John 13:1-17, 31b-35
April 18, 2019
Lord Jesus, you are the one who has been from the beginning, who is with God, who is God, through you we are. Without you we are not. You are the life of our bodies, the light of our intellects, and the breath of our spirits. Though we did not know you, you became flesh and dwelt among us, though we did not receive you, you became light to our dark world, grace and truth, the glory of the Father. Lord Jesus you have made known to us the unseen God. We praise you for giving us the right to become the children of God.
In this prayer I borrow from the prologue of John’s gospel because it so beautifully captures the gospel as a whole. The gospel has been described by some as a swinging pendulum. starting in heaven: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.’ Then the Word comes down into the world, true light coming down into darkness. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ And finally back up, as Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father, having made known to us the unseen God. As Christians we always keep the end of this story in our hearts, in every moment we strive to keep the promise of Easter Sunday and the hope of the resurrection in our minds. We always pray to a living Jesus, seated at the right hand of God the Father, the one who has overcome the world. But today, on Maundy Thursday, we are following our Lord down to the very bottom of the pendulum, down into the depths of the lonely, naked, speechless humiliations of life.
According to the Gospel of John chapter 1, the public ministry of Jesus begins at a wedding, one of those high points of celebration in life. At the behest of his mother Jesus reveals his power, his generosity, his good plans, plans to prosper us and not to harm us. A loving son and a generous Creator, He gives abundantly, almost inordinately the gift of wine, his first miracle. And through this gift he affirms the goodness of human flourishing, of celebration, even the goodness of winemaking.
The ministry of Jesus starts with celebration, and with miracles. And by John chapter 2, ‘many believed in his name.’ ‘[B]ut Jesus did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and knew what was in them.’
As he continued in his ministry he constantly provoked a crisis of faith in those who encounter him. Some believed and some were offended but no one understood him. Already, by chapter 6, many of his disciples say, ‘This is a difficult way, who can follow it?’ and they turn away from him.
By the end of chapter 12 we are told that those who are with him still do not believe.
We all feel this pull of the downward swing. The strength of our elders and our traditions fade with time. The brightest memories of our childhood are darkened by the experience of life.
Maybe our parents and our pastors once seemed infallible, maybe the church was once a beacon of light in our eyes, maybe our brothers, sisters, and friends used to be constant and true. Maybe our wedding was full of celebration and promise. Maybe we used to be honest and hard-working, sure of ourselves in our success and our humility. Maybe we were in that crowd on Palm Sunday, shouting ‘Hosanna! Long live the King!’
We too anticipated the inauguration of justice, and the overthrow of violence and hatred. We were looking forward to dressing in our best Sunday clothes, walking out into a bright Spring morning to usher in the age of righteousness. We were looking forward to being lifted up with Jesus into the new day of peace. ‘Hosanna in the highest!’ we said with the crowd, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’
We had seen the light of heaven, we were ready for the upswing. The hour had come for the name of God be glorified, for the Son be lifted up. But we didn’t understand where we were in the story.
This is Maundy Thursday, and we are now reaching the bottom. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. Whoever loves his life loses it.’
The hour of glory does not begin in chapter 12 at the Triumphal Entry, it begins in Chapter 13 at the last supper. John 13:1 ‘Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.’
We are approaching the very bottom of history, where The Way is abandoned, The Truth is denied, and The Life is betrayed.
And what is it Jesus does in this moment? He washes the feet of his followers.
The one dressed in eternal light strips his clothes and wraps himself in the towel of a servant.
The one who formed the earth pours the water with his own hands. The one to whom every knee will bend gets down on his knees and washes the feet of his followers. It’s no wonder that Peter is offended, saying ‘Lord you will never wash my feet.’ This is not what any of us want to see at the turning point of our history: dirty feet and a humiliated God.
Julius Caesar, about to cross the Rubicon and change the shape of the world for ever, said alea iacta est (the die is cast). That is a phrase worthy of history books. That is the confidence we look for in world changing figures, an undaunted pride and self-assurance we can follow.
Jesus, when he washes the feet of his followers, forgoes even the dignity of speech. In humility he takes up the feet of Judas, knowing that Judas has already decided to betrayed him. In humility he takes up the feet of Peter, knowing that Peter will soon deny him three times. ‘Surely not me Lord! You will never wash my feet.’
Surely the way back up, the way of life, is not a man down on his knees, naked, washing the dirty feet of traitors and unbelievers.
And Jesus answered Peter, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’
The upswing in sacred history begins with foot washing.
Tomorrow, Good Friday, we remember the trial of Jesus and the lifting up of Jesus on the cross, his humiliation and death which are the inauguration of God’s kingdom. Tomorrow we follow Jesus on the upward swing of the pendulum, the way of the cross.
But today, we remember that the hour of glory begins with Jesus taking off his garments, getting down on his knees, and washing the feet of his followers.
In his humility he washes our feet, and in his authority he gives us a new commandment: ‘love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’
With Peter, we want to say, ‘surely not us Lord.’ ‘There is no need to wash our feet. We keep them covered with shoes and socks. We paved our roads to keep off the dirt. We invented indoor plumbing so we can wash our feet in private.’ ‘We found an easier way. We automated foot washing, we no longer need this humiliating job.’
But of course, this is not really true. We have only exported our foot washing to people we never see, people hidden away in shoe factories. We have only renamed foot washing with more palatable names like ‘service industry.’ And as Jesus said to Peter, so he says to us, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’
We gather on this Maundy Thursday, not because we have managed to kept our feet clean, but because The Source of life came down, was made flesh, and washed us. Jesus did not invent the close toed-shoe, he did not bring indoor plumbing to the world, he did not pave our roads. He washed our dirty feet, on his knees, with his own hands.
And then he said ‘you also, ought to wash one another’s feet. For just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Today, we hear the Word together, we prepare our hearts to come together at the table to take the bread and wine, to remember that at the very crux of history, our feet were washed by the Lord. And we also remember that He has given us a new commandment, to follow him down. Down into the humble job of washing one another’s feet, even the feet of those who do not understand us, who abandon us, betray us, and deny us.
‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me he must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.’