Those of us arriving tonight, expecting to read about the institution of the Eucharist by our Lord at the Last Supper, might be a bit surprised by the reading from John’s Gospel. Where the other three Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, record those details that we now associate with the Eucharist, John focuses on another aspect of the Last Supper. Those of you who have taken Bible classes in college or EFM may not be too shocked by the different focus. After all, John seems to be more concerned with the theological concerns of Christ’s teachings than the events themselves. I say “seems” because the other three writers are also concerned with those theological concerns and John is also concerned with recording the acts and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Admittedly, though, the Gospel writers’ foci are different, even if the Truth they are relating is the same. Nowhere is that different focus and same Truth more apparent than in their respective depictions of the Last Supper.
As we spoke the week before Palm Sunday, so does John write now. Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Remember, the Greeks had asked Phillip who consulted with Andrew, both of whom went to Jesus in the Temple and informed Him that the Greeks wished to meet with Him. The Seed of Abraham had become the Light unto the world, the beginning of the nation of priests. After a brief condemnation of Judas Iscariot, though, John relates that Jesus got up from the table, took off His outer robe, wrapped a towel around Himself, and began to wash the feet of His disciples. It is a shocking account.
Foot-washing was an activity with well-established roots in the Ancient Near East. At times, especially as we see in the Old Testament, foot-washing was closely associated with hospitality. When one welcomed someone into the tent or home, it was customary to allow them to wash the dust off the road before feeding them and offering them a place to sit. The archetype of this hospitality is practiced none other than by Abraham who, in Genesis, washes the feet of God’s messengers before they inform Him that Sarah will bear a son within a year! We repeat that hospitality in different ways today. If someone comes to visit us from some distance, we often make our restrooms available so that they can “wash up” before a visit or dinner. Foot-washing was also closely associated with ritual cleanliness before worship. Some gods required that worshippers and priests wash their feet before entering their temple. Yahweh required that His priests wash their hands and their feet before entering the place where the sacrifices were to be offered to the Lord. Again, we see that played out before we worship the Lord, right? Most of us clean up a bit, if not bathe entirely, before coming to worship God. On evening services like tonight, we like to get the day’s grime off us and maybe even change our clothes. Plus, as is the tradition at Advent and many other churches, priests wash their hands over the lavabo bowel before celebrating the Eucharist. I see the head nods. You recognize that vestiges of such practices exist even today. There is a symbolic understanding that the hands and feet can more easily be dirtied and so they must be cleansed.
Now, place yourself in that room this night nearly two thousand years ago. You have come to believe that Jesus is the Christ. He has performed miracles that appeal to you and your need for proof. Lepers have been cleansed. A menstruating woman has been healed. Cripples have been made to walk. Demons have been exorcised by simple words. Countless diseases have been cured. Thousands have been fed on a few loaves and a few fish. Jairus’ daughter has been called back to life. Lazarus has been called out of his tomb. Your Master has calmed the sea and the storm. Heck, He called Peter out onto the water with Him, and Peter even walked on water with Him! He has taken on the identity of the Son of Man from Daniel’s prophesy. You have heard the thundering voice declaring Him the Beloved and that you should listen to Him. Maybe you are one of the three who saw Him transfigured with Elijah and Moses. Whatever doubt you had about your Master’s identity has long sense faded. You know the kingdom of God is at hand! You can hear it! You can feel it! And then the unthinkable happens . . . your Lord and Master, the Christ, the Messiah, takes on the role of a slave and washes your feet before the meal.
I have tried, I have really tried over the years to think of a good example of the “yuckiness” of this act. In many ways, our society is a bit too sanitized. Mucking stables, working in a meat packing facility, serving as a garbage man, a gardener, a janitor in your offices – they all come up far too short in my mind to adequately describe this act to you. It was an act deemed so demeaning, that rabbis argued over whether Jewish slaves could wash the feet of guests or whether such action was “beneath” them. Yes, you heard correctly, some viewed foot-washing as dehumanizing even to slaves. Those rabbis taught that only the Gentile slaves could be used for the job! And yet, here is Jesus, taking on the role fit only for Gentile slaves just as He is about to institute the Eucharist that we celebrate when we gather in worship. No wonder Peter objects!
