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Foot Washing and Last Things (John 13:1-20)

by Robert H. Herhold

Robert M. Herhold is pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Fremont, California. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 9, 1983, p. 205. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Jesusí act of washing the disciplesí feet has been called "the sacrament that almost made it." It contains both the earthly element and the divine command which constitute a sacrament. Yet except for Catholics on Maundy Thursday and a few sects, not many Christians wash feet. Perhaps Jesus made his point about doing menial service all too clear.

Itís probably just as well that foot washing never became a sacrament. Church property committees would not take kindly to pans of dirty water on the new carpet in the chancel. If theologians had gone to work on the question, we would still be embroiled in endless debate as to whether the feet should be immersed or sprinkled. Liturgists would argue whether the right foot or the left foot should be immersed first. Others would speculate on the symbolism of baptizing heads or feet. Itís always easier to follow Jesus in our heads than it is to follow him with our feet on the Via Dolorosa.

John 13:1-20 is included in the Maundy Thursday pericope of many churches. It is common for the preacher to emphasize the Servant role. But there is a significant passage, the content of which precedes and undergirds Jesusí actions: "Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel." Before Jesus did anything, it was necessary for him to affirm who he was. For Jesus, being came before doing, eschatology before ethics.

When Jesusí origin and destiny were established, these became his reference points. He did not have to concern himself with the question that haunts many people today: "Who am I?" Because this identity was given to him in his baptism ("Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased"), he was free to get on with his life and ministry.

The knowledge of where he came from and where he was going formed the boundaries of Jesusí life, much like the banks of a river. A river without banks becomes a flood, while a river with firm banks becomes a source of power.

Without a beginning or an end, the middle becomes muddled and meaningless. It is difficult to sustain a task, particularly a seemingly hopeless one like world disarmament, without an eschatology. How else can we keep at a task that is doomed to failure by all historical precedents? Inspection becomes comical when a cruise missile can be hid on the back of Uncle Edís pickup truck.

Those who believe that our origin and destiny lie with God find a source of courage to keep at the impossible. We are totally responsible for ending the arms race; the life of the whole planet is at stake. Yet our ultimate hope is not affected by how successful we are. We work for peace and justice, not because of the probability of success, but because we have been commanded to do so.

An eschatology without ethics is futuristic and irrelevant. Ethics without an eschatology is desperate and futile. But joined together, they can produce the power to wash feet and sustain Peterís rebuke; to live fully today because God is in the present as well as in the tomorrow, and to work for the impossible because with God all things are finally possible.

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