Sermon: March 28, 2024 Maundy Thursday

Not surprisingly, I have become very conscious of feet over the past two months. Losing the use of a foot, even temporarily, has made me acutely aware of exactly how important our feet are and how much abuse they take. They bear the weight of our entire body and all the physical activities of our entire lifetime. My surgery on my Achilles tendon was brought about by my particular foot and leg structure and all the years of sports, walking, standing, and running.

And yet we are often ashamed or disdainful of our feet (just try and suggest to a congregation that we do footwashing at the Maundy Thursday service and see what happens). We hide our feet because the wear and tear of a lifetime is evident upon them, and we are embarrassed. If you are a woman, you may have tried to cram your feet into shoes that were too small or too tall, simply to look more attractive as our culture defines attractiveness. As we age our feet frequently hurt, and we can’t wait to sit down and give them a break. Unless illness, injury, or age prevents us, we generally wash our own feet, and unless we are going to get a pedicure, would feel very embarrassed to have someone else wash our feet.

But things were a little different in Jesus’ time and place. Sand, dust, and dirt were a part of life in the desert environment of Jesus and his companions. Sandals were the footwear of the day. If you spent any time outside, your feet would get dirty. Therefore, frequent footwashing was the norm, especially when you sat down (or reclined) with your family and friends at the dinner table. If you were a free person, you reclined as you ate, and your feet would therefore be visible to all. All good hosts would offer their guests the opportunity to wash feet before dinner was served. In less formal settings and in homes with less means, the host would simply offer bowls of water and towels to those dining that day. In homes with servants or at more formal meals, the servants would wash the feet of the guests. Though only non-Jewish servants would perform this duty, as it was seen as being inappropriate for a Jewish person, particular a male Jewish person, to wash the feet of another person. A female Jewish servant could perform this duty, but not a male Jewish servant.

So, you arrive at the home of your friend to eat, and you wash or have your feet washed. You are refreshed after your journey, and you can settle down in comfort to eat. This same ritual must have occurred as Jesus and his friends gathered to share a pre-Passover meal together. As they entered, whoever was hosting that meal must have provided the means for everyone’s feet to be washed. When we enter the scene, they are already reclining at the table sharing a meal. And then Jesus does an absolutely bizarre thing. In the midst of eating, he gets up and takes on the role of a non-Jewish servant or a woman. He takes off his outer robe, ties a towel around his waist, pours water into a basin and begins to wash his friends’ feet, all the feet, including his betrayer, Judas.

They must have been nonplussed. What is Jesus doing? This is completely wrong. What should they do? I would imagine that most of them froze and simply watched Jesus while concealing the horror they were feeling inside. Jesus was the last person who should have been washing their feet. And why on earth was he washing their already clean feet while they were in the middle of eating? Peter, being the impetuous guy that he was, is the only one who doesn’t remain frozen and speaks out loud what must have been going on in all of their heads saying, “You will never wash my feet.” It is too much for Peter. He has had to listen for days as Jesus has been alluding to his betrayal and death. His anxiety must have been sky high, and now Jesus was doing this truly bizarre and offensive thing. He had to speak up. And Jesus responds to Peter’s anxiety with calmness and firmness: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” In other words, “Peter, calm down. I know you don’t understand what I am doing, but you will. Trust me. Let me wash your feet. Soon you will understand, and you will do what I am doing to you to each other. You will understand the power of God’s love. You will create a community that will show this powerful love to one another, and you and your world will be transformed.”

So, one by one, Jesus knelt at the feet of each of his friends, including his betrayer, and washed their feet. Kneeling there and washing their feet. Jesus acknowledged in a very personal way how each had walked with him. Some of those feet would walk away from him straight to the authorities. Some would run away in terror at being associated with the one about to be crucified. All of these feet, beautiful or not, would be readied for the journey ahead. Jesus pauses at the cusp of his own anguish and tends to his flock. They will not soon forget what he does for them on that dark night.

And when he finishes washing their feet, Jesus proceeds to teach his friends what the kingdom of God looks like, what their community is to look like once he has departed from them. After the very practical lesson, he explains what it was all about. And what Jesus says is so simple, and yet so hard, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. 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.” In other words, “You see what I did. Do that. I am loving you to the end, even if you desert me and betray me. I will love you no matter what. And my love is not romantic, sentimental, or about feelings. My love is about action. Let go of your ideas about status and power. Be vulnerable with each other and in the world. Love as I have loved, and you will know God’s kingdom right here and right now. Love as I have loved you and everyone will know that you follow me.”

I wonder what I would do, I wonder what you would do if you knew your time on this earth was limited? In popular culture we talk about bucket lists, and they usually involve travel to far off places, having new experiences, and the like. Jesus washes the feet of his friends. He demonstrates to them what love is and he seeks to form them into a new community, his community. He gives them an act of humility and tenderness that they will never forget, and when they live through his death and resurrection will transform them into true followers of Christ. He is giving them the glue that will hold them together as a community after he is gone. And he has given us this glue too. We also are called to share Jesus’ love, the kind of love that startles and surprises. We are to give this love and we are to receive this love. Following Jesus is as simple…and as difficult as that.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. 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.” Amen.