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Putting Our Best Foot Forward

March 8, 2013

Recently I went to the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I wanted to see the new chapel and extension to the Theology Building which was almost finished when I left for itineration in September last year. The new chapel is stunning both inside and outside. But what I didn’t know about was a statue on the grassy area in front of the chapel. It is a sculpture of Jesus washing Peter’s feet as depicted in John 13:1-17.  I was told the sculpture was created by Hu Ke, an artist from Shanghai. The story goes that the artist is not Christian but he read the New Testament carefully to capture the equality, humility and service as exemplified by Jesus in Scripture.  Students and visitors alike have responded warmly to the sculpture.

Foot-washing in Biblical times was a usual custom of hospitality in preparation for a meal. It might have been offered by the host, but was usually done by servants. Those who received foot-washing were always social superiors of those who rendered the service. One can see then why the disciples were shocked that Jesus would stoop to wash their feet. But Jesus insisted, saying, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet (v.14).” In other words, if Jesus as Teacher and Lord is willing to wash our feet, how can we refuse to do so for anyone else?

One memorable foot-washing service in Hong Kong was just before the handover in 1997.  Ministers from the United Kingdom washed the feet of Chinese Hong Kong ministers as a sign of repentance and humility for the sins of the colonial era. I have participated in foot-washing ceremonies on Maundy Thursday. But the last time it was offered at my church in Hong Kong, I suddenly felt nervous about taking off my shoes and socks and having someone wash my unlovely feet. The minister gave the option of having one’s hands washed instead, which is what I did for myself and the next person. It did not carry the same symbolic weight, but it spared me the embarrassment of exposing myself. Foot-washing is a powerful gesture of hospitality, yet I was unable to receive it that day from others, and thus not able to give it to another either.

Foot-washing is a difficult practice just as hospitality can be for the church today. One reason is that we have very little day-to-day experience of welcoming others who make us uncomfortable, those who are very different from ourselves – from different cultures, races, economic and social background, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Certainly we rarely meet them in church!  Christians in Hong Kong are being challenged to open their hearts and souls to welcome those who are ignored or disrespected in society such as the poor in Hong Kong, people of other faiths such as Muslims, new arrivals from mainland China, and persons with different sexual orientations. It has not been an easy task, which should be expected as true Christian hospitality is fraught with risk and tension. Yet, we must try as St. Paul taught in Romans 15:7, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Foot-washing in the Bible changed the stranger into a guest. This Lenten season, how can you and I offer genuine hospitality in the name of Christ so that the stranger who enters our lives becomes an honored guest of God?


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