The shocking truth of my feet: a sermon for Maundy Thursday

We decided we wouldn’t stage a “foot-washing” as part of our service this evening.

If we had included a foot-washing I am sure that we would have prepared for it very well. We would have asked for volunteers last Sunday. Those volunteers will have made sure that their feet were in good shape for tonight. In other words, to save embarrassment, all would be well planned and totally expected.

Whereas in this evening’s gospel the foot washing comes as a total surprise to the disciples as we can see from Peter’s reaction. “Are you going to wash my feet? …. You will never wash my feet.”

In other words, we might miss the point of the gospel if we had staged a “foot-washing”.

This is a well known story. It’s a story that needs to be seen through Middle Eastern eyes because shoes and feet have very different meanings in the culture of Jesus, Peter and the Middle East (to this day).

I owe much to Ken Bailey for these insights. He has written a book called Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. Ken Bailey was brought up in the Middle East. He tells the story from his schooldays in an Egyptian boarding school when an American teacher threw a shoe at an Egyptian student because he wasn’t waking up. The student took it as an insult and reported it, and that resulted in the school being closed for two days. 

Shoes and feet are regarded as dirty and rude. Shoe and feet are four letter words in more senses than one. Some of those who hated Saddam Hussein and all he stood for pelted his fallen statue with their shoes as a way of registering their hatred and disgust. Shoes are shame. So those Saddam Hussein haters were in effect saying “shame on you” when they beat their shoes on the statue.

Worshippers leave their shoes outside the mosque when they go to pray because shoes are ritually unclean. They then bathe their feet and pray in long lines with the soles of their feet virtually in the face of those praying in the line behind them. 

Apparently you will be told to uncross your legs in some middle eastern churches – the reason being that you are bearing the sole of your shoe to others when you have your legs crossed, and that is considered rude and grossly disrespectful.

So perhaps you can see that performing a foot washing in any planned way tonight would scarcely be scratching the surface of what is going on in this passage.

The disciples didn’t have chance to pre-wash their feet, cut their nails or have a pedicure before Jesus was at their feet. Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet. Jesus takes the disciples by surprise and he is doing what no Jewish slave would be expected to do. Normally the Jewish slave would draw the water so that people could wash their own feet. 

This is humble service which would not have been expected from a servant. Jesus is going way above and beyond what a servant would do, and when he says to those who are disciples that he has set an example and that we should do as he has done for us. Jesus is not saying, “do for each other what is expected of service” – but go above and beyond what is expected.

This is a demonstration of costly, unexpected love.

It is no wonder that Jesus said to them “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.” That is because it is all about tomorrow, Good Friday, and the costly, unexpected love which gives itself utterly and to the end by dying for us on the cross. 

As well as being the perfect sacrifice, Jesus is also the scapegoat. He is the scapegoat to end all scapegoats, taking on all the iniquities, all the transgressions, all the sins of the people of Israel, of the people of his church – making atonement and addressing all that shames us. That’s tomorrow. But we can see tomorrow today in Jesus’ demonstration of unexpected, costly love in the washing of the disciples’ feet.

Jesus’ behaviour would have been troubling for the disciples. He was doing what he wasn’t supposed to be doing. He was transgressing the cultural boundaries between clean and unclean. It’s Peter who expresses their concern when he tells Jesus “You will never wash my feet”. That wasn’t because Peter was embarrassed by the state of his feet but because his Lord and Teacher was stooping so low to attend to something so very shameful..

But Jesus insists, while still leaving the choice with Peter. “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me”. To be part with Jesus is about being part of the body of Christ and about being part of his mission and church. To have no part with Jesus is about the inevitable distance that would grow between Peter and Jesus if Peter doesn’t accept the shame that Jesus has taken in hand in the footwashing and events of tomorrow, Good Friday.

There is, of course, an elephant in the room. 

The elephant is Judas. Jesus washes Judas’s feet as well.
He knows that Judas hasn’t come clean and has already betrayed him.
But still Jesus washes Judas’s feet in the same demonstration of costly, unexpected love.
These are not the beautified feet of the ones who bring good news.
These are the feet which will march off to the Roman authorities and lead them to the Garden of Gethsemane so that he can point Jesus out to them.
Being good was not the qualification for having their feet washed. Being good enough has nothing to do with it. It is nothing to do with being Goody Goody Two Shoes.

Our shame is in all that we conceal and in the act of concealment and hiding. 

This is what we’re like and what we’ve always been like, ever since Adam and Eve discovered their private parts and hid them behind fig leaves, and Adam went into hiding from God. 

The shame, its concealment, our feet, our shoes is what Jesus takes in hand in tonight’s gospel and in the goodness of tomorrow. We will only be part of Jesus and all he dies for and lives for if we allow him to stoop as low as we go, to the ground of our being and the soles of our feet to take our shame in hand.

On this night, when the moon was full, Jesus gave us a new commandment – to love one another. “Just as I have loved, you also should love one another.” In that room those first disciples had seen how Jesus loved them through an unexpected and shocking act of footwashing that took shame in hand with love. 

All of this happened in one room – with the disciples. The example of footwashing and the commandment to love became theirs to follow. 

What happens next, in the Garden, on this night of the full moon, highlights the disciples’ failures. They fail to keep watch with Jesus. They went to sleep, they scattered, one denied him, another betrayed him. 

