Tonight, we remember that Jesus gathers to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover with his disciples in an upper room. At tonight’s meal, Jesus spends time lecturing his friends over dinner. At various points of his lecture, Jesus tells his disciples that he’s about to leave them.
If the disciples really understood what Jesus was saying about leaving them, we “could almost hear the disciples asking, “What in the world are we going to do if this happens?” So, to begin his teaching, Jesus gets up and shows them. Jesus’ disciples are to serve and to carry on his ministry of loving people after Jesus departs.
Pastor Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my favorite preachers from the past, marvels that on the last night that Jesus spends with his disciples – he washes their feet and shares a supper with them. Of all the different legacies Jesus could have chosen to leave with his disciples – Jesus chose these actions. Barbara writes: “With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, Jesus did not give his disciples something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do – that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself.
After he was gone, Jesus’ disciples would still have God’s Word, but that Word was going to need some new flesh. The disciples were going to need something warm and near that they could bump into on a regular basis, something so real that they would not be able to intellectualize it…. So, Jesus gave them things they could get their hands on, things that would require them to get close enough to touch one another. In the case of the meal, he gave his disciples things they could smell and taste and swallow. In the case of the feet, he gave them things to wash that were attached to real human beings, so that they could not bend over without being drawn into one another’s lives…. Then Jesus said, “Do this”. He didn’t say believe this but do this — “in remembrance of me.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Our bodies, our faith”, Christian Century, Jan 27,’09)
Tonight, above all nights, I especially miss being together in-person for these hands-on experiences Jesus gave us. Yet, although we are apart, we can still treasure these sacred practices from Jesus.
In the case of the meal, Jesus gave his disciples things they could smell and taste and swallow.
At this meal, can you imagine Jesus himself, taking the bread and breaking it to pass around to you and me, to those we love in our church family, and beyond? In the same way, Jesus also took the cup – in his own hands and offered it to us. Every time we receive this bit of bread and this sip of wine, it connects to us Jesus himself because he offered this meal to us with his own hands. Yet, more importantly, in this meal, he offered his very self to us.
This meal given to us by Jesus takes place when he and his friends are celebrating Passover – the annual sacred Jewish meal celebrating God’s deliverance of God’s people. Taking the bread and wine at the Passover table, Jesus places a whole new meaning on these elements. Jesus tells his friends that this bread and this wine are now his body and his blood that will be poured out – in love and forgiveness.
Here, Jesus frames himself as the Passover lamb. We are to hear the echoes of our Bible reading from Exodus tonight. Every time we now eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we remember that Jesus sacrificed his very life for us.
Additionally, this meal is always more than a remembrance. It actually does something inside of us every time we eat and drink these elements, having heard Jesus’ words. Eating this meal, we are actually forgiven. Eating this meal, we are actually reconnected to Jesus’ great self-giving love. Eating this meal – we actually receive Jesus’ resurrected life into our bodies. Then, by this meal, we are empowered with Jesus himself – his promises and his presence, so we can press on with our lives.
The Foot Washing
Which brings us to our gospel reading tonight (John 13:1-17,31-35). After they had finished the meal, Jesus got up, took off his robe and wrapped a towel around his waist. Then he began to wash his disciples’ feet.
Repeating Barbara’s quote from earlier: “In the case of the feet, Jesus gave them things to wash that were attached to real human beings, so that they could not bend over without being drawn into one another’s lives….”
You and I were drawn into each other’s lives at baptism. No matter what church, what city or rural town, what state or even country in the world you were baptized in, when you were splashed or dunked in your baptismal waters, you were claimed by Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. And on that day, whenever and where ever it was, you also became part of the body of Christ.
I bring that up on this night because I read a suggestion from a worship book for this night. It invited pastors to consider pouring water out of the baptismal font into the basins that would be used for foot-washing, if a congregation was meeting in person. Maybe some of you have seen this done elsewhere, but I don’t think we’ve typically made such a clear connection between our baptismal waters and foot-washing waters at Good Shepherd on this night. What a cool idea! In our baptism, we were claimed as God’s beloved children who, by Jesus’ command, are sent into the world to share the love of God through our loving service to others. Washing feet this Maundy Thursday will not be practiced during our actual worship time this year since we are apart. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do foot-washing at home, tonight or at another time in the next days, to help you experience the posture of serving others.
If you are home with your family or even just your spouse or partner, consider taking out a bowl of water, and a towel, and share the experience washing each other’s feet. Really. Let your kids wash your feet. You wash theirs. And amid the giggles, pause and think about what that feels like. You need to bend over or kneel before another person to do this task – which is a humble posture of love. And to receive a foot-washing is equally humbling. It’s feet after all. Usually no one else touches our feet. And if you are watching this on your own tonight, you too can simply be mindful of foot-washing in another way. When you are next in the shower or tub, take a little more time with your foot-washing. Simply be mindful also that you need to bend down to wash your own feet.
For all of us, our feet get more beat up looking every year. These feet that get you where you need to go. These feet that do a lot of hard work for you to get you everywhere. Humble yourself. Consider your human, mortal feet. Bend down. Connect to being human. Connect to yourself. Connect to other people. To real love. To love that serves others, not yourself alone.
The Command to Love One Another
Because when he finished washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus gave them a command. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he said. And with that command, Jesus gave us one other tangible thing to hold onto after he died —- each other. He gave us each other to hold on to in love. He put us together in love as one more way we could remember him.
This was Jesus’ dying wish. Which means that we have a God, who more than anything, wants each and every person to feel loved.
And that’s not all. Jesus follows his commandment with an extraordinary promise: “By THIS everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus intended that our acts of love for each other … become our ultimate witness to Him. Christian essayist Debbie Thomas said it well, writing: “Our love for each other is how the world will see, taste, touch, hear, and find Jesus. It’s through our love that we will embody Jesus, make Jesus relatable, possible, plausible, to a dying world.” (“If You Love”, Debbie Thomas, May 12, 2019, www.journeywithjesus.net)
“Love one another”, Jesus commanded. We now carry this responsibility Jesus placed upon us. While this command is our call to action from our Lord, we aren’t left to carry this command as though it’s a great burden. Jesus gives us this great command within his promise. He says, “Love one another….as I have loved you!
Follow my example, he says. Love as I have loved. But first, remember, Jesus says, that you abide in my love as you carry out this love for others.
We live enveloped in the love of Jesus Christ.
Christ’s love that is as tangible to us as bread and wine, water, towel dried feet, and each other.
Christ’s love is right here. Right now. And forever.
Thanks be to God. Amen.