agency of the Mennonite Brethren churches of the United States and Canada. Ray Harms-Wiebe is the MB Mission global program team leader.

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