From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Coming clean

Date Fri, 8 Aug 2003 19:36:23 -0500

Note #7873 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Coming clean
August 8, 2003

Coming clean

Tale of Jesus's foot-washing touches hearts of task force members

By John Filiatreau

CHICAGO - The Gospel of John tells the story of the Last Supper without
mentioning the bread and wine of the first Eucharist.

Instead, it describes another strikingly intimate ritual: Jesus takes off his
shirt, ties a towel around his waist, kneels, and washes his followers' feet,
in what is both a demonstration of his love for them and a foreshadowing of
the humiliating nature of his imminent death. Then he tells them, in effect,
"Do this in remembrance of me."

"It's not the washing that's important, but the death that it symbolizes,"
said Frances Taylor Gench, who led a Bible study Thursday during the summer
meeting of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity in the
Presbyterian Church (USA). "The foot-washing removes the possibility of
distance. ... It comes as a gift we did not merit or earn. We're face-to-face
here with God's love for us. ... We're asked simply to receive it."

But it's not as simple as it seems.

Gench, a professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in
Richmond, VA, commented that foot-washing is probably not "a regular
liturgical activity" for most Presbyterians - "frozen chosen" not inclined to
display any part of the body, much less an unattractive part, one "that is
usually hidden."

Gench said a women's group at the seminary she attended decided against
having a foot-washing ritual because they realized the effect it would have
on worshipers: "Half won't show up - and the other half will spend the
afternoon getting pedicures."

Yet when she asked which of the task-force members had ever taken part in
such a service, nearly all raised their hands.

And when she asked whether they found it harder to accept having their feet
washed or to wash the feet of others, nearly all said the harder task was
allowing someone else to do the washing. That brought a comment from Gench
that learning to receive hospitality is essential to receiving Jesus's
redeeming sacrifice as a gift that we could never have earned or deserved.

By kneeling and washing our feet, she said, Christ "invites us to break down
our own barriers" to intimacy with others.

Gench is a thoughtful, studious, very reserved member of the task force who
has demonstrated in previous Bible studies an uncanny ability to draw the
others into intimacy.

Thursday's scripture study - of a portion of the 13th chapter of John -
provoked some of the most honest and unguardedly emotional statements yet
heard from the task force members.

Gench began by pointing out that the Eucharist, because it is "so sacred,"
tends to be divisive - prompting some people to vie for the privilege of
presiding at the table, and others to pass judgments about worshipers'
worthiness to take part.

Barbara Wheeler, the president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York
City, commented on "the oscillation" in Peter's role in the story. At first
he wants to refuse Christ's gesture. Jesus reproves him, saying, "Unless I
wash you, you have no share with me." Then Peter reverses course, saying,
characteristically, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!"

"This sounds like the mixed messages we are getting from the church," she
said, adding, "There's nothing we can do if the church won't accept it."

Jose Luis Torres-Milan, a pastor from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, said people's
reaction to the ritual "has to do with classes," pointing out that "the
poorest of the poor" do not shy away from foot-washing. Years ago, he said,
during a foot-washing service at his multi-ethnic church in Los Angeles,
everyone was invited to participate, but it was the most impoverished who
came forward without hesitation, asking, "Can I do it for you, pastor?" To
this day, Torres-Milan said, the memory "brings tears to my eye. ... It's

Gench pointed out that, while "kneeling is such an unusual posture for us,"
it is less alien to the poor, who are pleased "that they can be the givers."

Vicktoria Curtiss, a pastor from Ames, IA, said she has found it "strangely
humbling to be the receiver" of such a gesture.

Scott Anderson, the executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches,
said his seminary decided against scheduling a Holy Week foot-washing
ceremony because it would discomfit people, especially faculty members and
other people in positions of authority.

Sarah Sanderson-Doughty, a pastor in Lowville, NY, said wistfully, "As much
as I love my congregation, one of the things we have to work on is intimacy."

Martha Sadongei, a Native-American pastor from Phoenix, AZ, said intimacy is
not threatening or strange to Native people. "To say it bluntly," she said
bluntly, "it's a white fear. ... I think a lot of racial-ethnic folk are not
fearful of intimacy, because we've sweated together. Our sweat has mingled.
... We've also suffered together, we've shared our grief and our fears. ...
So, fear of intimate connections "is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant fear."

When Gench pointed out that Jesus washed the feet of all of the apostles,
even those of Judas, the apostle he knew would betray him, Milton "Joe"
Coalter, a church-history professor and librarian who has been serving as
acting president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, said he
found troubling "enigmatic references" in the text "to people who are not
clean," which caused him to wonder "whether the circle is really inclusive or

Coalter noted that Jesus said his blessing was not for all of the apostles,
saying, "I know those I have chosen." He told the group: "We have to be
careful. ... The church doesn't decide who's chosen."

Mark Achtemeier, a professor at the University of Dubuque School of Theology
in Iowa, said Jesus "does make it very clear that he's setting out something
his followers are to imitate. ... There's something qualitatively different
about Judas. Judas isn't coming back." He noted that John Calvin wrote in
this connection about "grace genuinely offered but not received."

Torres-Milan spoke disparagingly of Christians who contribute generously to
far-away missions, but cannot bring themselves to acknowledge or touch the
needy in their midst.

"We don't deal with the Mexicans on our doorstep, or with the Latinos," he
said. "It's easy to send a check, but we don't want to get involved. We don't
want to humble ourselves. It means I have to open my life and be vulnerable."
He asked: "Who's your neighbor? The one far away or the one close?"

Torres-Milan chastened task force members for being dismissive of
Presbyterians not like themselves. He pointed out that, when he suggested
Wednesday night that a video about the task force's work be made available in
Spanish and Korean, his suggestion was dismissed out of hand with the comment
that it would be "too expensive."

"Are we the church?" he asked. "Is our church English-speaking only? ... No
one was willing to wash my feet ... and it's hard to swallow."

Gary Demarest, a retired pastor from Pasadena, CA, then confessed that he was
raised in such a way that it is hard for him to believe that he can be taught
anything of value by someone from another culture. "I'm aware of how little
I've heard that in my whole journey. ... It's hard for me to accept that I
can learn anything from Navajo culture. ... I've got to hear this more and
for God's sake listen to it more. If I can't do that, then I'm out of touch
with God," Demarest said. "That's very frightening to be at, at this point in

Demarest, a co-moderator of the task force, said he tends to expect Hispanics
and Native Americans and others from cultures alien to his own to "just
become like me." But he's becoming aware that he can and must learn "from
people who, all of our lives, we were told were inferior."

Coalter said foot-washing "is a very powerful rite," a reminder that we all
are sinners and are called to be servants of one another. ("I'm not trying to
make it a sacrament.")

"It's awfully hard to get up from a foot-washing and get nasty," he observed.

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