John 13:1-17, 31b-35
New Commandment - Maundy Thursday
On Maundy Thursday, we gather to remember two significant events that Jesus shared with his disciples. Matthew, Mark, and Luke recount Jesus sharing a Passover meal with the disciples and reimagining the symbols of bread and cup for them to be Jesus’ very body, broken for them, Jesus’ very blood, poured out for them. It is a foreshadowing of the breaking and bleeding of his body that will happen less than twenty-four hours from the time they share in the meal. It is a way that Jesus makes them – and us – a part of this breaking and bleeding. We, the body of Christ, are broken and poured out too, as he calls us to be the body of Christ for the world. Jesus says this is a new covenant he makes with us, a sign of forgiveness, and he calls us to remember every time we’re at the table together.
In John, we get a different story, deeply meaningful in its own way. Jesus is sharing Passover with his disciples. John tells us that Jesus, knowing that God had put all things into his hands, that he had come from God, and was going to God, possessed with all that comforting knowledge, Jesus gets up, and ties a towel around himself, and begins to wash the disciples feet. We don’t know how any of them received this gesture, except for Peter, who questioned, seemingly with disapproval – “Lord, as you going to wash my feet?” Jesus tells him Peter will understand eventually. “You will never wash my feet,” Peter declares. Jesus tells Peter that if he wants to be part of Jesus, to share with Jesus, Peter must be washed by Jesus. Peter swings like a pendulum then, saying, “Well then, wash my hands and head too!” But Jesus tells him that the feet are enough.
After finishing the footwashing, Jesus says that he has set an example. If we call him Teacher and Lord and mean it, we ought to do what he does – wash one another’s feet. Because we’re servants, messengers, not greater than the master, the one who sent us. As Christ’s servants and students, we’re meant to do what he does. Then Jesus says that we’re to follow the new commandment he gives us: to love one another. Just as Jesus has loved us, we’re to love one another. That’s how we’ll show that we are disciples. That’s where we get the name “Maundy Thursday” from. We get the word mandate from Maundy – a new mandate, a new commandment. But we know that, right? We’re supposed to love one another, and follow the example of Jesus? Aren’t we taught that from childhood? Love God, love one another. That doesn’t sound very new. But the way Jesus says it, and the significance he gives to it by adding it with this footwashing – he’s telling the disciples that he’s telling them something different – or to do something differently – than he’s seen from them so far.
One of the traditional Maundy Thursday worship practices, then, is a footwashing, where the pastor or other leaders of the congregation wash the feet of those in attendance, or at least the feet of a symbolic few. Every year since Pope Francis became the pope in the Catholic Church I have watched videos of him washing the feet of an ever widening circle of people, in a traditional that used to include the Pope washing the feet of 12 Catholic men. But the pope has now washed the feet of women and girls, the poor, and those of different faith traditions, or no faith tradition. This year he washed the feet of Muslim, Hindu, and Christian refugees living in shelter in Rome. Have you ever had your feet washed by someone? When I was just about to be ordained, the Bishop, Bishop Violet Fisher, invited all of us to be ordained to a retreat for the day, and she washed our feet. I remember people feeling awkward and uncomfortable – what about those who had worn stockings? What if we felt embarrassed by our feet? What if our feet didn’t smell like perfume? But she washed our feet.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this strange practice – footwashing – and what Jesus means for us to learn from it. We talked a bit about his practice a couple weeks ago, when we talked about Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet. Footwashing was common, because of the hot, dusty climate, and long travel on foot with only sandals for footwear. You washed your feet when you entered a home. But you washed your own feet. Or a slave washed them. A humble task. A menial task you wouldn’t ask someone else to do unless you considered them of such low status that it wouldn’t matter if they washed your feet.
What, in today’s world, is like footwashing? Jesus tells us to wash one another’s feet, to do for one another what he does for us. But we don’t wash feet today in the same way. It is no longer common practice. And so I’ve been wondering, what is an "equivalent" to footwashing today? I think about the place washing one's own feet had in Jesus' society, and who would usually wash someone's feet (Not a peer! Certainly not your Teacher!), and I wonder if we have anything other practices today that would be as compelling. If Jesus was demonstrating this kind of sacred act of servanthood today, would he wash feet, or would he do something else? I posed these questions on facebook and got some excellent answers. “Helping someone pack and move.” “Hearing a confession.” “Cooking and serving [someone] a meal.” “Getting the Upper Room ready for the meal … [The] hot sweaty work of moving tables, scrubbing floors, cleaning the bathroom, taking out the garbage.” “Clipping someone’s toenails.”
