April 9, 2020 – Maundy Thursday
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here.
Everything was set. All of the details had been taken care of. The venue was carefully selected. The menu was thoughtfully chosen. The guest list was finalized. But, when the moment for the big event arrived, everything fell through.
Recently, that has been the case for many of our best-laid plans. Weddings have been postponed. Vacations have come and gone without us. High school and college graduations have been replaced by diplomas sent home in the mail. Holy Week worship has relocated from crowded churches to online services watched at home. Normally, these are occasions when we would plan for the very best, yet our experience of them of late has been anything but. I sense that that same spirit of disappointment and let-down must have filled the hearts and minds of the disciples as they sat with Jesus in the upper room.
During the weeks and months that led up to that last supper together, it had become clear to the disciples that Jesus had been preparing to take over the throne of his ancestor David and rule over all the whole world in God’s name. Think about everything that had happened. For years, Jesus had been working powerful signs that had revealed his true identity as God’s Son, including his last and greatest miracle in the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Although the religious and political leaders had begun to plot against him, the entire Passover crowd in Jerusalem had celebrated his entry into the holy city as if it were a royal procession. They hailed the one who rode on the back of a colt as the one whom prophets had identified as their king, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” With God on his side and the people behind him, Jesus was in position to take back power from Herod and Pilate and even the Emperor.
Describing how the disciples and Jesus gathered at the table that night, John the narrator brings all of these expectations to a head in the words he uses to set the scene: “Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God.” So what did Jesus do in this moment when his closest followers gathered to raise a glass in honor of their teacher-who-would-be-king? In what way did he choose to embrace his identity as the Son of God, the Christ, the one coming into the world? He got up from the table and took off his outer robe and tied a towel around his waist. He poured water into a washbasin and knelt down on the floor in front of his disciples and began to wash their feet. That is not what a king would do. That is not where God’s anointed one belongs. And yet it is where Jesus placed himself, beneath his followers, in an act of humble service on their behalf.
So incongruous was the gesture that Peter initially refused to accept what his master was doing, saying, “No, you will never wash my feet!” And, even after Jesus explained that the washing was necessary, Peter’s remark about washing his whole body showed that he still did not understand what his rabbi was trying to do. This was not some ritual cleansing or symbolic teaching. This was Jesus showing his disciples who he was and who they must become. “Do you know what I’ve done for you?” he asked them. “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do.” Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t about literally washing other people’s feet. It’s about following the example that has been set for us—pursuing the pattern of perfect humanity that the Incarnate One has embodied. It is about striving for a divine kingdom and embracing a revolutionary power that can only be expressed in humble and loving service.
If I have washed, Jesus says to us, you must wash. What I have done, you also must do. You do not understand what I am doing now, but you will understand later. The crown of thorns, the hard wooden cross, the cold rock-hewn tomb, the miracle of Easter.
Jesus doesn’t simply tell his followers what they should do. He does it himself in order to show them who he is—who God is—and who they must become. In loving sacrifice, he has not only washed our feet but given himself up to death for our sake. If we call Jesus Lord and teacher, for that is what he is, we cannot confine his example to an annual reenactment—a symbolic performance of humility that his disciples undertake once a year during Holy Week. Instead, we must see in him the example of perfect humanity and recognize our calling to pursue it—not only because we are his followers but because we are human beings, for in the Incarnation he has shown us who we really are.
This year, we cannot gather in church to wash one another’s feet, which is our collective loss. In our livestream worship, we will recall Jesus’ act of humble service by pouring water into a washbasin and remembering what he commands us to do in his name. Maybe you will ritually wash the hands or feet of one another in your homes, recalling that same mandate of love, but many of us live alone. Whose feet or hands will they wash this year? The peculiar circumstances of this Holy Week and the distance between us that they require help us remember that following the example of Jesus means more than washing one another’s hands or feet. It means loving one another as we have been loved—humbly and sacrificially.
In that last supper with his disciples, Jesus’ plans didn’t fall through, though the expectations his disciples had for that meal probably did. Yet, in place of those expectations, they discovered something more valuable than any celebratory meal that they could have arranged. In this time of our own necessary adaptation, when we cannot raise a glass together at weddings or graduations, when we cannot embrace one another at birthdays or funerals, when we cannot assemble as the people of God on the holiest days of the year, we, too, have an opportunity to let go of our own expectations of what will make us happy and discover again the source of our true joy. As disciples of Jesus, as the people of God, as human beings made in the divine image, we are called to love others as we have been loved. We are called to let go of our own expectations of how the best moments of our lives will unfold and, instead, trust and believe that by giving everything up for the sake of others, we, too, will rediscover the deepest joy imaginable—one that can only come from living in and sharing God’s love.