THE GOSPEL – John 13: 1-20; 31-35
So, Scout’s honor, I had this prepared before Fr. Steven Peay shared his mediation last Sunday. All I can say is, the fact that our prefaces are similar only means that he and I are apparently cut from the same cloth. I did not crib his notes. I may be many things, but I am not a crook.
Like Fr. Peay, I enjoy watching movies.
And, though he may have outgrown this, I still have a hard time dealing with the tension of suspense.
I still don’t like it. I close my eyes. I get up to pace. I walk out of the room.
And I’m not talking about thrillers and horror flicks – I can’t even watch those. I’m talking about the plain old dramatic suspense that holds a good movie together. And – I will confess – sometimes even romantic tension is too much for me.
I can’t handle not knowing.
More than once Gary has caught me, half-way through a movie, looking up the synopsis on Wikipedia to see what’s coming.
So it gets my attention in this gospel that the writer says, several times, that Jesus knew what was going to happen.
He knew that his hour had come.
He knew that the Father had given all things into his hands.
He knew Judas would betray him.
He even knew Peter would deny him.
And for however often we have heard this story, there are still many things we do not know – things that scholars still debate:
Was it really the Passover meal?
Who was the “disciple whom Jesus loved” who inclined next to him?
Were they really all sitting on one side of the table, like da Vinci imagined?
The scripture readings for tonight have focused on the meal we will later share. But I would like us to bring our attention to another aspect of this gospel – the act of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. In some churches tonight, clergy and parishioners are now removing their shoes and socks and stooping to wash each other’s feet – and they are letting their own feet be washed.
We do well to take this seriously – to consider our acts of service to each other and to our community, not as tokens of generosity or virtue, but as necessary humiliations, making of ourselves the least members of our parish, and making of our parish the least member of society. To serve, rather than to be served, as St. Francis’ prayer says.
If foot-washing is not an official sacrament, maybe it should be – once a year – to act out our love through this symbol of humility.
Tonight, I would like us to consider what Jesus asked His disciples. He asked them – he asks us – “Do you know what I have done to you?”
Excuse me, Jesus – don’t you mean, “what you have done for us”? But that is not what he asks.
Do you know what I have done to you?
This is an important question. Everything about Jesus – his life, his words, his very movements and moments described in the gospel record – give clues to the answer. This story is about more than the simple act of washing dirty feet. This story enacts the life and mission of Christ Himself and, by extension, our life and mission.
What is it that Jesus has done to us?
First, he has exposed our need. In recognizing the immediate need around him, Jesus recognizes our need, too.
This story is often told with an undertone of rebuke for the disciples. But I don’t find any sense of exasperation or chastisement that He – the Great Teacher, the Leader of the Pack, the Son of God – was somehow put out to do for a bunch of lazy dolts what nobody could be bothered to do for themselves.
Those are all my words, of course. And we can chuckle at the mockery. And indeed, they express Peter’s self-consciousness about the way the world ought to be ordered when He realized it was Jesus who was kneeling in front of him.
Peter’s response betrays an expectation that there is a certain hierarchy or power balance in the room that needs to be respected – and that is why we make such a deal of the Lord Jesus actually stooping to serve – we think we defend his dignity by calling out his disciples’ neglect or laziness.
But, of Jesus, we read that He – knowing who he was and knowing whose he was – simply got up, took off his sports coat, tied an apron around his waist, and picked up a pan of water.
Jesus’ actions carry no more implied longsuffering than a parable he told of a certain Samaritan. The Samaritan was on his way to Jericho and recognized the need of someone on his path and stopped to help. He stooped to help. Like Jesus.
Do we know what he has done to us?
Jesus shows us in this story that he has not just exposed our need, he has recognized our need – our dirty feet – as an everyday condition of life. He has not treated our need as an exceptional case. He has treated this everyday need as something that opens the door to let ourselves be helped.
Peter, in his embarrassment, acted as if his dirty feet were somehow objects of shame in the presence of the Son of God. Shameful for the Lord to touch and lift and wash. In this one act, Jesus violated the “principle of disgust” that was the foundation of social and religious governance, and He established a new law.
In washing Peter’s feet, Jesus identified this one mundane and lowly need as representing all of Peter’s need. This is called a synecdoche – when one small part stands for all of something. “No”, Jesus said, “washing your feet is enough – as long as you see that the dirt on your feet represents all of your need, and that this one washing, washes all.”
In this simple act, Jesus acknowledges all our need without shame and allows our small vulnerabilities to be an entry point for the full attention of his kindness.
What else has he done to us?
