April 18, 2019
Maundy Thursday. Here we are…we’ve been journeying through Holy Week these past few days, and tonight, we come to the institution of the Lord’s supper – what we practice as communion each week. We have a narrative that is packed with stuff…and informed by content from the other gospels.
As we’ve been at other times during Lent, we are again around a table. A meal is being shared…
We glean from the other gospels there’s been a bit of tension among the 12. It seems they’ve been arguing about who is the greatest among themselves. We even hear of James and John’s mother kneeling before Jesus and asking for a ‘favor’: could her sons sit at Jesus’ left and right hands in the kingdom…Jesus is about to save the world, and, as we would be in their shoes, they are completely self-absorbed…
On top of this dynamic, there’s Judas at the table…the betrayer who’s about to set the plan in motion.
And most importantly, Jesus is about to suffer and die. It’s his last time with the 12 before this happens. He knows this, we heard him say: “I am with you only a little longer…” – and it fuels his choice of words and actions. Can you imagine? Having dinner with folks and knowing it’s your last time to say what is important before you die?
I am sure the vibe around this table was very heavy.
The punch line comes at the end of our passage:
“I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you,” Jesus says. And -
“I give you a new commandment, that you should love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
An example. Love.
At this meal Jesus, through action, proclaims “This is who I am, and this is how I live.”
Hear again from our gospel reading: “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.”
This answers central identity questions - which are:
Who am I?
Where am I going?
How do I get there? – or really, how do I live?
Jesus knew these with conviction: He had come from God, he was going to God, God had given him all things.
With these kinds of questions settled or shaking out in our Christian spirituality we gain the freedom to act.
And that’s what Jesus did. Startlingly.
What was startling was the changing of roles for the task. In first century Palestine, foot washing was customary as people came into the house. The footwear was a simple sandal. It was practical so as not to track dust and dirt inside. The washing of feet took place at the door and then guests remained barefoot while in the house. So, it’s not the act that’s unsettling for the disciples – it’s Jesus’ reversal of roles: the master or host becomes the servant. The host did not do this task. *
Jesus declares himself as Lord and Teacher – he’s at dinner being treated as such. But there’s a transition as he moves to wash their feet: he takes off his outer robes and girds himself with a towel. He’s tangibly switching roles and showing it: he’s dressed like a servant to do a what a servant does. The word for servant used in this passage is also the word for slave. The implication - servitude.
Jesus then proceeds to wash their feet. After – he puts on his robe and returns to the table – takes his place as Lord and Teacher.
He washes their feet. There are lots of places where Christians are washing feet tonight – and that can be a good and meaningful thing…but why? Why did Jesus choose this particular thing to do?
If we seek to contextualize the then and there to the here and now – to have it be something of contemporary culture and not lose its intended meaning – it’s certainly not foot washing that we would do.
In our contemporary society at churches, foot washing almost tends to be harder for the one receiving than the one serving – in our western approach to life we have an amplified sense of personal space, our views of intimate touch kind of get funny around feet – it’s just not a body we walk around touching. We shake hands not feet.
Jesus taking the role of a servant or slave infers servitude – he’s doing a job that he’s not going to get any credit for. It also shows him doing something no one wanted to do then. Feet back then didn’t have socks or great shoes and didn’t regularly experience pedicures or much personal hygiene. This was a dirty deal Jesus was doing.
And remember the punchline: “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
In our ‘now’ today we cannot really fathom the servitude piece – though there are those who can. But we can ponder the action. The menial job no one wants to do.
…I consulted the internet…what are these dirty jobs no one wants to do today? Some of these have high pay – though it does not make them any more attractive. Here are a couple from an article called: 9 Dirty Jobs That Nobody Wants (Fiscal Times 2011). It even provides a good definition of a dirty job: “high stress, uncomfortable, dangerous, or just plain icky.”
Here are two that I think illustrate the point: 1) Diaper service worker – the person who cleans dirty cloth diapers for a living, and 2) septic tank/sewer pipe servicer – have you ever seen a septic tank serviced?
And we wouldn’t gather to do these in church… These two dirty jobs help us take the contextual feel of Jesus in the then and there doing what no one wanted to do – touching and washing really dirty feet…here and now, touching and washing sewage/dirty diapers.
We’ve got the two ideas of Jesus’ action that sprang through his secure identity with God: “this is who I am and how I live. Live like me.”
Be a servant. Do the job nobody wants to is what Jesus is saying.
So, Jesus says, follow my example: perhaps it simply means in our daily life we ask ourselves throughout the day – how do I put myself in the place of being last, least, and lowest in each context and then, then, serve. Act like a slave, do what no one wants to do, and don’t get credit for it.
To do this we must be like Jesus – secure in our identity with God. Jesus knew who He was and therefore knew how to live. We need that. We need to know that we are sinners who need saving - and have been saved through God’s unrestricted love.*
But let’s not forget – not only is there an example of Jesus, of whom we hear just two chapters later in John’s gospel, that Jesus laid down his life for his friends (John 15). But there’s love. The new commandment: Love one another with the keyword: as…as I have loved you.
This love is the crazy beautiful love of God toward us – agape is the root in Greek. * It’s a love not based on anything the recipient has done or not done. It cannot be earned, and it cannot be lost. It just is. Extravagant. Faithful. Constant.
Radical humble service and extravagant love. Jesus is saying in this passage: I love unconditionally, and I am here to serve.
Let us seek to follow Jesus’ example.
*Alexander, J. Neil. Celebrating Liturgical Time
*Strongs Concordance with Hebrew and Greek Lexicon
*Ward, Keith. What the Bible Really Teaches