The Sacrament of Washing Feet

A reflection on the sermon preached by Todd Hiestand at The Well on September 17, 2006. The text for the sermon was John 13:1-17. Originally posted here.

Foot-Washing vs. Lord’s Supper

It is well known that the gospel of John does not have a last supper with Jesus and his disciples before his death. Jesus does not institute a sacrament of his body and blood as he does in the Synoptic gospels—although, to be accurate, Jesus does institute the Lord’s Supper in John, but it comes early in his ministry (6:53-58) rather than at the end. Rather than a last supper, John’s gospel has Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. The washing of the feet, not the bread and the wine, is the center of John’s gospel.

The writer of John prefaces this central event by stating, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1). Such a statement would seem more at home in the context of the crucifixion. Is not the cross the highest and most concrete example of God’s love? Is not the death and resurrection of the Son the greatest act of love ever known? Indeed it is. So what about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet? What John subtly communicates in his gospel is that the cross and the washing of the feet are not two separate acts of love, but the same act of love revealed in two unique ways. In fact, we can go even further and say that the washing of the feet is a sign pointing us to the cross; better yet, the washing of the feet is the sacrament of Jesus’ death on the cross. But what does this mean?

Rather than belabor this reflection with a discussion of what a sacrament is, it seems more important to connect the foot-washing with the cross. We see the connection in verses 7 and 8. In verse 7, after Peter mockingly asks, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (you can hear the incredulity), Jesus responds, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” This is our first clue as to the significance of the foot-washing. Only in light of the crucifixion of Jesus will the foot-washing make sense. The meaning of the foot-washing is obscured and darkened until the light of the cross shines upon it and illuminates the meaning of what Jesus did. We can say a similar thing about the Lord’s Supper: it too only makes sense and only functions as a true sacrament because of the cross. Just as the breaking of Jesus’ actual body on the cross makes the breaking of the bread meaningful, so too the radical act of love displayed in his going to the cross makes his radical act of love in washing the disciples’ feet meaningful and understandable.

The second clue comes in verse 8, in which the incredulity of Peter turns into a false humility: “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus responds this time by saying, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Here we reach the pivotal statement. Jesus reinterprets the act of washing another person’s feet so that, in that act, a relationship is formed between Jesus and the one who is unclean and needs to be washed. The act of foot-washing was a customary act of hospitality in which a slave or servant washed the feet of the guests. Here, however, the foot-washing by Jesus is a display of divine hospitality in which God gives abundantly to his sinful disciples out of the infinite depths of divine love. By allowing Jesus to wash their feet, the disciples allowed Jesus to establish a new relation with them as those who are now given a “share,” that is, welcomed into the divine household. Unlike the usual portrayal of Jesus standing outside our door and knocking to come in as our guest, John 13 portrays us as those who are standing outside God’s door and the only way we may enter is if Jesus washes our feet.

The analogy between the foot-washing and the cross should be readily apparent. Like the washing of the feet, Jesus’ passion and death on the cross is the ultimate act of divine hospitality, in which God gives up God’s own life on the cross, dying the death of a sinner in our place in order that we may enjoy new life for all eternity. The event of the cross is a radical demonstration of God’s abundant grace and overflowing love. And it is this event alone which establishes a new relation between God and sinful humanity; only because of the cross may we “share” in the new life that is found in Jesus. If we change slightly the statement by Jesus in verse 8, the relation between the foot-washing and the cross is even more clear: “Unless I die for you, you have no share with me.”

The Washing of the Feet as a Sacrament

The point in all of this is that we cannot separate the foot-washing from the cross. Far too many Christians view the washing of the disciples’ feet as the supreme example for us to follow (which it is, but it’s much more than that), while the cross is the supreme act of God on our behalf. We need to remember that the foot-washing is also an act of God, an act of divine hospitality, which is done for us and, in a way, cannot be repeated. In other words, just as we cannot die on a cross and thus fully imitate Christ’s crucifixion, we cannot (figuratively or literally) wash another person’s feet and fully imitate what Christ did for his disciples. No, there is something unique and unrepeatable in the foot-washing of John 13, and yet there is also something repeatable. What does this mean?

I believe the interpretation of the foot-washing as a sacrament holds the key. In the same way that our partaking of the Lord’s Supper is done after the example set by Jesus, we too must be well aware that we partake of this meal after the cross. This is hugely significant. When Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the crucifixion had (obviously) not yet taken place. It was a sign that looked ahead to what Jesus would do on their behalf and on behalf of the entire world. In other words, before the crucifixion, only Jesus could institute such a sacrament. After the cross and resurrection, however, we as the church are now able to share in Christ’s body and blood as those who are liberated by the death of Christ to be his people in this world. The sacrament is truly a sacrament after the cross, because it is an act of remembrance.

The act of washing his disciples’ feet is a sacrament in much the same way. We too engage, or ought to engage, in such acts of love and humility only after the cross. Jesus washed their feet as a sign to his followers that, in order to have a “share with me,” they had to allow Jesus to be their slave. We, of course, now do such acts after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and thus the situation is radically changed. Of course, Jesus commands us to do as he did, to be the last and the lowest, not the first and the highest. He tells his followers to “wash one another’s feet” and follow his example. But this first act of divine hospitality looks forward to the second and greater act of hospitality: the cross. And we cannot imitate the former without the salvific significance of the latter. In other words, we cannot “wash one another’s feet” unless we recognize that our feet have already been washed in the blood shed for us on the cross.

