On this day, Maundy Thursday, we recall the new commandment that Jesus gave right before his betrayal and death. He told us to love one another. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).
What does it mean to love one another? Of course, there are many answers to this question, such as to show genuine warmth and kindness to another person, to listen to another person, to help them in times of need, to celebrate with them in times of joy. When we think of loving another, we often think of ourselves actively doing something for that person.
The first time I ever participated in a foot washing, I learned something new about what it means to love one another. It was on a Maundy Thursday 6 years ago in 2003. I was just about to complete my first year of seminary, and I was at a worship service much like this one, where I knew some people quite well and others not at all.
I didn’t learn there was going to be a foot washing until I arrived at the service, and my first thought was, “No way.” My second thought was, “When was the last time I trimmed my toenails?” Then, I wondered if my feet smelled. It’s somewhat humorous to recall, but if you think about it, what this reveals is that I didn’t want to engage in an act of service (the foot washing being a symbolic act of service) because I was worried about myself.
When we think about it even further, the part that scared me wasn’t serving others, it was being served. I wasn’t worried about what the person’s feet whom I would have to wash would look like or smell like, but worried about the person who would be washing my feet.
The foot washing taught me that I was afraid of how other people perceived me. It taught me that I was afraid of being vulnerable. It taught me that the receiving part of loving one another was scarier than the giving part (at least at that point in my life).
When you go to wash someone’s feet, you still have control. You are the one giving, the one in charge. But when your feet are being washed you have surrendered that control and you have opened yourself up to another person. I found this to be the most humbling part of the experience. The kindness that Luke (I still remembered who washed my feet, but I don’t remember whose feet I washed!) showed to me took me off guard. I felt like I didn’t deserve his kindness.
As a Christian and as a disciple of Jesus, I am used to the act of serving others, but being served by others taught me something new about the command to love one another. To love one another is to serve and to give, but in order to allow other people the same opportunity to follow the command to serve and to give, we have to be willing to be vulnerable and to receive what is given.
I remember an old friend who used to live on the street I grew up on in Ohio. A few years ago, we were catching up. She was married and in her thirties now. She had always been kind of short and thicker, but she was very athletic in high school so she had a lot of muscle. She was still in good shape, but she started telling me how her husband always complimented her body and told her that she was beautiful, but that she didn’t believe him. She thought that she was unattractive and not beautiful at all.
I told her that she was being completely unfair to her husband. She was rejecting his love. If he felt she was beautiful, even though she didn’t conform to society’s standards of beauty, that was his heart. In his eyes, she was beautiful. Do you see how she pushed love away by not being willing to receive? We become barriers to love when we do not receive.
This is what I learned from a symbolic foot washing, much like we are doing tonight.
Since that experience, I have had a much greater awareness of the hospitality that other people are continually giving to me, and the goodness of other people. Here I am a minister, the one who is supposed to give, trying to love as Jesus loved, and what I have realized it that loving one another includes receiving, and being vulnerable, and seeing the purity of heart in others and their desire to give. I realized that to love another is to really see that person, to look at him or her and see how good and kind he or she is.
That was God’s lesson for me on that night. You may realize something similar or perhaps you will realize something different tonight. Or perhaps you will not really be affected at all. It’s the Spirit’s doing. But what it means to love one another and our ability to actually love one another, whether loving is expressed in the form of giving or receiving, is a part of the ongoing development of our spiritual lives. God’s hope is that we will all be perfected in love.
My prayer is that we will all grow richer in the ways that we love one another on this night.