There are a few people in the Bible with whom I identify easily; it is not hard to see the “Martha” in me as she is described as working in the back on the endless tasks to do as her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet to listen and learn. It’s not hard for me to see myself in the parable of the good Smartian in the actions of those who continually pass by the one in need. But perhaps the person in the Biblical stories that we hear over and over again with whom I can most easily identify is Peter. Sweet, sweet Peter who lets his passion run too hot and yet is somehow also too cold. And perhaps it’s in the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet that we hear tonight that I most connect to Peter.
When Jesus comes to Peter with a towel around his waist and a basin of water, Peter all but exclaims in protest, but Jesus insists that he must receive this action to be connected, and then Peter says, “not only my feet, but also my hands and my head!” Peter tends to come out strong with a big opinion and then once he allows himself to soften into God’s love, he not only wants Jesus to wash his feet but his whole self, too. Every time I hear this passage, I wonder what the other disciples thought of Peter’s refusal. I wonder if Peter felt foolish, or if as Jesus poured the warm water on his feet that small hot tears gathered at the corner of his eyes. As this back and forth was happening between Jesus and Peter, I also wonder what the other disciples were thinking.
I wonder if James gave him a side eye or if Thomas elbowed Peter in the side as he refused the Christ. I wonder what Judas was thinking as all of this was happening, because after Jesus finished washing the feet, he foretells of Judas’ betrayal. And while these verses are skipped over in the lectionary text, it’s important to have that context when we talk about the commandment that Jesus offers the disciples, and therefore to us, that we love one another, just as Christ as loved us.
When I read this passage, I have to wonder if I would be Peter – refusing and then clinging to Christ, only to betray him mere days later. I wonder if I would have been Judas, lured away by greed and empty promises. I wonder if I would have been another disciple, watching it all happen at the table wherein which we ate together daily. The truth is, as theologian Karoline Lewis puts it, is that Judas’ betrayal is not to hand over Jesus, as Christ does that himself, but rather the betrayal lies in the undermining of the relationship. When Peter denies Christ shortly after this last supper, Peter is not only denying that he knows him, but is also turning his back on the ways in which Christ loved him.
When we hear Christ’s commandment to love others as he has loved us, it is not an abstract idea, but is firmly in the context of loving difficult people in difficult situations. It is loving Judas, knowing what he was about to do. It is loving Peter who is sometimes just a bit too intense. In the gospel according to John, the disciples are enigmatic of all Christians. We are meant to see ourselves in their confusion, in their actions, in their moments of great joy, and even in their betrayals. Because whether or not we literally betray Christ, it is vital on this night, on this night where we would typically be gathering together to wash feet and receive God’s holy communion, it is vital that we remember that all of us have some sort of brokenness and we are all in need of God’s grace.
Because just like Peter would not be able to share in Jesus without allowing his feet to be washed, we cannot love like Jesus before we have received Christ’s love. While we may uphold the idea of love, this ultimate idea of God’s love, it is not ever something that we can be a part of until we let God’s unrelenting love wash over us like the warm water poured over our feet. On this Maundy Thursday, I want us to all allow ourselves to imagine, to imagine what it must have felt like for Christ to kneel before you; to wash your dirty, tired feet. I want us to imagine what it might have felt like as he took the towel and dried your tender, vulnerable toes. I want us to allow space for the feelings that might arise from such a tactile, visceral experience of embodied love and care.
Maundy Thursday is about a lot of things, and in our second pandemic Holy Week, it’s lacking so many of the tangible things we use to connect to this experience of the Last Supper. But this year, I want us to notice the details of this night before Christ is crucified. I want us to think of what color the towel Jesus might have used, and I want us to wonder about what Bartholomew thought as he, too, had his feet washed by Christ. And I want us to remember that in light of all that this passage holds, perhaps it’s also about how to be a disciple in the face of all the ways that we will sin. We will inevitably be too reluctant to receive God’s love, or plan to place our own interest above Gods, or even to sit silently as it all happens before us, but even in light of this, Christ’s love is unrelenting. Christ’s commandment to love is not simple or overly sentimental, it is challenging and powerful. It’s not only about loving the people you like, or even loving your enemies, but it’s about loving those difficult people in your life when everything seems like it’s a difficult situation.
It’s about remembering that God does not deal coarsely with our souls, even in the light of our failures or presumptions or sins. As we prepare to go to the table, it’s about remembering that the table is the place where we find God’s redemption, and this is not only found at God’s holy table, but perhaps it is available at any table where we share in relationship. Perhaps God’s redemption is available to us when we let others love us like Christ loved them; perhaps it is available to us when we remember the tenderness of God’s love can be felt even in our pinky toes. On this holy day in this holy week, God is inviting us to this sort of love that cannot be pushed aside, that cannot have its back turned upon, that can be felt in every part of our being and tonight it’s our job to prayerfully come to the table, where ever we are, and receive it.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky via livestream for Maundy Thursday on April 1, 2021.