This is a sermon I preached on Maundy Thursday 2016, which Joel graciously let me share with you via his blog.
Gospel Text: John 13.1-17; 31b-35
Please pray with me as I pray a prayer written by St. Anselm of Canterbury:
“O my God teach my heart where and how to seek you,
where and how to find you…
You are my God and you are my All and I have never seen you.
You have made me and remade me,
You have bestowed on me all the good things I possess,
Still I do not know you…
I have not yet done that for which I was made….
Teach me to seek you…
I cannot seek you unless you teach me
or find you unless you show yourself to me.
Let me seek you in my desire, let me desire you in my seeking.
Let me find you by loving you, let me love you when I find you.”
I don’t know about anyone else, but I grew up a little turned off by the idea of washing someone else’s feet. In our culture we just do not practice these sorts of things—largely because there are no conventional reasons to. However, in the historical context of tonight’s Gospel lesson there were a few reasons for the washing of feet, and, after exploring these reasons, I promise that the idea of foot washing will make a little more sense.
First, feet were primarily washed for hygienic reasons. Proper hygiene in the form of foot washing was imperative to societies that primarily relied on foot traffic along dusty roads. After all, first century Palestine was essentially a desert location, and therefore washing the dust that had been accumulated from travel off of one’s feet would have been as essential then as washing one’s hands is in today’s society. This is often overlooked by us today as there are socks and shoes, while back then there were only sandals.
Second, feet were often washed as a gesture of hospitality. What this means is that upon entering one’s residence, the service of foot washing would be offered as a gesture of good faith that was extended for the hygienic practices mentioned above. Sort of like our efforts to make a sink and bathroom available for guests to freshen up in today’s culture. We’ll talk more about this in a moment.
The third reason for foot washing in John’s cultural context would have been cult activity. There are some cases in which foot washing was enacted for cultic worship, though it’s worth noting that never would these cult leaders or deities ever be depicted washing the feet of their followers.
Considering each of these options, it seems most likely that John’s Jesus is washing his disciples’ feet for the sake of hospitality—not only that, but representing the unique portrait of a God that serves his disciples and not the other way around. So, let’s dive into the intricacies of hospitable foot washing in John’s culture.
The host of a gathering would typically make foot washing available for their guests, especially if the gathering was a meal—think hygiene—and the host’s servants were usually the ones who carried out this service. In other words, it was highly unlikely that the host of a gathering would have washed the feet of his guests himself. This is where the novelty lies in John’s account of this gesture. Not only is Jesus hospitably providing the means by which his disciples are to be cleansed and cared for, as any good host would have done; but he is performing this service himself, as any good servant would have done.
In this passage of Scripture we are confronted by Jesus as both the host and servant, the one who invites us and delivers us—who serves us as he leads us. Notice how that Jesus’ identity as teacher and Lord is directly tied in with his actions of self-emptying love and servant leadership. He even asks his disciples to imitate this gesture toward one another—a suggestion that is directly paralleled with the commandment to love one another as we have been loved by God. What can this mean? There are a few things to consider.
First, this isn’t just an ethical formula for living into one’s faith. In other words, one cannot simply reduce this text to yet another rule that the Christian is to follow. It’s not that we must simply wash feet once a year, even as when we don’t want to, even if we are repulsed by feet, or even as we might find this particular, liturgical expression obtuse and awkward. For us to assume such a conclusion would be almost as clumsy as Peter’s insistent misunderstanding in tonight’s Gospel lesson, refusing to have his feet cleansed by the Lord. This isn’t just a suggestion; this is an opportunity to be transformed by the acts of love carried out by and through Jesus Christ. This act serves as an expression of our transformation in Christ. How are we transformed? When we dine with Christ! When we receive God’s sacramental grace, we are transformed and renewed in such a way that we can performs acts of hospitality, such as the washing off of our neighbor’s feet.
Second, there is more going on in this text than the act of foot washing itself, as alluded to above. While this specific gesture was culturally relevant at the time, and the water can be seen as symbolic for a whole slew of other elements in the Christian faith, it must not be forgotten that this scene is unfolding in the shadow of a meal—and not just any meal! The washing of the feet is just a liturgical act unfolding in the context of the bread that is broken, the wine that is poured and ingested, the feasting upon Christ’s broken body and shed blood.
The sacrament of Holy Communion is the meal in which we are invited to attend—the meal that Christ is hosting for us, into which he invites us so that we may receive the ultimate fulfillment for which we long. It is in the imitation of our teacher who accomplished for us what we cannot accomplish ourselves that we are able to see the revelation of God’s nature, and we are able to find a deep love for one another through our abiding love of God’s presence.
So while I want you to see this liturgical act, this tradition of washing feet, as something essential in John’s Gospel for revealing the character of God through Jesus Christ, it is insurmountably more important that you realize that through this act you are being invited into something so much more profound! Namely, the presence of Jesus Christ and the grace of the Father, as it dwells among the elements of this table before us, calling us into deeper union and intimacy with both God and each other.
The host that serves you in everyday life—by washing your feet, by suffering even until his death on the cross—is throwing a banquet in which heaven and earth fuse together, and the glory of God is shown forth from within the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ.
May God’s Holy Spirit call us into a deep meditation on the nature of Jesus’ ministry—his sacrifice and his self-emptying hospitality.
May we participate in and imitate the inconceivable hospitality of our host as we serve one another by the washing of our feet and the cleansing of our hearts.
And, while we imitate and embody our Lord’s hospitality, may we realize the invitation to behold the New Creation that’s unfolding within our midst.
Behold, God is making all things new; let us embody the example of Jesus and rinse off the dust that we have accumulated while walking down the roads of our lives—welcoming and serving each other as we have been served through Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and his ongoing work in our lives through Holy Communion.
Let us serve those gathered, seeing this expression of faith in the shadow of such a seismic meal. Let us see Christ as our example—our host and servant—upon whom we feast and feast with.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,