Clean Feet and a Pure Heart
“Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean.”
In his meditation on love, the 19th century Danish Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard distinguished between loving the people we actually see versus a high-flying love that is always waiting for the right person to love. He compared airy love to actual love. He based his spiritual direction on 1 John:
We love because he first loved us. If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen.” 1 John 4:19-20
Kierkegaard reasoned that our duty is not to find “the lovable object” but to find the person before us lovable. Actual love, loving the person before us, is always concrete and often sacrificial. “Truth takes a firm step,” says Kierkegaard, “and for that reason sometimes a difficult one, too.” The opposite of actual love is a theory of love focused on the ideal. “Delusion is always floating; for that reason it sometimes appears quite light and spiritual, because it is so airy.” We are to love our children, co-workers, neighbors, and strangers, not because we have chosen to love them, but because Christ calls us to love them. Peter was a challenging person to love, but Jesus loved him deeply. For Kierkegaard, when real love is shown, “truth takes a firm step.”
My hunch is that none of us need to look very far to find a challenging person to love. A day after re-reading Kierkegaard on love, I received an accusatory email from a church member. His criticism against me and others was deep-seated and mean-spirited. My immediate impulse was to fire back an angry email to set the record straight and to defend myself. But Kierkegaard’s intrusive reminder to love as Christ loved was stuck in my mind. I remember wishing it wasn’t.
We never have far to look for a person to love who is impossible to love apart from the grace of God. Actual love is for the real people with whom we must deal with daily. Airy love is a fine sounding theory filled with ethereal possibilities. The gospel is rooted in the former. Dirty feet and dirty souls are linked and Christ’s love meets us at every point along the span of human need.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the link between the old creation and the new creation, between baptism with water and baptism with the Holy Spirit, between the old temple in Jerusalem and the new temple of his body, between natural birth and the new birth, between physical water and the living water, between physical healing and spiritual healing, between the letter of the Law and the living Word, between ordinary bread and the bread of life, between natural life and the light of the world, between physical blindness and true sight, and between death and life. This is more than a metaphoric bridge to significance; Christ holds creation and redemption together. He actively sustains the entire physical and spiritual universe moment by moment. By the time we get to the upper room the disciples have been thoroughly exposed to Jesus’ understanding of the world and his unique redemptive responsibility, but they fail to grasp his significance.
The connection between dirty feet and the divine atonement is in the mind of Jesus. He only alludes to it, exposing the tip of the iceberg as it were. He slants the truth at such a sharp angle, we might wonder how anyone could pick up on it. But Jesus can afford to be oblique, because the connection between physical cleansing and the holiness of God is deeply embedded in the Jewish culture. He is telling the truth slant as Emily Dickinson would say, because it is a truth that “must dazzle gradually.”
An Old Testament theology of clean and unclean forms the theological backdrop of this upper room picture. Legal explicitness on ceremonial and ritual purity is covered extensively in Leviticus. These laws established the standard for cleanness and covered prohibited foods and exposure to external contaminates (bodily emissions, skin diseases, dead bodies and certain acts). But even more important was the symbolic connection between outward physical purity as prescribed by the law and the righteous holiness of God. Out of devotion to Yahweh the people of God followed the purity protocol.
Jesus taps into this symbolic connection between physical cleansing and spiritual cleansing. His foot-washing is symbolic of another kind of cleansing. It is a pointer to the cleansing he will achieve for us through his redemptive death. What is missing in Jesus’ parable is any analogical bridge between ritual temple cleansing and spiritual cleansing. He figuratively leaped over the symbolic liturgical connection and rooted the message in the profane, everyday world of simple hospitality. This may be more important than we realize. There was plenty of opportunity to draw out the Old Testament connection between ritual purity and sacrificial cleansing, but Jesus didn’t do that. Instead, he turned the upper room into the Most Holy Place. He made his theological connection with the atonement over foot-washing rather than ritual cleansing. Jesus used ordinary foot-washing to illustrate the soul-cleansing power of his sacrificial death. As it was with Peter and the disciples so it is with us, foot-washing love points to the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood. This is the love that is actual, not airy. “Truth takes a firm step.”
Upper Room Reflection
What people or situations in your life test the authenticity of your love?
Why is “talking-head” Christianity unsatisfying?
Do you think the disciples understood the connection between physical cleansing and spiritual cleansing?
What is the relationship between Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and “foot-washing” acts of love?
 Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 158-161.