Well, in the very act of kneeling before his disciples – imagine that for a moment. Close your eyes. Imagine Jesus kneeling before you. […] What did you want to say to him? What did you want him to say to you?
What did he do to us in kneeling before us? I believe, among other things, that He has obligated us by giving us an example we cannot forget. An offer we cannot refuse.
I said earlier that this story enacts the life and mission of Christ, and also provides meaning to our life and mission as the Body of Christ.
The image of Jesus kneeling here is a portrait in the small of the much larger truth that, in Jesus, God Himself took on human form, as Paul beautifully says
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
A necessary humiliation.
Contrast this mind of Christ Jesus with the mind of the first Adam who, having already been made in the image of God, did not regard that as enough. He desired to be equal with God in wisdom, and by his overreach, brought death into this world.
Serving others enacts, in small theatre, the drama of death and resurrection. In a very real way, some small part of us has to die when we serve: our schedule, our agenda, our expectations or our ego. The dying doesn’t have to be big – but it has to be real.
I was thinking about this when I was making communion bread one time. Now I like making communion bread. It’s relaxing to knead the dough, and I enjoy doing something for the church. But it still takes time when I could be doing something else. It is a small, very small sacrifice – but still real. Like washing feet. It, too, is really a small thing. To do it means only dying a very small death.
Whether you spend your Saturday washing the altar linens, or paying the church bills, you could be doing something else for yourself instead – it’s a small thing. Other sacrifices call for more of ourselves.
When you stand in the back as an usher, you open yourself to the vulnerability of hospitality – to the risk of the unexpected or of a short trip outside your comfort zone. When you volunteer at Our Next Generation or The Gathering or attend a meeting for Common Ground, you take on the burden of someone else’s life besides your own.
Sometimes we decline to serve to avoid a death to our self.
But we miss something then, too. For, as we come to know again this weekend, following death is a rising. We experience a small resurrection on the other side of our service when some new aspect of life opens up to us – and changes us – even in a small way. When someone finds new community among us. When someone hungry is fed or when our advocacy has brought a needed playground to a neighborhood. We are changed, too.
We see this in the gospel. Jesus kneels – and acknowledges that as Teacher and Lord, he has made himself vulnerable – vulnerable to misunderstanding, betrayal and abandonment. He has not reinforced the power balance one might expect as Teacher and Lord. He knows where this will lead – but he knows something else, too. He knows that on the other side of it, he has already been glorified – raised up – resurrected, even as God glorifies himself in him.
He has set us this example. Our deaths – even our small deaths, and more so the eventual death of our body, will be overcome by a rising, a transformation and a glory to follow. We have an obligation to hope.
And why is this significant? Death and Resurrection. Winter and Spring. These are just the cycles of life that have been repeated since the first seed fell to the ground. Unless that seed falls to the ground and dies, it cannot bring forth fruit. Is this not simply Nature’s lesson? Ultimately what has Jesus done to us that Nature has not already taught us?
It is this: Jesus has loved us.
No greater love has anyone than to lay down his life for his friends. Jesus has exposed and recognized our needs for what they are, removing the shame and guilt with his touch. He has humbled himself to serve us as an example, and in doing so, in dying that small death, has foreshadowed the events and outcome of this approaching weekend. Events he knew about, and which we now anticipate in suspense.
Jesus has loved us, and has commanded us that we love each other in the same way. Recognizing each other’s needs as opportunities to extend kindness. Kneeling to serve each other, practicing the small drama of death and rising for the love and sake of each other, friend or stranger, parish or community. Letting ourselves be changed.
This is Maundy Thursday, where we offer the perennial explanation that the word Maundy is derived from the Latin word for ‘command’ – or ‘com-maund’, if you will – we hear that his commandment – his new Law – is to love.
But the command did not come first – the love came first. The love always comes first. We love him, because he first loved us. And then he says, just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.
This is what we should carry away with us tonight.
In a few minutes, we will enter into the sober suspense of walking ourselves through this Holy weekend. We will begin with the meal that Moses modeled, that Paul prescribed, and that Jesus shared. We will strip the altar and carry the textures of cloth and color away to join the A-word, then leave in silence. As we do these things, let us keep this first in our mind:
God loves us.
In this gospel where Jesus kneels to wash our feet, recognizing our every need, spoken and unspoken, known to ourselves and hidden – he tells us that he, God, loves us.
The seed falls into the ground to die, but fruit, much fruit, much love, will follow as we follow the command to love each another in life-giving, fruit-bearing, concrete and sustaining actions as the Body of Christ on earth. That is our mission.
Jesus says in this gospel, I have given you a new commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. Do you know what I have done to you?
I have loved you.