Why does John focus on the foot-washing and not the meal? It is not that John ignores the meal in his writing. Quite the contrary, John discusses the meal quite a bit. But as we head into the events of the night, the prayers in Gethsemane, the betrayal by a kiss, the mock trial before the Sanhedrin, the false accusations and lies of the witnesses presented, the failure of the high priests and Temple elites to recognize that He was who He claimed to be, the perversion of justice, the handing over to Pilate, the manipulating of the crowds, the flogging, the ridicule, the mockery, the derision, the crucifixion, and His death, we are reminded for one last time that love must have an action.
One of those little tidbits that you likely do not yet know about me was that one of my Masters’ Thesis and the dissertation focus was on the idea of love in the ANE. I won’t bore you much tonight other than to state that it was held impossible by people in the ANE for someone to love internally without any outward examples. Put it simpler language, those in the ANE did not say “I love you” so much as they showed you they loved you, if they did. Gods, of course, being above petty emotions and attachments, had no need to show love. Their followers demonstrated their love to them. With that little bit of quick background, maybe you are beginning to see just how counter-cultural the Gospel was in the ANE. Not only did God love us, but He demonstrated that love for us by His work and person and death on a Cross. The idea that God would willingly enter into our yucky matter and existence and then willingly die for us to save us was pure nonsense to most in the ANE. Gods did not do such things. They existed to be worshipped, to be served, to be loved.
Yet here is Jesus, God’s own Anointed, washing the feet of His disciples before they sit down to eat and share the meal that will become the Eucharist. For John, the Eucharist and the foot washing are too-intertwined ever to be separated one from another. The foot-washing prepares the disciples for the meal. But, as always is the case with God’s grace, notice that the disciples do not wash their feet themselves. Instead, Christ Himself sets the example. Christ takes on the role of the slave, the Gentile slave at that, and washes their feet. Is it an act of hospitality? Yes. Is it an act of ritual cleanliness? Yes. Is it an act that prepares them for true worship? Absolutely! More importantly, it is the commandment that He gives us in order that others might be drawn to His meal and His saving embrace.
Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin word, mandatum, which means command. Before instituting the meal, our Lord commanded that we love one another as He loved He loved us. Such a command is not a desire that our inward affections only be in favor of someone. Jesus does not say “I want you to think well and kindly of them.” Jesus says, I want you to love them. This means our outer actions must reflect our interior attachment. We cannot love as He loved without serving them as He served us. We cannot. And make no mistake, love means a very specific thing to Jesus. Love means bringing others into right relationship with God. All else flows from this great commandment. If we are reconciled to God, we will by necessity be reconciled to one another. If we truly claim Him as Lord, we will truly understand one another to be brothers and sisters. John understands this. Love is not a hippie acceptance of all things as good, as some in the world like to claim. Love is the ministering to others in need, graciously reproving them when their actions separate them from God, and removing those distinctions which cause us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. True love is doing the hard work necessary to remind others that they need to be in right relationship with God, a right relationship which can be accomplished only through faith in Christ.
Washing the feet of others today may mean serving them at Room in the Inn. It may mean buying groceries or diapers for a struggling mother. It may mean getting to know one of those men and women selling those papers to make money for themselves here in Nashville. It may mean prayer. It may mean lots of listening. It may mean supporting the ladies at Thistle Farms and Magdalene. It will certainly seem challenging. It may seem crazy to the world. But whatever it is is no less nuts, no less Gospel, than God washing our feet in preparation of the meal for which He will cover the cost of our invitation in His flesh and His blood! Why else will we pray for the strength to serve them as He suffered for us? But it is that serving that reminds those most outcast among us that yes, He loves them too. Yes, He has not forgotten them. Crazy as it sounds, your service may well be the reminder of His invitation to them!
Brothers and sisters, we gather this night to remind ourselves of the depth of love our God has for each one of us. Yes, He died for the sins of the world. But, just as importantly to Him, He died for the sins of you and of me. My guess is that few of us have ever stopped to consider the intimacy of this act, this foot washing. No doubt many of you in years past have refused to come forward for any number of reasons that sounded good in your ears, just as Peter’s words probably sounded great in his own and in the ears of those who heard them. Brothers and sisters, this invitation to have your feet washed comes not from a spouse, a friend, or from a priest. The invitation to come forward comes from your Lord God, your Lord who loved you well enough that He would wash the muck off your feet, even as He washes the skubala off your souls with His blood, the Lord who, before He entered into glory, served you as a slave and died for you, that you might live and reign with Him forever. Come, take your share, then eat and be fortified, that you might serve others in their afflictions, and so fulfill His commandment to you. . .