One pastor colleague wrote, “Our sense of physical space is so much wider/bigger than in the days of footwashing as a regular part of people's lives. I think of the ways we experience those intimate, humbling moments- I fed an 88 year old woman at the hospital yesterday, coaxing her one bite at a time. Her eyes looked at me with such trust and weariness.” Another said, “This question makes me think of the hierarchy of servants at Downtown Abbey. I cannot imagine Lord Granthem shining the shoes of his footmen.”
Another: “On a mission trip to Baja California last summer, working with kids of migrant farmworkers, we treated many of the kids for lice by putting mayonnaise in their hair, letting is sit for an hour, and then washing their hair and combing it out. It was a strange and intimate experience, and much more beautiful than I'd expected.”
A friend named MaryBeth wrote, “The parallel that has seized my imagination is helping elderly folks care for their feet. My mom can't reach her feet to cut her nails and I'm terrible at it (and I live 250 miles away from her.)” And another responded, “I was thinking what MaryBeth said. Then I was watching the people doing pedicures while I was standing in line at Walmart tonight. That would make it to my list.”
Another: “Thankless tasks: baggage handlers, bagging groceries, pumping gas, serving fast food, custodians. Jobs that people don't notice until they are done incorrectly [at minimum wage]. I think many volunteer opportunities or jobs that care for people are given recognition in prestige or honored by their peers, but would we notice who was doing those jobs that are done while we check our phone/daydream/talk to [our] companions?” (1)
At the Greenhouses in Rochester, one of our nurses said that she always looks at the feet of the elders who live in the house. At the memorial of one of our elders, she commented on how devoted the daughter was to Helen, who had died, which the nurse knew because Helen’s feet always looked beautiful and soft and cared for. An act of love from daughter to mother.
Jesus says that this is how we demonstrate love as his disciples: that we would offer the same acts of loving service – the sometimes menial or difficult or dirty or back-breaking or humbling tasks that we would normally only even consider for someone who was as close to us as our closest of family members. This is how Jesus loves us. Enough to wash our feet, enough to serve us in any way that’s like it. Enough to do that for every person, every child of God.
Who do we serve? Whose feet will we wash? Whose nails will we clip? Whose bathrooms will we clean? Whose fast food will we serve? Whose hair would we comb for lice? Whose floors will we scrub?
Jesus offers us the commandment – that we serve one another, that we are known, marked as disciples because of the way we love. He does this, says this, washes feet on the very night that he will be denied and betrayed and abandoned by the same people whose feet he washed. Clearly, there is nothing that can disqualify you as a recipient of the serving, loving hands of Jesus. So too he commands us.
I think the footwashing of Maundy Thursday catches us in a conundrum. We feel, whether we’ll admit it or not, that there are others who are unworthy to be served by us. Sure, we’ll wash some feet if Jesus tells us we must – but we want to pick whose feet we wash. While that might be serving, we’re not serving like Jesus is. And if we don’t or won’t do it like he does, then we’re making ourselves, the servants, greater than our master, Jesus. That won’t work.
And on the other hand, we feel we’re unworthy to be served by Jesus. Would you be able to let Jesus Christ kneel before you and wash your feet? The thought brings tears to my eyes. How could we be worthy of such an act of love? We can’t get the right answer because we’ve asked the wrong question. Worthy of Jesus washing our feet? He doesn’t do it because we’re worthy of it or not. That’s not a question that’s on Jesus’ radar. He does it because he loves his disciples. Because he loves us. Because he loves me. Because he loves you. Jesus loves us. All of us.
We all love. But what’s new about the new commandment is that Jesus says we’re supposed to love one another just as he has love us. In other words, we love through humble service. We love even those who would deny and betray and ditch us. We love even those who no one else seems to love. We love especially those who no one else seems to love. We love those who have wronged us. Those who we think we’re better than. Without conditions and qualifications and counting the cost and figuring out who is worth it. We love as we serve. Just as I have loved you, Jesus says, you also should love one another. When we do this, he says, people will know we’re his disciples. They won’t need to ask. We won’t need the label. They’ll know. They’ll see it in our love. Tell me, who knows you are a Jesus-follower, just because of how you love? Amen.