Maundy Thursday – April 17, 2014
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
The hour for Jesus to depart has come. In less than 30 minutes we will leave the church in darkness and silence. The altar and the sanctuary will be bare. The candles snuffed; the crosses covered in black; the music silenced.
Our minds will be stunned; our hearts numbed. With tears welling in saddened eyes, we will exit into the darkness of night – a night in which the light and life of our Lord Jesus has been extinguished.
In less than 30 minutes Jesus will depart. Yet, in these all too brief, but incredibly important, few moments we, as Disciples of Christ, will have the opportunity to be with him in a most amazing way. A way that is perhaps more compelling, more fraught with emotion, more powerful than the stripping of the altar, the darkening of the church, the setting of the Altar of Repose, and our exit in grief and silence.
In just a few moments we will participate in the ritual of foot-washing, an act of humility, compassion, and love instituted by Jesus so many years ago in that crowded upper room in Bethany – the site of his last supper with the disciples. In just a few moments we will step back in time and enter that upper room. And now, as then, as feet are washed the humility and compassion of Jesus will leave us bewildered, yet deeply moved.
Without a doubt, the foot-washing is a challenging ritual. After all, who wants to come forward, take off their shoes, and expose perhaps the ugliest part of their body - those funny, sometimes cracked and dirty things called feet? Who wants to expose their ugly feet – who wants to sit on a stool and wash the feet of others?
Indeed, many churches eliminate the foot-washing from their Maundy Thursday service entirely. Other churches slip it in quietly and quickly – the altar party as the only participants while the congregation sits in silence listening to beautiful music. And in churches where the foot-washing ritual is practiced in its entirety many members of the congregation hang back, too embarrassed or conflicted to participate fully.
What in the world are we thinking by assigning this embarrassing, messy, and strange act such a prominent place in the midst of an otherwise traditional and compassionate liturgy?
Don’t feel as if you are an odd man out for having these, or similar, thoughts. These are questions that even the disciples had for Jesus. Simon Peter was incredulous when he said, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Peter could not believe that Jesus would stoop to such a low level. Why would Jesus, their teacher, their rabbi, their Lord, perform a task not even required of most household slaves? Normally, guests who had walked long distances were provided with water and a cloth and expected to wash their own dirty and cracked feet.
Jesus, undeterred by Peter’s question, continued about his business. He wrapped a towel around his waist and got started with the foot-washing saying, “Unless I wash you, you will have no share with me.”
When Peter heard Jesus speak these words he knew that the simple and embarrassing act of foot-washing meant something far greater. Somehow Peter knew that Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet was central to the message of salvation that his Lord was teaching. All of a sudden the act of foot-washing took on an importance for Peter – an importance way beyond the simple act itself.
And, Peter wasn’t wrong. The foot-washing was in fact an essential key to these last lessons that Jesus was imparting to his disciples.
Jesus was telling his disciples that the foot-washing was so important, that without it one cannot "share" with him. The word “share” used here – the Greek meros – means to share with or be a partner with; it means in this context not only a fellowship with Jesus, but also a sharing in his heritage, his kingdom. Raymond Brown in the “Gospel According to John” observes that Jesus words are not "if you don’t allow yourself to be washed," but rather: "Unless I wash you." These words point to Jesus’ salvific action, as symbolized by the act of foot-washing.
Foot-washing, then, is much more than a moral example to be imitated, a guideline for better Christian living. By symbolizing the sacrifice of Jesus, it also acts as an invitation to be "washed" into love and fellowship with Jesus; into a share of his kingdom as we are cleansed of sin.
Michael Taylor in “The Different Gospel” writes, “Jesus tells Peter he will be lost if he does not accept this act. The foot-washing as a pre-cursor to the crucifixion-death of Jesus is not an evil to be rejected, a scandal that proves the unworthiness of the one who dies that way. It is God’s fullest act of love, and unless Peter and all believers embrace it and let it embrace them, there will be no sharing in Jesus’ inheritance.”
If Peter was to have a share with Jesus in his community and the eternal life then he must be washed by Jesus. He must allow, without question, without incredulity – he must allow Jesus, graciously and lovingly, to wash his feet.
Now Jesus has Peter’s attention. Peter swings from one end of the spectrum to the other. He wants not only his feet washed – he wants his whole body washed by Jesus. Peter wants to be assured of full inclusion in whatever Jesus is offering – he wants it all. Peter eagerly responds, “Then, Lord, . . . not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus responds – “Peter you are missing the point” - “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet.”
This is an enigmatic statement that has been food for many scholarly interpretations. Alan Culpepper in “The Gospel and Letters of John” writes that Jesus’ response can be interpreted as affirming that the “one who has been washed by Jesus’ death, which is to be interpreted as the foot-washing has no need of any further washings. R. H. Lightfoot in “St. John’s Gospel” concluded that “the feet-washing is probably best interpreted as having the same significance and efficacy as the Lord’s death.” In other words, Peter misses the point by thinking that the frequency and extent of physical washing would increase his “share” with Jesus. Jesus was undertaking the humiliating act of foot-washing to prophesy that he was to be humiliated in death. Peter’s questioning enables Jesus to explain the salvific necessity of his death in bringing humanity into relationship with himself, and into a share of his kingdom – all this by the cleansing of their sin brought about by the blood shed at Calvary and symbolized by the cleansing waters of foot-washing.
After Jesus had washed disciples’ feet, he put on his robe and returned to the supper table. Once again, he spoke to his disciples saying, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, has washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Our marching orders from Jesus – always follow his example – always do unto others as he has done to us.
This then is the challenge that we face tonight as we prepare for the foot-washing. Are we able to move beyond the superficial embarrassment of exposing cracked and dirty feet and instead create a place deep within our hearts and minds that allows us to experience the humility and compassion of our Lord as he prepared for the ultimate act of humiliation, crucifixion upon the cross.
Are we able to intentionally share in this act of foot-washing with the members of our St. Paul’s community in a way that builds community that cannot be described in words – a community that is founded upon, is fed by, and grows out of humility, compassion and love – the same humility, compassion and love demonstrated by Jesus in that small upper room so many years ago.
Are we able to be washed by Jesus and to wash one another, thinking not of our feet, but of our hearts, our minds and our souls as they engage with the passion of Jesus and his death upon the cross?
Are we able to love one another as Jesus loved us?
There is indeed a great deal to pack into these precious last 30 minutes - Many words and actions to see and hear with the eyes and ears of our heart -Multiple complex teachings to comprehend if we are to truly grasp the glory of the resurrection and the significance of our lives as Christ’s disciples - Much to understand that is, in the end, incomprehensible.
As we wash each other’s feet, pray and break bread together, say our last words of thanksgiving and praise, the words from John’s gospel will linger as critically important lessons in our minds:
- “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
- “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
- “Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, not are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
- “Where I am going, you cannot come.”
- “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”