Ian, Courtney, and I preached at the Maundy Thursday service last week!
Tonight, on this Holy Thursday, as we prepare for the footwashing and the sacrament of communion, we take a moment to reflect on the radical image of service and humility presented in our Gospel reading. When compared with the stark image of crucifixion on Good Friday and the triumphant cacophany of Easter, the humbler Maundy Thursday scene of meal and footwashing can be easily overlooked, but it holds radical promises of grace and forgiveness and it challenges us, calling us to lives of service and love for all people.
Imagine for a second, President Obama stripping off his suit and wrapping a towel around his waist to get down on his knees to wash the feet of a homeless person on the streets of Washington DC, my home town. That would be CRAY-CRAY right? And yet, here we have this narration from the Gospel of John describing Jesus doing essentially just that. Jesus, particularly to the disciples, held this mass position of authority, even higher than say our President. The disciples Could tell that clearly this man was called by God. No wonder they totally freaked out when Jesus started to wash their feet! The author of John tells us that Jesus knew who he was and Whose he was. In the Greek the role that Jesus put on is that of a slave, and slaves were not considered people, they were thought of as objects or things that people owned. So here we have Jesus, the epitome of authority for us as Christians, literally objectifying himself as the lowliest of the low, the scum, the rejected. WHAT? Why would he ever do such a thing?
To start this whole thing off, Jesus stands up from the table, goes and removes his Himatian or his robes, and wrapped a towel around him. In the culture of the time, this was a BIG DEAL. There were cultural rules about slaves and servants and Jesus just takes those rules and goes WHOOSHT and washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus is teaching here. Here Jesus Exemplifies Grace.
What is grace? Grace is what happens on the cross. Grace is the unconditional love that we so often hear about in church. Grace is how we can all be forgiven no matter who you are, what you have done, what your status us, what what you have craved, lusted for, acted through, no matter what your story is you are loved and forgiven. That radical thing that allows us to call ourselves children of God no matter what! That is grace.
Jesus is lessening himself to exemplify a grace that reaches out and touches all levels. He is teaching us that the amazing forgiving cleansing power of the entire passion story, from footwashing to the foot of the cross to the foot of the empty tomb, is for everyone, not just the people we might assume.
So Jesus did this thing. The savior of all the world, placed himself in the lowliest position. What do we do with that? Well Jesus gave us this awesome example of how to go out and exemplify that same grace that was shown to us! If we call ourselves followers of Christ I dare say that we are obligated to show the rest of the world that same mind blowing radical incredible thing called grace! You might be thinking “That is great and all, but I am not Jesus, or Obama, so…..what do I do? What does that mean for me?”
Largely it means putting ourselves in the places of others, being empathetic, serving people in a variety of ways, and giving of our prayers and our compassion to others. Humility can look like any number of things, and it’s really difficult to explain. Some of the best examples of people acting with humility nobody knows about. Why? People acting in humility by definition aren’t doing it for the attention.
For some people feeding the homeless, or giving to charities, or volunteering at a soup kitchen are really meaningful ways to spread God’s love and grace. Those are all wonderful things and I do not by any means want to deter people from doing those things. I do want to challenge us to think about our motivations for giving and our attitude in service. Sometimes we serve so we can make ourselves feel better. We say things like“Well I’ve been volunteering at this soup kitchen for X number of years and blah blah blah” or “Last week I gave half my sandwich that I had just gotten from that fancy deli to a homeless person.” Those are great things yes, but I think the spirit in which we serve is just as important as the service we do. Do we really serve in humility? Our actions and our attitudes in service need to embody our theology that we are all equally loved by God and that we are all equally offered God’s grace. If we are high and mighty about our so-called good deeds, then we aren’t really being humble. If we only serve as Christians because we think we’re supposed to take care of those lesser than us, we have missed something critical that Jesus is showing us. When we serve others it should be out of compassion, and out of Christian equality. If we are all the equal in the eyes of God, and in the eyes of Grace then our hearts must be humbled when we serve.
It is critical to talk about something else that happens in the story. Simon Peter like freaks out and is all “NO LORD YOU CAN’T WASH MY FEET!” Jesus uses this moment to teach. Even from the ground, Jesus maintains Who he is and Whose he is. Sometimes when we talk about humility it gets complicated. We are not called to humble ourselves to the point of losing the worth that God has instilled within us. We are called to humble ourselves remembering that we are all valued loved Children of God no exceptions. It can be hard to balance understanding compassion for others with remembering that that same compassion applies to you as well. This is not a call to self-deprecation or harm, but rather a call of empowerment to all people. Jesus on his knees, with a towel around his waist, holds true to his call from the Lord, and teaches the disciples about humility, service, and compassion, and washes simon peter’s feet.
This example of both calling and humility reminds me a bit of a word I grew up hearing. All the time at my home church in Southern Maryland we heard the word witness. We are called as Christians to be a witness! Well HOLD UP! What does “witness” mean? I know this word has like five thousand different meanings. What I mean by witness is not standing on a corner with a poster screaming “repent now for the rapture is upon us” True story that was screamed at my friend at Government center one time. I don’t even just mean standing up in front of the church telling the story of how God has moved and transformed your life.
