Washing One Another's Feet
a homily based on John 13:1-17
by Rev. Hose
As is the case with everyone, although we often do not like to
admit it, I have character flaws. One of the blessings and curses of Holy Week is that I
am forced to face those flaws. Somehow this week brings them out full force. This day,
Holy Thursday, brings out one of my worst. The problem is my ego. I have a monumental ego.
I can be amazingly prideful. I have been that way all my life. As a matter of fact one of
my closest friends, whom I have know since I was a teenager, has often reminded me that I
can be one of the most insufferable human beings he has ever met. I never argue with him
about that for I know it to be true.
That brings me to the problem of this week and especially this day. My pride can really
get off on the teaching of the Church that a priest acts "in persona Christi,"
in the person of Christ. When you come to the sacrament of reconciliation, I am the human
being to whom you talk but it is Christ acting through me who confers the sacrament. At
the consecration of the Eucharist, it is Christ, acting in the person of the priest, who
offers the sacrifice given once and for all time. When my friend, who is not Roman
Catholic, but who is a minister in another denomination heard of this teaching that the
priest stands in the person of Christ, his response was, "Oh no! The theology of the
Roman Church will only make you more insufferably egotistic! You, in the person of Christ!
Is there no end?"
He is right, in my more clerical moments, when I get too much into myself, there does
seem to be no end. But then there comes this day, a day that brings me back down to earth
and to a clearer perspective of what it means to be not only a priest, but a Christian and
a human being. Even more this day is a defining day for it is the day on which Jesus
instituted the Eucharist and, by implication the priesthood itself. That would have been
all right for my insufferable ego if he bad left it at that. But he didn't. He did
something else that tells of the attitude that all of his followers, including priests
must have. He washed the feet of his disciples.
What is the meaning of this action? Why does it make so evident my character flaw of
pride? The meaning is clear. Washing the feet of guests in a household was the duty of the
lowest servant or slave in that household. For the host it was an act of courtesy and
welcoming. However for the servant, it was an affirmation of their being of the lowest
rank of all. Jesus, the guide, the teacher, God himself, assumed the rank of the lowest
slave in order to show all of us of how it must be for us if we have any desire to be his
followers. God washed the feet of human beings. He did that to demonstrate clearly the
meaning not only of what was to follow in the next few days but also of how it must be
among all of us for all time.
To be a follower of Christ is to be a servant to all. I fear, however that that is not
how we always view it. Clericalism, among priests is alive and well. Somehow we come to
view ourselves with our consecrated hands and priestly powers as somehow above others.
There are those among the laity who put us on a pedestal, only feeding our own temptations
to prides and aloofness. Clericalism and the pedestal only separate us from what it is
that we are really called to be-servants to all.
It does not stop among priests. It is present in many others as well. Deacons fall into
the same trap, as do the laity. It takes form in our thinking that we are better than
others or that what we do is more important or more correct. I have seen it in prayer
groups who hold that their form of prayer is the true devotion and that those who are not
called to it are somehow lacking. There are those who subscribe to particular devotions or
spiritualities and even theological theories and insist that they have the answer for
everyone and that those who do not see that are lacking in faith or in orthodoxy. I see it
as well in groups and in individuals who are unwilling to accept that their ways of doing
things may not always be the best way. Often this takes form in trying to control others
either covertly or overtly. That happens in all aspects of our lives, the church, in the
workplace, among friends and in the family. It takes form as well when we look down on
others for any reason, their race, culture, life choices, for any reason at all. These
things and so many more are merely manifestations of selfishness and pride that keep us
from being what Jesus instructed us to be at the very beginning. These things and more
make us forget that God washed the feet of human beings and that we have to do the same if
we have any hope of being what God has called followers of Christ as he has called us to
On the night that the Church took form Jesus showed us the bottom line. The Church and
all in it are to be the servants of all. We are to wash each other's feet as a sign of our
willingness to simply be for each other. It is a sign from God that enables us to see the
folly of our pride and our selfishness. It is a sign from God that shows us clearly what
it is to be a people of the Eucharist. It is a sign that Christian love means humble and
willing service to all.
Just as I have seen our common failure to wash each other's feet, to be servants to one
another I have seen the opposite. Indeed, I see efforts to be servants more often than
not. There are so many ways in which I have seen you the members of this parish offer
yourselves in service to one another and to the community. Many times you have placed the
good of others or their needs before your own. I think that another very important aspects
of what Jesus did on that night lies in his telling us that we are to do this. God knows
that human beings are capable of infinite goodness and generosity if they will just do it.
That is why I think he gave us this image for us to follow. Washing the feet of another
person, especially those whose feet it may be difficult for us to wash, puts us into
contact with the essential goodness and generosity that lies in our own hearts and in the
hearts of every human being. It shows us how we can change the world in unity with Christ
so that it may be a place in which all human beings are revered and honored.
This night as I, who am called, as are all of us, to serve the good of all, remove the
symbols of my priestly office, let us all pray for the grace of letting go of those things
that feed our egos and keep us apart from one another. Then as I, not in the person of
Christ, but as myself, a simple human being, wash the feet of those I have asked to
represent not only this parish community but all human beings, let us pray that God will
help us all to do this for one another. Let us pray that we never forget in the other days
of the year that being Christian, being human requires this of us. Let us pray that
through the simple act of washing each other's feet in humble service to one another,
those terrible barriers that separate us and which feed our haughtiness and pride will
fall away. Let us pray that we will continue to grow in our faith and understanding that
all of us are simply brothers and sisters called by God himself to be servants to all.