April 2, 2015 – Maundy Thursday
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Have you seen the movie The Break Up, which stars Jennifer Anniston and Vince Vaughn? Neither have I. But I remember seeing the trailer back in 2006, when the movie came out. It’s become a strategy of film studios to show most of the funny lines from their mediocre productions in the commercials just to get you into the cinema, and, even though I haven’t seen it, there’s a line from that movie that I often repeat in my marriage. There’s a turning point in the film when the characters have a falling out after a dinner party. The girlfriend wants some help cleaning up, but the guy just wants to lounge around and play video games. Finally, after she lays on the guilt-trip, he relents and heads into the kitchen, complaining as he goes. At that point, she says, “You know what? That’s not what I want.” Confused, he says, “You just said that you want me to help you do the dishes,” to which Anniston replies, “I want you to want to do the dishes,” which, of course, that begs the question, “Why would I want to do dishes?”
I want you to want to do the dishes. But why would I want to do the dishes? Why would anyone want to do the dishes? Exactly. It’s an exchange husbands and wives have been having for centuries.
And it’s a subject at the heart of the exchange between Peter and Jesus in tonight’s gospel lesson. During supper, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around his waist, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. As he made his way around the table, each disciple looked down in confused discomfort as his master poured water over his feet and dried them off gently and lovingly. Finally, when Jesus came to Peter, the brash disciple could stand it no longer. This role reversal would stop here and now. “Are you going to wash my feet?” he asked Jesus. And Jesus replied, “You don’t know what I am doing now, but later you will understand.” But that wasn’t good enough for Peter, who resolutely declared, “Lord, you will never wash my feet.” So Jesus put the pitcher down and looked at Peter and said, “Unless I wash you, you cannot be a part of me.” And Peter, still unable to understand what Jesus meant, said, “Then wash my whole body—feet, hands, and head!”
But that wasn’t the point. Jesus wasn’t interested in making them clean. He explained that they were clean already. This washing of the feet wasn’t about getting the dirt off—inside or out. And it wasn’t about giving one’s friends a loving gesture as a farewell gift. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet in order to initiate them into a way of life that is defined by selfless love. That selfless love is the heart of the gospel. It is the core of Jesus’ message and identity. It is the motive that propelled him to the cross. And it is the raison d’être for the Christian life. And, if we do not let Jesus, our Lord and savior, wash our feet, then we can have no share with him either.
That’s because being loved always precedes loving others just like being served always precedes serving others. As Christians, we are called not simply to do nice things for other people. We are called to love them and serve them as Christ loved and served us.
But who would want to wash someone else’s feet? Who would want to do the dishes? Who would want to do the laundry? Who would want to change a dirty diaper? Who would want to spoon-feed applesauce to an invalid, wiping her chin when she makes a mess? Who would want to spend all day gently caressing the hand of someone who is suffering from the end stages of Alzheimer’s? Who would want to give up one’s whole life in order to take care of someone else? Who would want to do all of that? Someone who knows the unbreakable bonds of selfless love.
When it’s a child or a parent or a spouse—when it’s someone we love—the question isn’t whether we want to; it’s whether we have the capacity—whether we are able to give as much as we want to give. But what about someone you don’t love? What about someone else? What about a stranger or someone you don’t really like all that much? Could you do that for them? Could you want to do that for them? Could you want to give up everything for the sake of another?
Jesus loves us like that. He loves us enough to wash our feet, and he loves us enough to die for us. And that means that our relationship with him is not based upon some distant admiration as if he were merely some great figure in history worth following and emulating out of respect. No, he died specifically for you and for me. He loved us enough to give up everything he had for our sake. He reaches out through two thousand years of history and touches us with that love. His selfless love penetrates us as if it were our feet that he washed, as if we were the ones he gazed lovingly upon as he hung upon the cross. His love—his sacrifice—is the basis for our relationship with him, and only then, once we have known his love, can that become the basis of our relationship with one another. In other words, if we are going to answer his call to love and serve others the way Christ did, we must begin by letting him love and serve us.