I mean witnessing the way Jesus witnesses to his disciples. By getting down and acting out what he believes in his heart. From the inside out we are called to emulate or act as Christ did, not just here, not just when we see a homeless person, but at all times. We are called to know and answer our calling to serve the Lord. We do this by remembering that God’s grace is for everyone, and that God’s love is for all the people; the highest of the high and the lowest of the low. That grace and and all encompassing love my friends, is indeed beautifully humbling.
The act of footwashing in the Gospels ultimately affirms the grace and unconditional love for us all that Courtney just talked about. When Christ humbled himself to wash the feet of his disciples, he was working with the lowest part of them. Jesus constantly ministered to the lower parts and outcasts of society. His closest disciples were mostly simple fishermen, and he tended to the sick and to the lepers, who were considered ritually unclean. In doing so, Jesus exposed himself frequently to the dirt and filth that tie all of us down to our humanity. He encountered people worn down by insecurity, poverty, hunger, resentment, grief, or despair, and he probably saw their darkest parts. But he forgave and healed them all the same, recognizing that their sins had been taken away. Christ’s ministry demonstrated the grace and love he must have shown these people, and washing the feet of his disciples was an extension of that ministry. For us, then, washing another person’s feet is an act of love, an act that acknowledges their sins are forgiven and affirms the forgiveness of our own sins as well.
Even though footwashing at the Last Supper only appears in the gospel of John, this is not its first occurrence in the Gospels. In the opening verses of chapter 12, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume when he ate at the house of Lazarus in Bethany. The gospel of Luke relates a similar story:
“One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.”
In these two accounts, a woman washes Jesus’ feet and dries them. Although the details of the stories differ from today’s gospel reading, it is important to note that Jesus is not the one who performs the footwashing. Instead, he himself is washed. Nevertheless, the act of washing or anointing is common to all three passages. The fact that both women and Christ chose to wash feet, of all parts of the body, also bears significance.
Jesus told Peter, “One who has washed does not need to bathe, except for the feet, for he is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” When he said this, he might have meant only the feet needed to be washed. But it seems especially odd that he would say this after washing the feet of some of his disciples. But Jesus may be referring to moral cleanliness instead of physical cleanliness, a clean conscience instead of a clean body. Christ knew that Judas would betray him, yet he still bends down to wash his feet. Footwashing therefore becomes more than an act of physical cleaning; it serves as an act of unconditional love. Jesus loved his disciples to the end while cleansing their feet, even the one whom he knew would betray him. From that love, grace and forgiveness is possible, for their sins as well as ours. The love apparent in footwashing also emerges in the passage from Luke. After the woman bathes, dries, and anoints Jesus, he says that her many sins have been forgiven, “as great as her love as shown” through her actions (Luke 7:47). He notices that she washed his feet out of love, and because of that love he forgave her sins.
In both the passage from Luke and in today’s gospel reading, the acts of footwashing are met with resistance and rejection. When the woman began weeping and anointing Jesus with oil, the pharisee objected, noting that she was a sinner. But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” The pharisee did not show the same humility and love to him as the woman did. The love imbued in her footwashing was necessary to receive forgiveness. When Jesus approached Peter to wash his feet, on the other hand, Peter initially objected as well. He refused to see his teacher humble himself before him by assuming the role of a servant. But Christ responded by saying that unless he washed his disciple, Peter could have no share with him. Perhaps he meant that they could not eat together, since the practice at the time was to wash one’s feet before a meal. It seems more likely, though, that Peter needed to be washed by Christ to have a share in Christ’s ministry. Part of that ministry involves showing unconditional love for others by washing their feet, regardless of the dirt, dust, and grime that might be seen. This is slightly different from the gospel of Luke, where the woman washes Jesus’ feet, and she is ultimately granted forgiveness for it. Here, Jesus cleanses the feet of his disciples so that they may be forgiven, and so that they could forgive others. I believe that is what Christ meant when he tells his disciples to wash one another’s feet, and to love one another as he had loved them (John 13: 14, 34).
Christ may not have meant that the disciples should immediately go out and wash people’s feet. Even today, if you went outside, with a basin in one hand and a towel in the other, and tried washing the feet of passersby, you would probably have very mixed success. This might be due to the close-toed shoes and boots that many wear in this season, but I digress. While foot-washing is an act of service, it is the spiritual washing inherent in it that matters more. As John Wesley notes, Christ teaches the disciples the notion of humble love, to confer inward purity upon them. He asks them “in every possible way to assist each other in attaining that purity. And to wash each other’s feet by performing all sorts of good offices to each other, even those of the lowest kind, when opportunity serves and the necessity of any calls for them.” (John Wesley’s Commentary on the Bible 466).