Slaves of Righteousness

The metaphor of becoming a slave is helpful. Jesus became a slave to his disciples, lowering himself beyond his disciples’ imagination. He washed their feet without obligation but in complete freedom. Paul writes about the metaphor of slavery in the epistle to the Romans. In chapter 6 he writes about two kinds of slaves: slaves of sin and slaves of righteousness. The former are bound by the law of sin and death, while the latter are set free from sin. Paul writes:

But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching in which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. … For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. (Rom 6:17-18, 19b)

But how are we “set free from sin” to “become slaves of righteousness”? Paul answers this question in the first part of chapter 6:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? … We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. … So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:3, 6-8, 11)

From this passage we can say a few things with the certainty of faith: (1) Jesus Christ died for us all; (2) when we are baptized, we are joined with Christ in his death and resurrection; (3) we are set free from sin by the death of Christ and by our baptism to order to be “alive to God” as a “slave of righteousness”; and (4) being a “slave of righteousness” counters how we normally think of slavery in that we are actually and truly free. Thus, in light of these truths, when we partake of the bread and the cup, we partake of the body and blood of Jesus that was shed on our behalf so that we are able to live new lives of freedom and obedience. The Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of what Christ accomplished for us on the cross. We remember in the Lord’s Supper that Christ killed the old self that was a slave to sin and gave us a new self that is a slave to righteousness—and thus free to serve others and obey God.

In the gospel of John, the same can and should be said of the foot-washing in John 13: (1) Jesus Christ died for us all as a slave on the cross, which was embodied in a unique way in the washing of his followers’ feet; (2) in our baptism, we are joined to the unique event of the cross and resurrection, toward which the foot-washing event points; and just as in the Lord's Supper we (like the disciples) receive the body and blood from Jesus, so too in the foot-washing, we (like the disciples) stand as those who are washed by Jesus, who receive the washing as a gift of new life; (3) in our new life of faith, we are washed by Christ so that we may partake in the “share” of his righteousness, and thus we are set free from the pursuit of greatness in order to become a slave to others as Jesus was to us, both in that upper room and on the cross; and (4) being a “slave of righteousness” as one who washes the feet of other people is real freedom, because in obedience to God we find that we are most truly free. The Lord's Supper and the washing of the feet are both events in which we receive from the Lord what Jesus alone could accomplish: the death of the old person and the resurrection of the new. By faith we receive a "share" in this new identity, and our continual acts of taking the Lord's Supper and washing one another's feet are acts which remind us—though a sacrament is much more than mere remembrance—of what Jesus did on our behalf.

We can say more about the relationship between the act of humble service in John 13 and the nature of a sacrament. First, a sacrament is an act which makes present and palpable something that is unique and unrepeatable. A sacrament is not the original event itself but rather its present-day embodiment by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Lord's Supper is not the actual death of Christ but rather the act by which we enter into that original event in the here and now. Something similar can be said for foot-washing. In this act of washing feet, we remember that Jesus became our slave on the cross. Jesus alone took our place as a slave to sin and killed that sinful person on the cross in order that a new person, one who is freed for righteousness, would arise from the grave in his resurrection. The washing of the disciples' feet was a sacramental act which is only understandable in light of what Jesus accomplished on the cross, in which he became the slave on behalf of the world so that we might wash one another's feet freely out of obedience to God.

“You also should do as I have done to you”

Therefore, when we wash the feet of other people today, we are engaging in an act which is truly sacramental. Foot-washing is taken metaphorically by Christians, but that is because we view it as a moral act of imitating Christ’s example. I suggest that we view it primarily as a sacrament which overflows into our moral acts of love and obedience. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, but it should overflow into ceaseless generosity and table hospitality to guests outside the church. We are called to be a people who invite others to join our fellowship at all times, especially within the home. In the same way, the washing of the disciples’ feet begins as a sacrament and spreads out from the church into an infinite array of acts of loving hospitality for others.

In the accounts of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus commands his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me.” In John 13, Jesus commands his disciples, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Both commands are established primarily in the event of the cross, towards which the last supper and the washing of the feet both point in expectation. We see this explicitly in John 13:7-8 when Jesus tells Peter that the cross alone makes the foot-washing comprehensible, and that apart from this foot-washing, Peter and the others can have “no share with me.” Thus, the foot washing is intimately connected to the cross and resurrection, because it is in our baptism that we are joined to that singular event and given a share in the new life established in Jesus Christ. In conclusion, we can say that foot-washing functions as a sacrament in that it (a) is rooted and finds its meaning in the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for the world; (b) is an embodied act of representing and remembering the self-sacrifice of Jesus in the community of believers; (c) overflows into our life of ethical-moral obedience in which we embody the divine hospitality of the cross in our acts of love and hospitality towards others; and (d) is always a free response of our faith grounded in the fact that, on the cross, Christ freed us from slavery to sin once and for all.

In closing, I suggest that the Christian church should recover the tradition of foot-washing and practice it on a more regular basis—at least once a year. The act of washing another person’s feet may be culturally foreign to us, but it will be a very tangible and sacramental reminder of the extent of God’s love shown to us both in the washing of the disciples’ feet and, more importantly, on the cross where Jesus gave up his life for us all so that we might be “slaves to righteousness” who follow his example out of love and freedom. Jesus became a humble slave in washing his disciples’ feet. In washing their feet, Jesus gave a tangible picture of what he did on the cross: he became a slave on behalf of the world. On the cross he washed the feet of the world with his blood. With our baptism into his death and resurrection, Jesus sends us out into the world for which he died to wash their feet with the love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. God showed us such great love in Jesus that we might show love to others. It was for freedom that Christ set us free. Praise be to God!