A Sermon preached on March 29, Maundy Thursday, at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenExodus 12:1-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35
I recently heard about a church that has replaced foot washing with shoe polishing. As polishing someone else’s shoes on the street was for a long time and activity exclusive to African Americans – often still treated as slaves in all but name – it is not entirely inappropriate. The activity of foot washing was also something that slaves were responsible for. When comparing himself to Jesus, John the Baptist ranks himself lower than a slave when says that “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal,” (John 1:27) something you had to do before washing anyone’s feet. On the other hand, polishing shoes is not as intimate as foot washing, when we touch another person, and gently hold their foot in our hand. Intimacy is important, because the foot washing is not primarily about service. It is an act of love.
This becomes clear if you read the passages around this text. “He loved them to the end.” (John 13:1) “Love another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) The foot washing is about Jesus’ love and his willingness to show that love, even if it means taking on a slave’s role and washing his disciples’ dirty feet. Even if it means an arrest and a trial before Pilate. Even if it means death by execution on a Roman cross. The foot washing is the acting out of the new Commandment that we heard today: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
And yet the disciples, especially Peter, struggled to receive love in this form: “You will never wash my feet,” (13:8) Peter says. For how can God wash feet? Peter struggled too when Jesus foretold his death, “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you.” (Matthew 16:22) For how can the Messiah, God’s anointed die on a cross? We don’t always understand what God is doing. Yet is simple. God asks us to trust, to be vulnerable, to believe that God loves us intimately, and to receive God’s love – mind, heart, soul, and body. The foot washing, an act of vulnerability, humility and love is about the nature of God and what it means to be loved by God.
That is why it is much more than just a call to service. Before we can give, we must receive. As Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” (13:8) We cannot love others as God loves us, without fully experiencing God’s love first. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is mostly interpreted as love given from an unexpected quarter, a tale with a twist in which the enemy turns out to be the better neighbor. But it is also a parable about receiving love, at a most vulnerable moment and from the wrong person. The Jewish listeners will have recoiled at the idea of a Samaritan being the one who picked up, touched, healed and cared for one of their own. How dare he … well he dares because he loves.
If and when you come forward to have your feet washed tonight after this sermon, please forget me. I’m just an actor in the divine drama that liturgy is, especially the liturgies of Holy Week. Put yourself into the disciples’ shoes [or not because they weren’t wearing any!] Imagine you are in that room when the one who had come from God and was going to God got up from the table, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. Imagine how you would feel.
I think my first reaction would be shame: I should be doing that to him. Then I would feel humbled: God is doing that to me. Then I would know and feel that I was loved: At this moment, just before his death, Jesus wants us to literally feel his love in an intimate act of humble service. Finally, I would understand that I have been empowered: Jesus says “I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. You should love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 13:15, 34) Now he says, having seen and felt this, now go about your lives as people who know they are loved. Glorify the Son and glorify God in your lives and in your love.
This is more than a Bible story about what Jesus did in the last day before his crucifixion. The foot washing I tells us who Jesus is and what the God is like who sent him. And the foot washing is also meant as an experience that allows us to feel who we are, and why we are to love one another. We are who we are because Jesus loved his own who were in the world, because he loved us – intensely – to the very end, and because that end was never the end, certainly not for Jesus’ love for the whole world. It was not the end but the beginning of his call to be gradually transformed into his likeness and to love the world in his name. “If you know these things,” Jesus says, “you are blessed if you do them.” (13:17) So come and know and feel them, be blessed and become a blessing.