Here’s the narrative from John 13:
Jesus . . . rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.” . . . When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. (John 13:3–10, 12–15)
IT'S NOT ABOUT THE CEREMONY
Think of it. The high King of heaven condescended to bow before the dirty feet of his friends and wash them. This act of humiliation stands forever as an example of humble love and service. Now, let me ask: Do you think that Jesus was simply instituting another ritual for his followers in washing their feet and telling them to follow his example? Although there probably isn’t anything wrong in having an actual foot-washing service, I think we’re missing the point if we limit our imitation of him to a simple ceremony once every six months or so.
This is the point of what I believe Jesus is teaching us. He has already spiritually cleansed each of his children from their sin. We are “completely clean,” as he said. But why then, if we’re already “completely clean,” would he encourage us to follow his example and wash each other’s feet?
We need to wash one another because as each of us traverses through this world, we are immersed in and subsequently sullied by every kind of sin, unbelief, and idolatry. Sometimes that filth finds a little crevice (or large gaping wound) to incubate in, and if we’re not careful, it can become infected before we know it.
A SERVICE OF CLEANING THOSE HARD-TO-REACH PLACES
You know, our feet are one of those places that, unless we’re very limber or under the age of five, we can’t really see very well. Not long ago I was taking an evening stroll with a friend on the beach. We were barefoot, and I couldn’t clearly see where I was walking. At some point I stepped on something sharp that felt like a bee sting, and by the time I got back to my car it was itchy and painful. Then, try as I might, I just couldn’t get a good glimpse of it.
Finally, when I returned home, I needed to have Phil take a look. I needed his eyes to help me see what turned out to be a little thorn that I was apparently allergic to. I don’t think it’s inconsequential that Jesus framed this discussion around our feet. We need to wash one another, to carefully probe, cleanse, disinfect, and heal each other, and this isn’t something we can see clearly enough to do on our own. We need the eyes and hands of others.
What’s really delightful about all this is that not only do we help others when we “wash their feet,” but our own souls are helped as well.
If nothing else, our souls are humbled as we experience Christ’s humility, but we are also cleansed in the process. As a biblical counselor, I can personally testify to the hundreds of times I’ve been encouraged, cleansed, convicted, and blessed when I helped someone else with their sin.
What I’m suggesting is that you look at the relationships you have with other believers in a new way. I’m hoping that you have begun to see yourself as an instrument that your Savior will use in your friends’ lives, and that you’ll begin to look for opportunities in which a friend can help you get at that painful, itchy thorn you just can’t see. Because I’m assuming that this might be new in your experience, I’m going to give you some practical suggestions about how to begin to live out gospelized fellowship.
COMING CLEAN THROUGH CHURCH COMMUNITY
First of all, let me encourage you to start small. Our Savior had twelve disciples, but he also had three close friends and one best friend. Start there. Start with two or three others who are willing to get together for biblical fellowship once a week or so. My guess is that you probably already do get together with your friends fairly frequently. So why not turn this visit, at least part of it, into a time of true biblical fellowship? If you’re very busy with small children or long commutes, then why not commit to talking on the phone at least once a week, with a commitment to visit in person for a couple of hours once a month?
It’s my opinion that this kind of biblical fellowship happens best in small groups that meet regularly during the month. My husband, Phil, and I presently facilitate a small group as part of our church’s communal life where we are primarily focused on speaking into each other’s lives through words of encouragement, correction, accountability, and the open confession of sin. I recognize, however, that most churches, even if they offer small group opportunities, do not structure the groups in this way. So, even if your church doesn’t presently offer this, you could still get together with your friends informally.
If you’re thinking that getting together with friends is what you’ll try to pursue, you could say something like this to them:
This is not primarily a time for us to chat. It is a time to share openly about our sins or temptations to sin, to point one another to our Savior, to speak of our graces and the way that the Lord is growing us. It’s a time for prayer and a time to ask questions about struggles mentioned in the past.
It can happen anywhere: at a coffee house, or in a home, or while taking a walk together. Biblical fellowship doesn’t mean that every single time you get together every one of the objectives must be met, but there should be given time for each and the expectation that something more than a superficial visit will be attempted