None of us are good enough a-part from Jesus. It is by being a part of him that we become good enough. We are bad enough that we need Jesus to stoop so shockingly low to us to deal with our shame. We are bad enough that we need that new commandment of Jesus – to deal with our shame by loving one another.

The only way to deal with shame, with shame as old as time is with costly love. And the only way to be part of Jesus is to love the way Jesus deals with shame.

Ken Bailey, 2007, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes : Cultural Studies in the Gospels

PS. I’m wanting to also work in the idea that our feet turn once we are part of Jesus. Then our feet become beautiful. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace …” (Isaiah 52:7)

Francis reports: a Maundy Thursday sermon


Today, Pope Francis has been celebrating Mass at Casal de Marmo, a juvenile detention center on the outskirts of Rome, and washing the feet of the prisoners there.

This is one of the many gestures that has captured the imagination of people around the world, along with his willingness to get out of his car to shake hands with people without the fear of getting shot, wanting to pay off his hotel bill, and choosing to live in a simpler apartment. I don’t know about you, but I find all of this very exciting. In recent years the Roman Catholic Church has had problems with its PR (rightly so, because of the ways in which it has covered up abuse scandals). But with the white smoke has come a whiff of excitement. Maybe, the church in its impoverished state, can become the church of the poor, for the poor. And, without doubt, what the world needs is, according to Pope Francis, a wounded church that goes out onto the streets, rather than a sick church that is withdrawn into its own world.

There has been far too much inspiration and charity from within the Roman Catholic Church for it to be hidden behind a smokescreen of scandal.

The juvenile detention centre has 48 prisoners. The majority of them are Muslims. Pope Francis will wash the feet of 12 of the prisoners.

I wonder how they will feel. I wonder what will go through their minds. I wonder what sensations will travel from their feet and from the ground of their being. Will they know, through this action, that God loves them? Will they know that they are dear to him? Will they know that they are forgiven for the wrong paths those feet have taken them?

I wonder what Pope Francis will feel through his hands, in his mind and at his heart. Will he feel the journey those feet have made? Those feet of young people. Will he feel inside their shoes, their trainers, their boots, their bootees to the life they have led? Will he understand their running away from their homes, rival gangs, the police? Will he feel the cramping of life in those shoes and why they have kicked off?

This is what Maundy Thursday is about, that we love one another. It is a new commandment which is fleshed out in Jesus example of foot washing, and which is reenacted across the world this evening, including prisons and a detention centre in Rome. This is a love which is prepared to lovingly tend the other, whatever the state of the other’s feet may be, wherever those feet have been. This is a love which feels for the other, and which forms the foundation for a community of vulnerability, compassion and love with the least, the last and the lost.

It is a transformative act. The two parties will never feel the same about each other again. He felt for me. He understood me. He held me dear. He loved me.

Another Francis has hit the news this week. The Francis Report is the independent inquiry into what has gone wrong with the NHS in the light of the Mid Staffs Hospital. The important thing highlighted is the question of how to restore compassion to the National Health Service, and how safe care can be given to every patient every time. The publication of the report had nurses ringing in to Radio 5’s phone in, frustrated that they are unable to provide the level of care that they should be providing. Their hearts were going out to those who have been neglected, but their hands were tied up in so much other work.

I looked for a response to the Francis Report on Twitter from nurses. Mara Carlyle, now singer, but was a NHS nursing assistant for 7/8 years, mostly on wards so understaffed, tweeted:

If you give nurses enough resources and time to do their jobs properly, guess what? They will and they do. Because there weren’t enough staff for everyone’s basic needs to be attended to which inevitably led to some poor standards of care, that we often had to choose between attending to patients who were (variously) crying, dying, hungry, thristy, dirty, fallen out of bed …

Alison Leary, a registered nurse and macmillan lecturer in oncology writes of the work of a nurse (work described by Florence Nightingale as “women’s work which should be done quietly and in private”) and she asks:

How would you feel about dealing with a stranger in such an intimate way? A stranger who is so humiliated at his or her inability to control their own bodily functions that they weep? Then imagine having to care for him or her and 29 other patients with only two colleagues to help you.

So we have the juxtaposition of the Francis Report and its admissions about compassion, and Pope Francis and his expression of compassion, feeling for the other, loving the other.

Nurses want to alleviate suffering – physical, psychological, social and spiritual.

The dilemma for nurses is how they can show compassion in a system which expects so much from them.

If that is the dilemma of the nursing profession, it is perhaps the dilemma of our society. Don’t we want to be the answer to the problem of suffering, however that is experienced?

But how?

How does the NHS recover its capacity for compassion? How do we become compassionate? How do we feel for one another? How do we love one another?

The answer is repeated in story after story – from the story of the care of the Good Samaritan, to the story of the nurse most likely referred to as an angel. All of them are touching stories.

The answer is hinted at in tonight’s liturgy, and in Jesus own example of footwashing and his encouragement (“should”- is that command or encouragement?) for us to do just the same. This is the practice of loving one another, just as Jesus loves us.

It is taking one step at a time, one gesture at a time.

If the time has come for you to be asking where compassion has gone from our dealings with one another, if society has become so complicated that you don’t know where to start, I can tell you the place to start is HERE. It always has been. The first step is in the here and now, in truly local initiatives like Jesus washing the feet of his dearest friends, like Francis washing the feet of the prisoners in a Rome detention centre, like the nurse holding the hand of a patient who is afraid – who through that touch reaches beyond the physical condition of the patient to her heart of hearts.