Have you washed anyone’s feet recently? Anyone washed yours? Probably not. Well, for some of us maybe once a year, during Maundy Thursday. Foot washing is not a practice that is part of modern life. Therefore when we see Jesus doing it in John 13, we see something strange and extraordinary. And we are right. But what is strange is not the act of foot washing itself. It is Who who is doing it. Foot washing itself was a common practice in Jesus’ time.
In the dusty first-century Mediterranean world, where walking was the usual mode of transportation and sandals the customary footgear, this (foot washing) was a normal act of hospitality but was considered beneath the dignity of the average person and thus almost always performed by a slave (see Luke 7:36-50). Here the preexistent Christ lays aside his celestial dignity and performs the service of a slave. (M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 333.)
I love this passage. I love preaching from it. Every time I read it, I am blown away. I respond in awe and wonder that my Lord and my God would wash dirty feet. And when I expound on the passage I take pains to point out that Jesus was not creating some special symbolic act. He was doing something quite ordinary.
I taught from this passage recently as part of a course on leadership spirituality, and again I pointed out that foot washing wasn’t a symbolic act. Jesus was doing something ordinary, something needed, a basic act of hospitality in His time. A few students from the class stayed back to chat after the lecture. Some of them confronted me about what I had taught about Jesus’ act of foot washing. They weren’t convinced that it wasn’t a symbolic act. We talked for a while trying to clarify what we all meant. One of the students suggested that maybe we shouldn’t push the symbol-reality distinction too far. The foot washing was both. It was an a-ha moment for me. The young brother in Christ helped clarify for me something I had been feeling for a while now. Indeed, there was no need to make a symbol-reality distinction because God speaks to us through the ordinary.
How does your church do the Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion? It’s probably one of the highlights of your formal worship. Yet in the time of the early church, the Lord’s Supper was an ordinary meal which took on an extraordinary meaning. As Wolfgang Simson reminds us:
The Lord’s Supper was a substantial supper with a symbolic meaning, not a symbolic supper with a substantial meaning. As they were simply eating a lamb together, it dawned upon them what this was all about: humans having dinner with God. The Hebrew tradition of eating was to break bread first to start a meal, then have the main course, and then have a toast of wine to end the meal. (Wolfgang Simson, Houses That Change the World, Waynesboro, GA: OM Publishing, 1998, 82.)
Jews in Jesus’ time started a meal by breaking bread. They ended a meal with a toast. When we realise this, we suddenly realise that the Last Supper was a regular supper which now had added, extraordinary significance, but an ordinary meal just the same. Again we see God speaking to us through something ordinary, and it doesn’t get any more basic than eating.
For some time now I have been questioning whether we have missed out on what God is trying to do when we remove our Christian expressions away from the ordinary. The Lord’s Supper used to be an ordinary eat-until-you-burp meal. It is now a highly ritualised meal where we consume elements that melt on your tongue before it even reaches your throat. The early church used to meet in homes — regular buildings. Many of our churches today meet in buildings specially set apart for worship. As church history unfolded, special places and special practices were created to enable us to encounter God and to live out our life in God. Have we, de facto, confined God to just those specific times and places where what He wants to do is to penetrate every aspect of life and transform it?
So yes, maybe we shouldn’t push the symbol-reality distinction too much. Maybe we should stop putting asunder what God has put together. As Robert Banks puts it when he commented about the Lord’s Supper:
We have seen that the early Christians’ common meal was as much a social as a religious event. Indeed, the modern separation of the social from the religious, of fellowship from worship, of love from truth, shows how far we have strayed from a biblical perspective. (Robert & Julie Banks, The Church Comes Home, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009, 118)
I want to keep in touch with that group of young people from my class. I would like to learn more from them. Maybe we can learn from each other. Maybe we can plot how we can be more a part of God’s agenda of invading the ordinary with the extraordinary, of making every bush a burning bush.