Sermon 4/18/19 - Maundy Thursday
John 13:1-17, 34-35
Do You Know What I Have Done for You?
I think the footwashing, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, is one of the most compelling stories in the gospels. It only appears in the gospel of John, and John seems to include it in the stead of Jesus celebrating the Last Supper with the disciples. Well, they eat a last meal together, but John doesn’t record Jesus imbuing the symbols of bread and cup with the meaning that they hold for us today when we celebrate communion. We don’t know why this is, when certainly, by the time John wrote his gospel, the last of the four gospels to be written, celebrating communion had already become a central focus of worship in the early church. We can’t know the answer. But what we have instead from John is a precious gift, not included elsewhere. When Jesus and the disciples get ready to share their last meal together, Jesus gets up from the table, and readys himself with a towel and basin, and starts washing the feet of the disciples. Footwashing was common In Jesus’ day, but it was almost exclusively something a person of lower status did for a person of higher status, or something you did for yourself. Usually the slaves of a household would perform the task for their master’s guests. A rabbi’s pupils - disciples - might wash a rabbi’s feet.
For a rabbi to wash the feet of the pupils instead - for Jesus to wash the feet of his disciples instead - the reversal is shocking. And indeed, Peter, at least, is shocked. We don’t hear how the other disciples feel about what happens, but Peter insists to Jesus, “You will never wash my feet!” Peter can’t stand to see Jesus lower himself in this way.
Jesus uses Peter’s outburst as an opportunity to teach about why he is doing what he’s doing. Jesus tells Peter that washing his feet in this way is a sign that Peter has a part in the life and work of Jesus. After Jesus finishes the footwashing, he asks the disciples, “Do you know what I have done for you?” He continues, “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.” Jesus tells them he is giving a new commandment, although it is not really new at all - just demonstrated to them in a new way that they won’t forget, “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.”
I keep stopping on Jesus’ question to the disciples: “Do you know what I have done for you?” I think, even with his explanations to his disciples, it is sometimes hard for us to get the weight of what Jesus does in the footwashing, and the weight, the import of what he asks us to do in response. In the Lenten devotional book I’ve been using this season, All Shall Be Well, Jesuit priest Greg Boyle writes,
“St. Francis of Assisi admonishes us with this: ‘Don’t imitate Jesus. Follow in his footsteps.’ Jesus doesn’t want a fan club (‘I have all your records. I go to every concert.’) You won’t find a single ‘worship me’ in the Gospel. But you’ll find a ton of ‘Follow me.’ ...‘Do you understand what I’ve just done for you?’ We either simply imitate the action - (12 male feet), or we domesticate the message: ‘Serve others.’ Don’t get me wrong. I like BOTH service AND clean feet. But what Jesus does is more than service and deeper than mimicry. In washing all the dirt-covered [feet] of his friends, Jesus achieves this remarkable and intimate connection with his followers. With a humility that erases the daylight separating them, Jesus draw them into a tenderness - ‘loving them to the end’ - so that they can follow in his footsteps.” (“Following in His Footsteps,” 233-234, emphasis mine)
Don’t imitate Jesus, but follow Jesus. Boyle uses as an example how Pope Francis moved from commemorating Jesus’ footwashing by washing the feet of twelve men each year to washing the feet of men and women, washing the feet of Muslims, washing the feet of prisoners, washing the feet of the poor. The Pope did more than copy Jesus’ behavior. He truly followed the heart of Jesus, serving like Jesus, loving like Jesus, getting right to the heart of the footwashing, even as he changed the pattern of it.
“Do you understand what I have done for you? If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” I wonder, in our culture that no longer practices footwashing in the same way, if we can find ways to move beyond merely copying what Jesus does to embodying the heart of Jesus’ message as we follow him with our lives. What does footwashing look like lived out today?
My nephew Sam, my oldest brother’s oldest child, is almost 12 years old. I so love being Aunt Beth that sometimes it seems strange to think of the time in my life before I could claim my favorite title. But sometimes I think about how very much parenthood has changed my brother Jim. Jim was one of those people who was quite fastidious. He certainly hated it if someone would try to take a bite of his food. You couldn’t, even among family, take a sip of his drink - he’d have to get a whole new beverage if you tried to pull something like that. And if you even touched his dinner plate, he was pretty uncomfortable. This kind of dislike of potential germs is really hard to maintain when you have several siblings, but Jim somehow managed to make his feelings known and respected most of the time. And Jim’s house was always perfectly neat. When he and my sister-in-law first moved in together, one of their most common sources of conflict was related to keeping the house clean.
