“Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master.”
One of our best sermons on John 13 comes from the 16th Century Reformer Martin Luther, entitled, Sermon for the Thursday Before Easter. Drawing on the example of Jesus, Luther said, “…We should be humble, and properly employ the gifts and graces which we have, to the advantage of our brothers and sisters, and that we should despise no one, but rather excuse the shortcomings of our fellow human beings, and help them become better.” Luther went on to apply this truth to those who have great responsibility in the church.
“Those whom God has endowed with much wisdom and honor, and who are called to the office of the ministry, should be especially intent on practicing zealously this feet-washing, that they may not become guilty of abusing the gifts and authority which they have, but employ them faithfully to the service and welfare of the Church.”
Pastor Luther applied Jesus’ foot-washing to the home. When parents treated their children kindly and attentively, they fulfilled Christ’s example. This humble service translated into bringing children up in the fear of the Lord ready to do his will. “Husband and wife wash each other’s feet if they exercise a forbearing spirit towards each other, avoiding anger and inconsiderate scolding.” Luther, in his characteristic way, went further and used the text to address the crisis of corruption in the church.
“I believe that Christ, when he exhibited such humility in washing the feet of His disciples, had in mind the great corruption which, on account of the selfishness and pride of the clergy, would creep into His Church in later years. This great evil began to manifest itself soon after. . .”
Luther objected to reducing Christ’s example of humility to a once-a-year liturgical rite. He called it a sham when church leaders made a show of washing the feet of their subordinates. “There is no real humility in these cases,” chided Luther, for the bishops are only after their own honor. “They expect still greater homage from the recipients for their condescension.” For Luther true foot-washing was not about dirty feet and a show of piety, but about “humbling yourself in such a way as to be ever ready to assist others who have not the gifts which you have.” Luther said, “This will demand a precious victory over the old Adam within us, who seeks his own honor and exaltation, and is always more prepared to exercise vengeance and oppression than to do good toward others.” The transition from humble service to self-glory occurs when the disciple goes from washing feet to kissing feet. Meeting a need is different from turning an act of humble service into a performance for vain glory. We are not called to condescend to the needy, so that we might think more highly of ourselves.
To his credit, Luther saw the highly relational nature of Jesus’ example. If we are “to wash one another’s feet,” Luther insisted we have to be with people. If foot-washing spirituality calls for a willingness to serve others in a humble spirit and in a readiness to forgive then we have to be with people. If it means a quickness to bear one another’s burdens, Luther said we cannot run off “into deserts and solitudes . . .as formerly the monks did.” All leaders, from ancient monks and modern pastors, stand to benefit from Luther’s practical insight:
“No, it is a Christian duty to wash the feet of others, we must stay where they are. We must be among the people who wade through unclean, filthy places. We must unbend our proud reserve, and though our feet should be clean and pretty, it behooves us to carry water, rags, soap and brush to cleanse and wash the feet of those who need such ablution.”
Theological students who aim for an academic career to avoid the messiness of pastoral ministry ought to pay attention to Luther’s admonition. True spirituality embraces the body of Christ and the world of our neighbor. A private autonomous spirituality is not an option for any believer. We are all called to sacrifice and service. Are you a people-person? I didn’t say, people-pleaser. In Christ the principle of the cross holds true, “my life for yours.” Like our Lord we need to get our hands dirty helping people. All of us need to get in on this work. Our personalities and specialized ministries are no excuse for avoiding people. Whether we are introverts or not, foot-washing, and its ministry equivalent, requires all of us to make an effort to relate to people for Christ’s sake.
Upper Room Reflection
Who has been patient and nurturing with you?
How does your attitude of people’s shortcomings get in the way of you helping them get better?
Why can’t we wall off our lives from others?
Can you identify some “ministry equivalents” to foot-washing?
 Martin Luther, “Sermon for the Thursday Before Easter,” Matthias Loy, ed., Dr. Martin Luther’s Sermons on the Gospels for the Sundays and Principal Festivals of the Church Year. Vol. 2; Second Edition (Columbus, Ohio: J. A. Schulze, 1884), 24-41.