By figuratively or physically washing another person’s feet, we expose ourselves to the dust and the dirt of our humanity. We may encounter people at their lowest point, people whose lives and homes have been shattered. We may meet people whose suffering is almost unbearable to watch, let alone feel. The people whose feet we wash, perhaps unknowingly, may be our friends, our family, or strangers we have met only briefly. And in turn, those who love us, even when we cannot recognize it, may wash our own feet. They see our imperfections, our insecurities, and our doubts, but rather than recoil from them, they slowly rinse them out. Not with water, but with the same spirit of love and forgiveness that Jesus had at the Last Supper. It is for that reason, I think, that Christ washed his disciple’s feet, and died for us shortly afterward. He died out of love, not only to forgive us for our sins, but so that we could love one another and recognize that forgiveness in others as well.
The love and forgiveness present in this act of footwashing are part of Jesus’ complete upending of hierarchies as he challenges the disciples with a call to serve. We tend to imagine the footwashing as a beautiful scene of Jesus caring for his disciples in a symbolic act of forgiveness. But it was also probably awkward. From Peter’s response, I assume all of the disciples were not at all comfortable with the idea of their respected Teacher getting down on his knees and acting like a slave. Faces frozen, embarrassment flushing into their cheeks, a tense silence filling the room as Jesus washes their feet, which, with twelve people, would probably have felt like an eternity. And then, as a sense of relief fills them when they see Jesus put his robe back on and rejoin them at the table, Jesus looks at all of them and says, “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” In other words, surprise! You get to be slaves too!
Instead of the instant status upgrade the disciples probably expected from their association with Jesus, they are instead called to take the place of the lowest and most vulnerable in society. Needless to say, I can only imagine that the disciples spent a lot of their time wondering what in the world they had gotten themselves into when they dropped everything to follow this crazy rabbi who never fit the typical ‘savior’ mold.
And then he would command them to love one another, just as he loved them. And today, as modern day disciples, we are called to do the same. We are called to follow Jesus’ example of love and to serve one another. As a church, it is so easy to get caught up in serving others far outside of ourselves, sending money to countries on the other side of the globe and forgetting to serve the people standing right next to us. But those people are important too.
We are called to serve the college student who doesn’t know where they stand in relation to the church, we are called to serve the retiree who spends all their time serving others and never takes care of themself, we are called to serve the person who dresses up for church to hide their own insecurities, we are called to serve the pastors who minister to us, the ushers who guide us, the readers who enlighten us, the musicians who fill us, the greeters who welcome us, the sacristans who prepare the way. We are called to serve each other, to love each other as Jesus loved. It doesn’t have to be anything crazy. It can be as simple as getting to know the person next to us or across the room, asking ‘how is it with your soul?’, letting someone know that they matter and that there is a community praying for and supporting them—letting them know that they are loved.
But this love does not have to stop at the church doors. In the landmark World Council of Churches document “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,” it reads, “In a broken world, God calls the whole of humanity to become God’s people…Jesus’ life of service, his death and resurrection, are the foundation of a new community which is built up continually by the good news of the Gospel…” These are powerful words. If “the whole of humanity” is called to be God’s people, then regardless of whether they answer that call, they also are included in Jesus’ command to love and serve each other.
The document continues, “the Holy Spirit bestows on the community diverse and complementary gifts. These are for the common good of the whole people and are manifested in acts of service within the community and to the world.” Therefore, we are called to wash the feet of the people within this community of faith, but we are also called to bring that radical notion of service and love outside these walls and into the world.
We are called to serve the 700 homeless folks who were left without access to shelter when the bridge to Boston’s Long Island was abruptly closed in October. We can serve by volunteering to provide meals and compassion at day-time shelters in Old South and Emmanuel Churches or by donating needed items through Boston Warm’s Amazon gift registry.
We are called to serve students drowning in the doldrums of the semester who can’t see past looming deadlines and narrow dorm room walls. We can offer words of encouragement, and prayers, or gifts of hot tea and ice cream when needed.
We are called to serve the people next to us on the bus who don’t know if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table for their kids. We can volunteer at our local food bank or we can work with organizations such as the Student Food Rescue here on campus to bring excess food from bakeries and grocery stores to people that need it.
We are called to serve the broken and the whole, the forgotten and the exposed, the taken-for granted.
And it’s not going to be easy—it’s going to be uncomfortable and dirty and awkward and we’re going to wonder what in the world we’ve gotten ourselves into. Because we are also called to serve the T operators who close the doors just before we get there, and that guy in the car behind us who won’t lay off his horn. We are called to serve the coworker who seems to only have bad things to say about us and the family member we haven’t spoken to for years. We are called to encounter the world with an attitude of grace and love no matter what it throws back at us. Because there is no one in this broken world who isn’t in need of healing—there is no one who doesn’t need someone to drop everything, get down on their knees, and lovingly wipe the dirt of this world from their weary feet. It may not be perfect. It might be uncomfortable and awkward and we might be filled with relief as soon as it’s over. But it’s a start on this radical journey of service as we strive to love each other as Jesus loved–to the end. Amen.