09 April 2020

Maundy Thursday - Thoughts on John 13

Two years ago I preached a sermon on John 13:1-15,34-35. The following are some thoughts from that sermon:

A number of churches and people continue the ritual of foot-washing on Maundy Thursday. If you have ever participated in a footwashing ceremony, you know that it’s a bit of an awkward experience. Feet are known, at worst, for their smell and, at best, for their usefulness in getting you around. There is something uncomfortable about getting on one’s hands and knees and touching someone else’s foot – or having someone touch your foot.

When we read this passage, we can easily gloss over the awkwardness of the footwashing. As everyone wore sandals and the roads were dusty and filled with garbage and animal dung, foot washing was an ordinary part of life back then. But if we look at the text, it doesn’t sound like what is happening is ordinary in any way.

The text describes in detail the foot washing. It describes how Jesus lay down his clothing to put on a serving towel. Within a few hours from this moment, Jesus’ clothing would be replaced with the kingly clothes in which the soldiers mock him and then his clothes would be stripped from him on the cross. Like Jesus lays down his clothing to wash his feet, Jesus, as the good shepherd, would lay down his life for his sheep. [cf John 10]

Jesus lay aside his clothing, poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. We recognize the strangeness of the actions through Peter’s interruption. Peter asks: Lord, are you really going to wash my feet? Even after Jesus assures Peter that he will later understand, Peter still adamantly refuses to have Jesus wash his feet. Even when Jesus makes it clear to Peter that refusing to have him wash his feet was the same as refusing to have any part with Jesus – even then, Peter doesn’t stop protesting. The protest simply shifts from Peter demanding that Jesus not wash any of him to demanding that Jesus wash all of him.

Peter’s response is perhaps not the most surprising part of the passage. After all, we, too, have the tendency to extremes. Often we live as people who don’t believe we need our feet washed – we act as if we’re fundamentally good folks who just happen to have some quirks. Or, we tend towards the other extreme – overwhelmed by how we have failed or seeing ourselves as worthless in God’s eyes. We so often forget the role of water in our lives – the power of the baptism in which we are brought into the community of God and Jesus’ continued ability to wash us of our sins.

The surprise in the passage is how Jesus responds. He does not sigh in exasperation at Peter’s extremes, nor at how the disciples don’t seem to recognize who he is and his love for them. Instead, Jesus simply explains what it means to follow him.

After showing them what love looks like, he explains that they, having had their feet washed by their Lord and teacher should now go out and wash one another’s feet. Later in the text, he puts this slightly differently. Just as Jesus had loved them, so they are to love one another.

Jesus’ love extends grace to them as they don’t understand; yet the grace also includes the invitation given in the footwashing – that they might have a part in him. While Jesus is not standing in front of us with a bowl of water to wash our feet, the invitation to have a part with Jesus extends also to us.

Having been washed by Christ, we are then invited to do as Jesus has done. Jesus has washed away the smelliness of our sins but has also reminded us of how our sinfulness doesn’t define us. We, just like our feet, have a purpose. We are to love as Jesus has first loved us.

The text notes that this is a new command, but it is hardly a new idea. Loving one’s neighbor was an important part of the Old Testament law. [Leviticus 19:18, 35] The newness of the command is not in what it is telling us to do but about how we are to go about it. Because of Jesus’ love for the disciples – and us – we are able to go out and live fully into the impossible command of loving our neighbors – not on our own strength but because of Christ’s deep love for us. Just like Jesus’ feet were anointed, so Jesus’ footwashing anoints us to the work of sharing the good news.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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