I began to write a poem while I was attending the conference “Shaping Communities in Times of Crises” at the International Center of Bethlehem, associated with Christmas Lutheran Church, in November 2005. More than 100 people participated, from 26 nations and of many denominations.
During a break, I walked with some new friends to the Church of the Nativity, just a few blocks away. I toured the church with the others, then ended up in a small souvenir shop near Manger Square. There I found an olive-wood carving and bought it with almost no haggling over price.
It depicts Jesus, bending, holding one of Peter’s feet. It’s not biblically accurate: John 13:4-17 tells us that Jesus took off his outer garments and put on a towel. This carved figure wears a robe. Peter, too, is fully dressed. The intriguing part of the carving is the absence of facial features on both characters in the drama. I felt an invitation to be one, but which one? When I was in Bethlehem, in the face of a deadly serious struggle for land between the Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims (with a few Christians tossed in the middle), I had tried to imagine faces on the carving.
Jesus is not the Christ for Jews, nor is he the Christ for Muslims. Could I suggest to either Muslim or Jew that Christ would wash their feet, through the hands of Christians? Would I wash the feet of an Israeli soldier or Palestinian militant?
When I brought the carving home, I worked on the poem, used it as a centerpiece for devotionals at church council and at the ELCA Minneapolis Area Synod council. I suggested that we think about who we see in those blank faces in the carving: We are Christ’s servants, representing him, to direct and lead the work of the churches in Minnesota. Do we represent the people in those churches, in the suburbs, center city, the rural churches? Or do we represent the unchurched who have not heard of Christ? Do we represent the de-churched, who have found Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and fundamentalism and liberalism to be oppressive and not welcoming?
I asked them to think about it. To pray about it. I asked them to look: “Whose face is on the washer? Whose face is on the one being cleansed? Jesus? Peter? Our ELCA congregations? The ones who don’t know Jesus? Can we represent both?
Though torn over divisive issues of human sexuality, the ELCA is, I believe, seeking to find a way to allow those of quite different opinions on the subject to get along. I would treasure the sight of those who oppose each other’s view on human sexuality to actually imitate Jesus by washing each other’s feet.
I wonder, is the church the face to be put on the figure of Jesus? Is the church a foot washer? John’s text tells us Jesus said, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15).
Who is the face on Peter, the one Jesus washes?
This question brings me back to Bethlehem, where security walls surrounds the holy places where Jesus walked. Have we in the U.S. been an example to the churches in the Holy Land—the place where Christianity began and from where Jesus sent his followers to the ends of the Earth? Why have we not come back?
Are our churches like Peter, who says, “You shall not wash my feet. You shall not help Palestinian Christians survive.”
Will we hear Jesus say, “If I do not wash you, if you do not aid Palestinian Christians, you have no part in me.” How will we respond?
Perhaps the carver is asking each of us to examine our own life, our own faith walk. Perhaps this Bethlehem artisan is asking us to understand that each one of us needs to have our own feet washed and to be aware of the danger we face when we reject Christ’s message. When we do, we will be foot washers.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers