April 18, 2019 – Maundy Thursday
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard on our parish's Soundcloud page. Video of the service can be seen on our parish's YouTube channel.
Sometimes it feels like Holy Week is designed to force us to pick sides. Every year, as we reenact the last week of Jesus’ life, we tell a story of friends and enemies, the faithful and the faithless. The gospel accounts portray these distinctions in the sharpest terms. Some in the crowd cry out “Hosanna in the highest!” while others scream, “Crucify him!” The characters in this annual drama remind us that, although a few recognize Jesus for who he really is—the anointed Son of God who has come to overthrow the powers of this world and usher in the reign of God—most see him as an imposter, a pretender, a trouble-maker. Every year, Holy Week shows us again what side we are supposed to be on, and Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial warn us that, if we aren’t careful, if we aren’t devoted, we, too, might fail when it really counts.
Maundy Thursday, though, reminds us that the only meaningful measure of faithfulness is love. Jesus does not tell us that the world will know that we are his disciples because of what we say with our lips or because of what we believe in our hearts. It isn’t our ability to stay awake and pray or our willingness to stand up and defend him that counts. Jesus tells us that the mark of our discipleship is the love that we have for each other. That is his command—that we love one another as he loves us. That’s the “mandate” from which Maundy Thursday takes its name. Before we get to the garden, before we get to the courtyard, before we get to the cross, we start at the table, where Jesus teaches us how to love.
Because Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father, he got up from the table and took off his robes and tied a towel around his waist and filled a washbasin with water and began to wash his disciples’ feet. This was his last moment with them—his last chance to teach them—and he wanted to use it to teach them about love. But it’s hard for us to know what it meant for Jesus the teacher, the rabbi, the master, to stoop down and wash the disciples’ feet. We live in a culture where foot washing is merely a ritual we enact every year because Jesus told us to. But, in Jesus’ day, it was a familiar practice that conveyed inflexible categories of social status.
Yesterday, during Community Meals, I watched volunteers patiently, lovingly wash the feet of anyone who was willing to have his or her feet washed. Some were old, and some were young. Some had had their feet washed in previous years, but some of them were new and nervous. I saw one man take off his socks and throw them straight in the trash can because he knew that he would be given a new pair to replace the filthy, almost unwearable pair that he had worn in the door. What makes Jesus’ act of humble service so hard for us to grasp is that the only time feet get washed in our church is when we do the washing. Imagine, instead, if every week the people of this parish drove to church in their fancy cars, walked in the door, and sat down to have their feet washed by people in our community who are homeless or food insecure. Imagine if, instead of providing a meal for those who need to eat, we came to church to dine on a meal being served by them. Imagine a church where those relationships, defined by wealth and status or the lack of them, were so ingrained in who we are and what we do that it would be utterly shocking for any one of us to break with tradition, stoop down, and dare to wash someone else’s feet.
The best measure of how incongruous Jesus’ actions were is Peter’s reaction to them: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet…? You will never wash my feet!” The disciple didn’t recognize this as a teaching moment but as an unthinkable gesture that confused the roles of teacher and student, master and servant. Jesus tried to explain, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later,” but, still, Peter would have none of it. Finally, Jesus said to him, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” At that, Peter relented, offering to have his whole body washed if it were necessary.
Perhaps those of us who have no desire to have our feet touched or to touch the feet of someone else will take comfort knowing that the washing of feet wasn’t the point but the image Jesus used to get his point across. Tying a towel around his waist and washing the feet of his disciples was Jesus’ way of teaching them how shocking it is to love each other the way he loves us. This isn’t just washing someone else’s feet. It’s folding that person’s clothes and shining that person’s shoes. It’s spoon-feeding that person apple sauce. It’s changing that person’s bedpan and wiping that person’s backside. And it’s doing it not because it’s our job or because it’s the time of year when we do the thing that Jesus told us to do but doing it because we are so filled with love that all the social hierarchies fall away and we cannot help but fall on our knees and willingly, lovingly wash the feet of the person we encounter. If we want to follow Jesus, we have to love one another like that. But who among us has the guts to love others in ways that we find shocking and distasteful? How are we supposed to love people in ways that are as impossible for us as they were for Peter?
Before we can love others, we must first be loved. Before we can wash another’s feet, we must first have our feet washed. When Peter initially rejected Jesus’ offer to wash his feet, Jesus said to him, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.” That teaches us that we cannot know what it means to love one another until we know what it means to be loved like that by Jesus. Love like that has the power to change everything. Something remarkable happens inside a person who receives unconditional love. When we are loved not because of who we are or what we’ve done to deserve it, we discover inside of ourselves what God has seen all along—our true value as beings made in the image of God. We learn that we are loved and that we are worthy of love not because of what we believe or how we behave but because we were created in love and by love. That’s how Jesus loves us. That is the example he sets for us. And those who have discovered what it means to be loved like that have been set free from doubt and fear, free to be vulnerable to the world, free to fall down at the feet of others, free to wash their feet and love them the way God loves them—purely for love’s sake.
That’s what it means to belong to Jesus. More than anything else, that is what he wants to teach us this night.—that we are the ones who have been set free by love to love others just the same. The world will know that we are his disciples when we love one another.