The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective was developed in 1995, and is the most recent systematic statement of belief for Mennonite Church USA.
Over the course of the next several months, we will be releasing “roundtable posts”, featuring two to three members of Mennonite Church USA congregations reflecting on an article from the Confession of Faith and how it impacts their ministry, congregational life and theology. We’ll move through the articles in numerical order. You can read all the past posts online.
Today’s authors are reflecting on Article 13: Foot Washing. Writers appear in alphabetical order.
“To pedicure or not to pedicure?”
I’m not proud to say that this is one of the questions I ponder during Lent every year. My congregation practices foot washing once a year at our Maundy Thursday evening service, and every year I struggle between my love of the idea of foot washing and my great discomfort with the actuality of letting someone wash my non-pristine feet.
I used to wonder what my conservative Mennonite grandmas would think of me-getting my toes painted for church! Would they cluck with disapproval or amusement? My earliest memories of foot washing in church are of gathering with women of all ages around a circle of chairs in a plain ante-room: women in big coverings, women in small coverings, women in no head coverings at all. Many of the older women kept their nylons on for the ritual. I wonder now if they, too, preferred to keep the condition of their toes private, or if it was just handier to leave them on. Since I wasn’t yet baptized, I could only watch as the water beaded on their Muppet-feet before they were patted dry, making the somber ritual somehow exotic in my young eyes.
You, dear reader, may be wondering, why all this talk of pedicures and nylons? Where’s the theological reflection? Well, one of my deepest appreciations of foot washing as an Anabaptist tradition, and of its inclusion in the 1995 Confession of Faith, is that it is a such a messy, embodied practice. I love that we hold without judgment that some congregations practice it, some used to and some never have, as the commentary on this article reflects.
I love that foot washing inspires loyalty, loathing, deepest discomfort, or sweetest solace to individuals even within the same congregation. Those differences provoke great reflection and conversation. I see many older Mennonites avoiding foot washing, and many millennial Mennonites embracing it, even including foot washing in their wedding ceremonies.
Although humble service is the traditional emphasis of foot washing, I notice that Jesus asked the disciples to wash each other’s feet, which means serving and being served. White North American Mennonites are far more comfortable being the dispensers of service, rather than the recipients. So, maybe the radical invitation of foot washing for today is to allow ourselves to be served, dirty feet and all. Receiving something needed, that is freely given, can be relationship-changing and life-changing. The mutual service relationship in foot washing may be its most radical invitation.
At first glance, foot washing appears to be a relic of the past and irrelevant for the 21st century American Mennonite Church. After all, few of us walk long distances on dusty roads wearing sandals. We tend to drive on paved roads and if we want our feet washed we are privileged to have the option of taking a daily shower. Furthermore, we live in an increasingly virtual society. We have virtual communities and virtual churches. We play virtual games and can even catch virtual monsters with our cell phones. In such a culture, it is surely obsolete to have a real person touch and wash real feet. Or is it?
Perhaps bending real knees, washing real feet with real water and drying them with a real towel is, in fact, a powerful, tangible, countercultural gesture that reminds us of three realities.
The act of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13:1-5 is followed by a dialogue between Jesus and Peter (13:6-11) and indicates a first reality. Washing evokes our continual need for cleansing as we walk in this world, the necessity of constant conversion. In this concrete sign of cleansing water, grace becomes touchable, tangible and mediated to us through another.
Jesus’ monologue in 13:12-17, points to the second reality of foot washing: a life lived in humility and in service to others. When our body physically bends down to wash another’s feet, we are reminded to let go of a desire to dominate others and elbow our way to first place. Our body informs our soul.
Third, even though only the Gospel of John recounts Jesus’ gesture, this act gives us a glimpse into the profound nature of God: a humble God who lets go of privileges in order to love to the very end. We tend to look for a powerful God in the heavens. n Jesus’ gesture, however, we find God at our feet, not in adoration or in an obedient servile position, but in a life-giving, loving act.
The Passover festival serves as the background for the foot washing experience. However, Jesus uses foot washing to demonstrate the kind of love he had for his followers and for the rest of the world.
Jesus knew that God the father had given all things into his hands. He was also aware that the hour of going back to the Father had come. Therefore, he rose from the Passover meal and did the unexpected. He took a towel and put water into a basin and washed and wiped the feet of his followers.
For Simon, this act of servanthood was unconceivable and right there, he confronted his master by saying: “Lord are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered him: “You do not know now what I am doing, but you will understand it later.”
When he had washed everybody’s feet, he took his place at the table again and said to the other disciples: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and you call me Lord and you are right.” His closing argument becomes a lesson and challenge to them: “If then I, the Teacher and Lord, have washed your feet, so you must wash each other’s feet for I have given you an example.”
Jesus, knowing that the hour had come to leave this world and to go back to his father, decides to show, through foot washing, what kind of leadership is to be observed and passed on by his disciples. Servant leadership and Christ-like love becomes the teaching and practice for this new Christian movement.
We believe that Jesus Christ calls us to serve one another in love as he did. Foot washing speaks to me about cultural diversity and inclusiveness through service. The foot washing image portrays sincere and honest relationships.
However, it is also intriguing to see that 12 sets of feet were washed ,but there were thirteen people in the room. Scripture does not speak about who washed the Jesus’s feet?
Perhaps, we should remind ourselves that every time we wash each other’s feet, we are also doing it to the Lord and the “Head of the Church.” Humble servanthood expressed through foot washing is a concrete action for loving one another in a Christ-like manner. The greatest leader is one who learns how to serve and how to equip leaders greater than the leader himself or herself.
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