May the Holy Spirit guide us ever further into the wisdom and love revealed in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Dear friends in Christ, tonight we find ourselves, once again, on the familiar and well-marked path of Jesus’ final days on his journey to the cross and resurrection. As grateful followers in the Way of Christ we hope to glean some new kernel of insight to renew and sustain us on our own journey to the God who has called each of us from beyond time to this time and place.
In the sacred days of this Holy Week we have already marked the passage of Jesus and the disciples on Palm Sunday into the crucible of Jerusalem under Roman rule and Jewish intrigue. Monday echoed with the uproar and clatter of the money-changers tables overturning in the Temple. Wednesday Jesus was anointed in Bethany and Judas agreed to betray him to those “looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him…” And so with these and a multitude of other memories and hopes and fears swirling around in their heads the disciples gathered with their Lord and Teacher for what Jesus knew would be their Last Supper together on this night.
In that respect, John’s Gospel account initially presents a familiar narrative. But have you noticed that in agreement with the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Paul’s epistle refers to the Institution of the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Eucharist, “on the night before Jesus suffered” while John’s gospel makes no mention of the event at all?
This shift in the narratives focus cannot be an accident or unintentional omission. John’s gospel was the last of the gospels to be composed and the Eucharist had already been received as a fundamental tradition of the church. Neither does it imply a departure from or a rejection of that tradition. It does imply, however, that the author of John’s gospel was careful to record, and perhaps recover another event of that last meal together- namely the washing of the disciples feet- that he evidently considered as essential and fundamental to the authentic life of the church as the Bread and Wine came to be. One wonders what the church might be today if the foot washing were received not only as an example of humble service rendered to each other but as a sacrament- “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace”- by which we receive a blessing for what is done in Christ’s name with each other.
Fred Craddock, a wonderful man and influential preacher has commented that John did not accentuate the Passover meal because for him Jesus was the Passover, the paschal lamb of God whose blood was shed once and for all and by whom the Holy Spirit might “Passover” the sins of “his own who were in the world” to lead them out of slavery to sin and death and into the freedom of eternal life in the spirit.
For John only what we learn from Jesus through the Cross and the Resurrection can exceed what Jesus taught as he “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciple’s feet and wipe them with the towel.”
There is something so simple, so direct, and so intimate about these gestures that we cannot be too surprised when a certain amount of discomfort arises when and if we are ever exposed to such an event. This is especially true if we lack familiarity or understanding of the intended purpose. It is more than a symbol or a sign. It is a relationship-and there are so many physical, emotional and psychological elements intertwined that one only moves into it with great care and sensitivity.
Let us explore then some of these elements that reveal themselves within the broad framework of Jesus’ life and work as they pertain to his example for us.
First, I should think is the basic fact of our need for human touch. As embodied souls we are free to fulfill that need for good or for ill in any manner that we choose but we see in the life of Jesus that the higher calling is for the touch that heals. In a culture that severely limited contact between the pure and impure Jesus touched everyone and everyone whom Jesus touched was healed. As Henri Nouwen has expressed it “touch…speaks the wordless words of love…in friendship, touch often gives more life than words. A friend’s hand stroking our back, a friends arm resting on our shoulder, a friend’s fingers wiping away tears-these bring true consolation. These moments of touch are truly sacred. They restore, they reconcile, they reassure, they forgive, they heal. ..When we are touched with free, non-possessive love, it is God’s incarnate love that touches us and God’s power that heals us.”
One might think that as witnesses of so many healings the disciples would have welcomed Jesus’ touch for themselves, and perhaps some of them did, but not all. The problem is that to receive what Jesus is offering we have to make room for it somehow…to set aside or look through or beyond our expectations…the ones that we may have learned from experience or been told to expect…that touch is dangerous, invasive, sexual, aggressive, or inappropriate…all of which can be true but none of which apply to the touch that Jesus offered. No doubt some of the disciples thought it was inappropriate for Jesus to wash their feet. It would have made sense to them to wash his feet as a sign of respect both as the host of the meal and as their Teacher but this wasn’t about social convention or spiritual rank. So what was it about?
The obvious answer is that it is about hospitality that a host would offer to his guests who had traveled some distance on dusty roads, most commonly on foot, as a sign of welcome, comfort and respect. This service would ordinarily be rendered by a servant or a slave…which is the role that Jesus appeared to be assuming to the disciple’s great shock and consternation.
One can only imagine what a slave may have been thinking under compulsion as he or she washed the feet of their master and the privileged guests but we know Jesus had something else in mind …something grander, deeper, freer. Peter may have felt that it was beneath Christ’s dignity to be seen as a slave but what Peter couldn’t understand was that Jesus was free in every circumstance to offer himself in a love which Peter could not yet receive because Peter was still enslaved to his own way of thinking and feeling and acting, still bound by the norms and conditions of his society and experience.
So, at best the obvious answer is only a partial answer. As everyone can attest for themselves any service rendered with even the purist intention can quickly deteriorate into pride or manipulation or resentment if it is not rooted in a deep humility and gratitude for what is also received in the giving. As C.S. Lewis once famously said “humility results not so much from thinking less of ourselves but of thinking of ourselves less.” It is a fine point and everything turns on it.
In a wonderful reflection on the life and person of Jesus, the Rev. James Martin speaks of the foot-washing as “an invitation to equality” and a recognition of the inherent God-given dignity of every human being. He quotes the New Testament scholar Sandra Schneider’s perception of Peter’s resistance as requiring of him “a radical reinterpretation of his own life-world, a genuine conversion of some kind which he was not prepared to undergo.”
Schneider believes “that in John’s Gospel the Foot Washing is more about the mutual service of friendship” than about “humble service”. “The message is not so much that the master has become the slave, but that all are on the same level. After Jesus has washed the disciple’s feet, he challenges them to do the same for each other and to see that all are equal friends in the kingdom; no one is above or below in any way.” As Jesus foretold-the day came when Peter understood and so, perhaps, shall we.
However you choose to participate tonight I hope you will have an eye and an ear for whatever circumstances that may arise in your life that call you to cross the threshold of discomfort to love and serve each other as Jesus loved and served us for that is how the disciples of Jesus are known.