Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Maundy Thursday

Today is Maundy Thursday, in the Christian calendar.  “Maundy” is Middle English for “mandate” or “command.” It comes to English through the French mande‘  from the Latin version of John 13:34, “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis ivicim sicut dilexi vos.”  That is, “A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another as I have loved you.”

In our church, we celebrate Maundy Thursday with a service that includes both the Lord’s Supper and footwashing, just as Jesus washed his disciples’ feet in the Gospel of John.  I look forward to it all year.

I have never understood why few denominations consider footwashing a “sacrament” or “ordinance” alongside baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  After all, Jesus’ command is at least as strong.  And the practice of footwashing captures the essence of Christian life as one of mutual servanthood.  But whatever we call this powerful sign of discipleship, I find it to be one of the most important to my Christian life.  It helps heal church conflicts. (Who can continue a grudge while preparing to wash feet or have one’s feet washed?)

However you celebrate this day,  I hope you enter into Jesus’ passion–and it enters into you.

April 9, 2009 - Posted by | Christian calendar


  1. Jesus’ message was love !

    Comment by Paul | April 9, 2009

  2. Foot washing is a great symbol of mutual humility. The one who washes another’s feet, and the one whose feet is washed are both humbled in the practice. But to practice it today is much different than to practice around the time of Christ. Back then, it had a practical purpose as well. Their feet would be dirty, sweaty, and smelly as they traveled by foot wearing sandals. So it was common to at least provide water for guests as they entered your home so their feet could be cleaned.

    Today, though, we don’t need our feet washed as we enter someone’s home.

    Baptism never had a practical purpose to it (we already bath). The Lord’s Supper could have a practical purpose to it, if it were meant to fill our stomach’s, but Paul expressly noted that we are not to come to the table hungry. So both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are symbolic alone, and this is clear from Scripture. But the symbolism of foot washing was tied to the service that it did. A person needed his feet washed as he entered your home, so out of love for your guest, you would wash his feet. Today, an equivalent practice might be to take someone’s coat or offer him something to drink.

    All this to say that I don’t think Jesus never intended foot washing to be an ordinance of the church, but as an illustration of how we are to serve one another. I think foot washing could be quite meaningful from time to time in the church, though, as it illustrates this point in a way that will never be forgotten. So your church’s practice, I think, is pretty cool.

    Comment by Chris Huff | April 9, 2009

  3. Chris,
    I doubt the “practical purpose” test is a good way to distinguish ordinances from non-ordinances.

    But I am glad you think my church’s practice is cool.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 9, 2009

  4. I don’t think it’s THE test, but it is A test. Another test I pointed out was that Jesus illustrated his teachings it all kinds of ways. He also commanded us to pluck out our eyes and chop off our hands, yet we don’t even consider these to be possible ordinances.

    Furthermore, the apostles (to my recollection) never wrote about foot washing in the epistles. If I’ve overlooked something, please point it out to me. But they did write about baptism and the Lord’s Supper: how, when, and why they are to be observed. But it appears that the disciples of Christ understood that he did not intend for foot washing to be an ordinance of the church.

    But I do see how it could be an amazing illustration (as Jesus used it) to teach about loving one another.

    Comment by brochris | April 11, 2009

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