But then he became a parent. And everything changed. It’s hard to maintain a fastidious nature when you have to change someone’s diapers, and when you have to wipe their runny noses, and when you have to feed them, and clean up their messy food, and when you find yourself doing that spit-cleaning thing that your parents did to you that you swore you would never do to someone else. But everything changes, and suddenly you’re doing all these things you never thought you’d do, because your whole world has been reordered, and instead of life as usual where we’re always at the center of our own little universes, someone has arrived to help us do very quickly what we’ve meant to do all along - get ourselves out of the center and put someone else there instead. Babies are totally and utterly dependent. And parents learn very tangibly how your life comes to focus on serving others first, putting the needs of someone else before your own, a radical reordering of priorities when another human’s ability to live depends on your willingness to meet their every need, your willingness to serve. Of course, it’s easy for most parents to feel moved to this kind of love, this kind of serving for their own child. But Jesus demonstrates this kind of love and this kind of serving for us. What if Jesus is calling us to this kind of love and service for each other? For other people who aren’t cute babies?
The year before I came to serve here in Gouverneur, I was working as a chaplain at a retirement community in Rochester, and part of my work also involved being chaplain at two small homes called the Greenhouses. The Greenhouses are skilled nursing facilities for ten people in each home who are able to live in a setting and rhythm that is supposed to be as much like it would be at their own homes as possible. I loved this model of skilled nursing. It transformed my vision for what nursing home care could be like. When someone died at the Greenhouses, we would have our own memorial services there, in addition to whatever the family might do in the larger community. We’d invite the family, and of course the other members of the household, and staff members from that home and the neighboring home would come and participate too. Our memorial services always involved a time of sharing, and the staff would usually get a chance to speak directly to the family of the person who had died. I remember one memorial in particular. A woman named Helen had died. Her daughter Sharon had been very faithful, visiting her mother frequently and she came to the memorial. And the head nurse at the house said to Sharon, “I always look at the feet of the folks I’m caring for, and it tells me something about the kind of care they’re receiving. It is easy to overlook taking care of the feet. You can make sure a person is clean and that they are fed and that they are participating in activities and conversation. But to pay attention to someone’s feet, to take care of their feet - that’s an act of real love. Your mother had the nicest feet I’ve seen. They were always cared for, and clean, and polished, and soft. And I know you did that for her - you took such care of her feet.” And of course Sharon’s eyes were filled with tears in thanksgiving for this perceptive nurse. Jesus demonstrates this kind of love and this kind of serving for us. What if Jesus is calling us to this kind of love and service for each other? For other people who aren’t even our dearest mothers?
Do we know what Jesus has done for us? I’ve been using a lot this season a book called Stages on the Way: Worship Resources for Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, put out by the Wild Goose Worship Group of the Iona Community. I was looking for some direction for our Palm/Passion Sunday Service this year, and a friend recommended it, and the writings just speak to me - I’m so glad I got the book. There are some dramas for worship included in the resource, and one of them for Maundy Thursday includes a narrator speaking to Simon Peter, trying to help him understand the significance of the footwashing. The narrator says to him, “Peter, this is what [Jesus] must do. This, whom you call ‘servant,’ is your Lord. To be the Lord means to be the servant; to do the dirty work and to do it in love. And that is very costly, although you count it stupid. For a good world, a man may lay down his life with pride; but for a bad world and for people who reject, betray, deny, it is much harder. His power is in his weakness. And you may not know that today, and you will not think it tomorrow, when from a cross, against the sky, he hangs helpless. But this is the way the world is transformed … by loving the unlovely, by dying for the lifeless, by forgiving those, like you, whose hearts are too stubborn to see what they are or know who he is. Be still, and let your feet be washed and let your mouth be closed. Think not always to act, always to speak. But first let your Lord do for you what you must do for each other.”
Do we know what Jesus has done for us? May we learn the full measure of it day by day. And may we not just copy, but follow, so that all will know we belong to Jesus by our love. Amen.