John 13:1-17, 31b-35 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. Jesus said, "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."
Tonight we gather to mark Maundy Thursday. This is the night when Jesus gathered for his final meal with his friends. According to the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this is the night where Jesus left his church with the sacrament of the Eucharist.
At the Last Supper, Jesus took the bread, he blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples, and then said something like: Take and eat, this is my body, which is given for you, do this in remembrance of me. Next, he took a cup of wine and said something like: Drink this, all of you, this is my blood of the new covenant. It is shed for you and for all, for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.
We’ll hear those words, in just a few minutes, when we gather to share our Eucharist. Our thanksgiving. You will see me take the bread, and bless it. Then I’ll break it and we will all share it, along with the wine.
Tonight, however, we hear words from John’s Gospel. There is no bread. There is no wine. Instead, there are feet and love.
A standard definition of a sacrament is that it is A) An outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace AND B) Something that Jesus both did and commanded us to do.
Therefore, I would posit that there are two sacraments instituted in this short passage from John’s Gospel.
First Commandment: footwashing. Jesus tells the disciples that, just as he washes their feet, they are to wash the feet of others. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that most of us HATE footwashing. And, if hate is too strong a word, we find it tremendously uncomfortable. I think my feet are ugly. I am afraid they smell badly. I’d rather not have anyone else touch them. What was Jesus thinking? \
Well, it’s not so much about the feet, really, as it is about the action. It doesn’t ring so true for us, because we walk through our days in shoes and socks. But, since most folks at that time and in that dry and dusty place either walked barefoot or in sandals, their feet were always dirty. A slave, or a servant, would wash the feet of master, family, and guests. And, they did it because feet needed washing.
And Jesus, our Lord and God-incarnate, got down on his knees, took on the job of the lowliest servant or slave, and washed his followers’ feet. Talk about turning the world upside down. No hierarchy here. No chain of command. Instead, a total reversal of what had always been. It’s no wonder they killed him, really.
Second Commandment: love. After he washes their feet, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment. He says so directly: 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.
Commandment. It’s the same word used in the book of Exodus to describe those things written on the stone tablets. This new commandment is as serious and binding as the 10 old ones. It’s where Maundy Thursday gets its name from this New Commandment – Maundy comes from the Latin - mandatum, the first word of the phrase "Mandatum novum… " A new commandment…
Footwashing and love. If we’d only had John’s gospel, our service might look very different on Sunday morning, eh? But seriously, what would living out these two other sacraments look like in our lives?
I don’t think we’re meant to wash one another’s feet every day (though doing it once a year as a reminder isn’t a bad thing, despite how uncomfortable it might make us feel).
I do think we’re called to live lives of service, and of turning over the hierarchy.
My contemporary model for this kind of servant leadership was my friend and former Bishop, the late Jim Kelsey.
At the end of any parish visit, when you would look around to find Jim, in order to say goodbye, he would be in the kitchen, up to his elbows in dishwater, washing dishes from the luncheon. There he would be, chit-chatting with the folks who were working in the kitchen. I’d never seen a bishop do the dishes before. But, when I asked him about it, he talked about servant leadership. And friendship.
What might servant leadership look like for us?
I think we get it pretty well, here, frankly. We are a congregation that knows how to work hard. I’ve not seen folks slack off when it comes to hard work.
And what about loving one another? Love doesn’t mean that we always get along. That every person in our lives gives us warm feelings each and every time we think of them. Or that we never disagree. I think, at the heart of it, the kind of love that Jesus is commanding is rooted in respect and relationship. It means talking through our differences. It means naming our hurts. And it means a radical welcome to all whom we encounter.
So, as we move from Maundy Thursday to Good Friday, and then to Easter, I invite you to consider serving and loving as sacraments. They’re less concrete than bread and wine. But they ARE outward and visible signs of inward and invisible graces. And they are actions that each of us can do, as a reflection of the great and saving love we encounter in Jesus.