A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on Maundy Thursday – March 29, 2018 on John 13:1-17, 31b-35.
On a warm, late-March Texas day, I sat in my normal pew; I had taken off my shoes as instructed and was ready to leave them behind when I went up to participate in the Footwashing. The soaring arches of this French Gothic style stone church sat in contrast to the West Texas neighborhood that surrounded it. As I rested my bare feet on the cool, smooth stone floor, I realized that I had no idea what was about to happen. I was three days away from being Confirmed at the Great Vigil of Easter, and this being my first Holy Week, I was intent on participating in every new thing, knowing full well that for most of it, I would not know how it would affect me.
We lined up like we did for communion; I had stood patiently and prayerfully in that aisle time after time, but this time I could feel that it was different. While I was used to the rhythm of bread and wine in this new church of mine, I had yet to learn the rhythm of how water is used during the Holy Days. I tried to look ahead, to see how others were engaging in this practice that I had never been a part of before, but mostly I looked awkwardly back and forth between my own feet and the pair of feet that stood before me; I didn’t know the person in front of me, but I could tell that his feet had walked through many more decades than my own.
The water was warm and his feet were wrinkled; he was gracious when I fumbled with the towel, not exactly knowing what I was supposed to be doing. It was clear that he had washed many people’s feet and had received it just as often. It was a powerful experience. And then I sat down; I had been so keen on observing and serving, that I had forgotten that I would have to let someone wash my feet as well. The water was warm and my feet were calloused; I tried to be gracious, even as I became increasingly overwhelmed with the power of receiving such a tender gift. I found out later that that pair of feet ahead of me belonged to Bishop Claude Payne, retired bishop of Texas; he came to play a role in my formation in my parish and was one of the ministers at my ordination to the transitional diaconate. Our relationship was built on that experience of the foot washing, and while I don’t remember who washed my feet, the thing that is most tangible about this first experience was the overwhelming power and tenderness of the love expressed in the simple act of washing feet.
Perhaps you are like me and find that there are certain characters with whom you resonate more than others in the Bible. Generally, I’m more John, or Thomas, or Martha than I am Peter. Peter’s always got something to say and will leap into action at any chance, but Maundy Thursday is the one day a year when we hear this story from the gospel according to John when I finally understand Peter. I, like Peter, struggle with the idea of letting anyone wash my feet, much less Jesus.
Jesus calls together his disciples for a meal, and in the gospel according to John this meal is not a Passover meal, but is marked intimately by the foot washing scene. And because the ultimate for John will always be love, love is the only way to make sense of what is happening here. Peter was uncomfortable, not with receiving love from Jesus, but by the role reversal it implied. But Jesus insists that if Peter cannot receive this gift, then he can have no part in Jesus’ life or work, to which Peter offers not just his feet, but his hands and head also.
Throughout John’s gospel, Christ continually alludes to the impending passion, and it is here, while Jesus is washing the disciples’ feet that all of these allusions culminate; the power of the Son of God is revealed only in the form of a servant. It is here, that we see the non-ambiguous love of Christ exhibited to his disciples, and just as this love requires us to move and act, it also requires us to give and receive it as well. This love is not solely for God and God alone, but it is for God, it is for the Son of God, and it is for all who follow him.
The love of God is not ambiguous, it is felt, it is seen, it is enacted; the love of God is warm water and simple cloth. The love that Christ talks about in our gospel passage from John is not an intellectual grasping or ethical proclamation for what it means to love others just as Christ loves us, no this foot washing is a concrete, real action of Jesus. And for John, love is not complete until it is expressed in action, and to attempt to be a follower of Christ without real, true, and enacted love is to fail to understand what it is really all about.
Today, and all throughout this week, we are on the move. We are on the move from observation to participation; during Lent, and especially during Holy Week, we are not watching Christ walk to the cross, we are walking the way with him. Here’s the truth, though, while I’ll extend the invitation for you to come and have your feet washed and to wash the feet of others just as Jesus did with his disciples, I will not go out into the congregation and make you come up. If you aren’t comfortable, we’re not going to force you to do this. But foot washing is not a metaphorical, symbolic action that just by witnessing it we get to experience it; washing the feet of your partner, or your child, or your mother, or a stranger, or someone with whom you struggle is no small task. It is a genuine act of concrete love.
In many ways, Jesus is lobbing us a softball with the foot washing. Love is costly and extravagant, it requires something of us, and if you can’t or don’t want to wash or have your feet washed, then between now and the rising of Christ, find a way a way to express that love. Not ambiguous and without direction, but real, concrete actions that express the love of Christ. This love does not require that we be able to like everyone as is all the time, but it requires that we serve them and let love be real and felt; it requires that above all else is love.
This life of faith is not just the rhythm of bread and wine; Jesus did not bring the disciples to the table to eat with them alone, he brought them to serve them. He brought them to his Last Supper to share in the joy of the communion of Christ and then, using water he washed their feet. At the altar table we receive the gift of the body of Christ, but as we wash our feet, or do other concrete acts of the love of Christ, we give to others.
In a simple act of concrete love, our Lord Christ told his disciples, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”