Reflections on the washing of the feet

This is the text of the homily I gave on the Women’s World Day of Prayer – 6 March 2015. The text was John 13:1-17 – the washing of the feet.

When I first read the reading today from that familiar passage from John’s gospel in preparation for speaking here today my heart sank a little. Was I really going to have to talk to a group of committed Christian women about the importance of service? Surely if this group do not already have a good grasp of the ideal of service there is nothing I can add.

And then I sat with the readings. Over the last few months I have allowed them to percolate in my soul. Every so often drawing them out to look at them again.

A few weeks ago I found myself enthralled by the interaction between Peter and Jesus. Jesus gets up from the table and prepares to start washing the disciples’ feet. This is a task for a servant. Peter asks the obvious question ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus says ‘At the moment you do not understand what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ And Peter says ‘Never! … You shall never wash my feet!’ Jesus says ‘If I don’t wash your feet, you can have no share of me’

Notice the strength of response of both – Peter says ‘Never, you shall never wash my feet’ This isn’t Peter mock objecting – ohh I feel a little awkward but okay go ahead – he is saying ‘under no circumstances will I let you wash my feet’. Jesus response is equally firm – ‘If you don’t let me do this, you and I are done.’

Clearly there is a whole lot more at stake here than washing a bit of dust off the feet. So what might it be?

I have found myself musing on the writing of Thomas Merton about the True Self and false self. Could this possibly give us a clue here? Jesus is acting out of his True Self, as he always does. He is unafraid to heal the leper, he speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well, he lets his disciples pick corn on the Sabbath because they are hungry. He flouts social convention left and right, but he is regarded as a rabbi – a respected teacher.

And here we have exactly the same dynamic in action – Peter thinks of Jesus as the rabbi, the master, the leader, perhaps even at this stage the promised Messiah. This Jesus is ‘the man’!  To Peter it is unthinkable that this great leader whom he is privileged to call a friend would perform such a menial and undignified task as to wash his feet. This is not the task performed by one who stands in the role of the Messiah.

And that is precisely the point.

Jesus is not playing the role of the Messiah. Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the rabbi, Jesus is the teacher. He does not need the external trappings of the role to retain his primary identity. He is operating out of his True Self. But Peter is still caught in the ego world of the false self. The man who is the Messiah should do these things and should not do those things.  And on the list of things the Messiah should not do is wash the feet of his disciples. That’s a servant’s job. It is problematic if a leader de-roles in this way.

But the problem is Peter’s problem, not Jesus’s. Jesus knows who he is, he doesn’t need titles or proper etiquette to reassure him of his mission. He is operating out of the True Self. Peter isn’t there yet, he still need the illusion of props of etiquette and title.

If we look at our own times we see that this is precisely the dynamic that we see in Pope Francis. Almost two years ago, shortly after his election as Pope, he washed the feet of a number of young people at a prison near Rome. There was outrage in some circles that two of the young inmates were Muslim women. Both religion and gender were an issue. The rubric says it shall be twelve men. And herein we have exactly the same dynamic. Pope Francis too, seems to operate out of a freedom which can only come from the sense of identity which is founded in the True Self. The rules are not to be abolished or laughed at, but simply the rules cannot override the significance of real human connection. And this pattern can be found in so much of what Pope Francis does.

Far too many of us embrace the subtle hierarchies of our societies. Which I must state unequivocally permeate the church just as much as any other organisation, community or family grouping. We happily nudge our way up the pecking order and are far too inclined to use our rank to prop up our fragile egos.

Have you ever been outraged at the uppity youngster who failed to realise that it was not her turn, or that someone else performed that particular role?

Have you ever protected the role of another – that is what Father does! That is what our chairwoman does! That is what the mother-in-law does!

Have you ever felt affronted by someone asking you to perform a task which you felt was below your station?

All of these situations are about the disruption of social hierarchy and the performing of roles. They are not about the person themselves. And if it is about the role rather than the person, then it is about stroking the ego, propping up the false self, not engaging with the True Self.

And I think that this is precisely what Jesus is striking down in today’s gospel reading. He is not saying we all need to serve more, although that is often the way in which this reading is presented. No, he is saying quit playing games. Let’s get to what is real. What makes Jesus special is not his role, it is the fact that he is operating out of the True Self. He doesn’t need the ego defence. So he chooses to do the one thing that will make Peter squirm. He will washes Peter’s feet, so Peter will understand.

This understanding is so important. We humans are so unbelievably slow to learn. If we read this reading simply at the level of service: that Jesus instituted the washing of the feet so that we are know that service to others is good, then sooner or later our pesky ego takes over again. Soon we are trying to outcompete each other for who serves more.

We think we are gaining brownie points with God through our acts of service. Do we not understand that we can do nothing to earn the love of God. God loves us unconditionally. Full Stop! That has got to mean that our actions for good or ill cannot influence the amount that God loves us.

The moment I catch myself thinking – look at how much I am doing for God; or I may not be doing as much as so and so, but at least I am doing more than this other person – I need to recognise that I have entirely missed the good news of the Gospel.

I’d like to invite you to spend some time considering your motivations for your acts of service. Which acts of service are coming out of the depths of your being, your deepest sense of self? And which are really simply fuelling your ego? Don’t worry if you discover that a bunch of the things that you do are actually fuelled by a desire to look good to others, or to earn point with God. Just hold your brokenness and woundedness before God and pray for the grace to discover your True Self.

Do you know what I have done for you?