A Sermon for 13 April 2017 – Maundy Thursday
A reading from the gospel of John 13:1-17, 31b-35. Listen for God’s word to us as we hear the gospel of John’s rendering of Jesus’ last night with his disciples.
“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “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, have 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. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. . . .
“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. 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.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Christians all over the world tonight are gathering. In elaborate cathedrals, simple huts, and sanctuaries much like this. On Maundy Thursday, we hear the new command given by Christ while he was at table with his disciples the night before his end. While most tonight will just get a taste of the bread and a sip of the fruit of the vine in remembrance; some actually will sit with their bare feet in a basin. The pastor or other spiritual leader of the congregation will kneel before them, likely with a pitcher and towel in hand. Water will be poured. The worshipper will feel the cool liquid as it hits their feet’s skin. Soap may accompany the wash and maybe even a relaxing massage to soothe tired toes. I wish I could be in a place that included a soak with reviving essential oils – a little rosemary and eucalyptus to include all the senses in the defining act.
I don’t know about you, but other than family members when I was a small child and pedicures which don’t really count, only twice in my lifetime have I had my feet washed by another person. Once was at the beginning of a much needed massage during a pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Though we didn’t speak the same language, the therapist brought out a basin of warm water and indicated to me to put my feet in it. She gently stroked my feet with a wash cloth to make sure any dirt from the road was gone. It was wonderful! . . . Another time was in a sanctuary not that far from this one. The night was Maundy Thursday. A woman of the congregation who grew up with regular experiences of foot washings in worship, volunteered to wash everyone’s feet that night. On our way up to communion together around the Table, we could sit down in a chair. Silently then, the woman would indicate to hold your feet out over the bowl. She would pour water over them, then reverently wipe dry each foot with a towel. We all put our shoes back on before proceeding up front to get the bread and the juice, but I really wanted to leave them off. The act seemed so holy. Besides: Moses stood barefoot before the Presence of God in that bush that was aflame but not burning up. Wouldn’t it be amazing to approach the Table of the Lord clean-footed, nothing between the skin of our feet and the ground right under us?
We’re not including foot washing as a part of this service tonight. You can relax. You don’t have to worry that anyone will see that toe you think is ugly or that scar you got from some risky childhood stunt. Few among us really want to be that known in worship – our bare feet hanging out for all the world to see. Which is too bad because just hearing about the act that marks this night doesn’t go far enough to communicate the depth of what Christ did. The humility of bending, touching, smelling through it all. The intimacy of holding in this hands bare foot after bare foot. I wonder if he looked deep into each person’s eyes while he washed them. Maybe smiling as wide as a proud parent when he considered all the places those feet had followed behind him. Knowing the feet of his disciples had so much further yet to travel to enact God’s good news all around the world. . . . This is the act that defines tonight. The mark of the new command he gives to us all. The towel and basin still prominent in the room, Jesus says: “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). This is the way all will know you are mine, he proclaims. Bending, touching, holding tenderly – as if the most precious treasure. This is the mark of one who bears his name. That night, that last fate-filled night; Jesus preaches a silent sermon as he bends. Touches. Washes them all – including Judas, who, according to the gospel of John, still is in the room.
One commentator claims: “the mission and strategy of Jesus” is “symbolized in his washing of the disciples’ feet” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2, Trygve David Johnson, p. 275). For “in the washing . . . Jesus chooses to empty himself rather that to promote himself” (Ibid.). He shows that the path of love is serving another. Willingly fulfilling all God intends. . . . This is the night the church sees in full what it means to be the church, the body of Christ for the world. The body of Christ willing to stoop in humility to do what others don’t want to do. To feed those who hunger, visit those who are sick, loose that which is unjust in this world because from a position at his disciples’ feet; this is what our Lord shows us to do. . . . Priest and profound author Barbara Brown Taylor writes this about the night Jesus gathered one last time with his friends. She writes: “With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, (Jesus) did not give them something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do – specific ways of being together in their bodies – that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself. . . . “Do this,” he said, not believe this but do this – “in remembrance of me.’” (An Altar in the World, pp. 43-44). Taylor insists Christ did so because “the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation,” she writes, “by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God” (Ibid., p. 45). Through practices like washing feet. And taking bread in order to sit down together for a feast of fellowship. . . . Christians all over the world tonight are gathering. In elaborate cathedrals, simple huts, and sanctuaries much like this. We are seeing the new command given by Christ while he was at table with his disciples the night before his end. After we partake of the bread and drink of the fruit of the vine, the question remains: will we go to do likewise?
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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