Sermon for Maundy Thursday
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
April 21, 2011
“For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”
We’ve all heard the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We have taught or are teaching our children that mantra of life that basically stems from the second half of the Summary of the Law to love one’s neighbor as himself. If we love our neighbor then we would naturally only do unto them the things that we would want reciprocated. We each recognize injustice when it is hurled in our direction, should we not do the same for our neighbor.
However, those words that we just heard wasn’t just a call to play nice in the sandbox. Those words come at the end of a portion of Jesus’ farewell discourse in which he assumed the lowliest place possible, that of a slave, and stooped down to wash their feet.
In reading a commentary that described the social-science aspect of the scene here, we need to more fully understand what Jesus does here, and what it means for us.
As you might be aware, but probably don’t wish to think about in hearing a story such as this one is the fact that Jesus went about doing a job that only a slave or the lowest of servants would perform for the guests of a dinner. We are not going to find in an archeological dig in ancient Palestine an intricate sewer system, so all of the human waste in a household would have been dumped out of the windows, and left to dissipate as it was able. There would also be the waste of the animals kept for food that would have been discarded into the streets as well; so no matter how careful one was, there’s no doubt in our minds that a person’s feet would be covered in excrement and waste, and thus, it would have only been fitting for a slave to perform such a menial task as to wash all of that filth off of someone’s feet as they sat for dinner. This was a gesture of hospitality that a host would have had done for his guests, and therefore, when read who it is that does this among the disciples we see what type of meaning it begins to take on.
Jesus rose from supper, laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water in a bason, and began to wash the disciple’s feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. By his very actions, Jesus swapped places with the lowest in society. He took the place of a slave so that he could embody the very example he wished for his followers to emulate. The action spoke louder than any words could have done.
When Jesus comes to Peter, he of course is indignant and says that he’ll never allow his Lord to demean himself in that fashion and wash the filth from his feet, to which, Jesus replies that if he doesn’t do it then Peter will have no part in Him.
I think there is a wonderful image here that might otherwise go unnoticed. It says that Jesus took a towel and girded himself with it. It became a part of his vesture, a part of himself. What he tells Peter and us is that if we don’t let Jesus wipe off all that defiles us, contaminates us, burdens us, and causes us to stink, and wipe it onto himself, we will continue to carry it with us, and we can’t carry our sinfulness with us into Paradise. We can’t have a bit of Hell in Heaven to borrow from C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald in The Great Divorce. Peter had to let Jesus wash the part of his body that was in contact with the world and wipe it onto himself in order that he might destroy it once and for all.
Peter again misunderstands the imagery here and then says in essence that if washing my feet is good then certainly a full body wash would have to be better. He fails to recognize that our constant attention and striving toward the ascetical life involves those points of contact with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Through our baptism we don’t wash the whole body again, but we must continue the daily struggle to keep our feet clean as a symbol of the fact that we part of a life lived in this world, but as Christians, not of this world.
Finally, we come to another part of Scripture where the old English gives us a bit of clarification. When Jesus tells Peter, “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.” The pronoun “ye” here speaks of the group as a whole, and not just Peter. He’s speaking to the disciples as a whole while singling out Judas when he mentions that not all are clean.
For us as disciples and followers of Jesus he tells us that we are clean, but there will still be weekly, daily, hourly foot washing that will continue until we reach the heavenly Jerusalem when we will be washed one final time and given that garment that is made white through the Blood of the Lamb.
Who is responsible for washing one another’s feet? It’s you and it’s me. We are going to constantly be contracting the filth of this world and so will our neighbors. It will cling to us until it is washed off. If it is not washed off it will begin to contaminate us. We will become accustomed to it, and that is of course a root of sin when we lose that sense of being soiled and in need of cleansing. We are to be the ones to stoop down and do the dirty work of washing one another’s feet, and wiping them clean in the name of the one who did it for us.
If we are to be followers and disciples of Jesus Christ this is what we are called to do, and if we do so in our Lord’s name, then others will see us doing unto one another what our Lord Jesus bids us to do, and they will want to join us in serving one another out of love, out of joyful thanksgiving for what He first did for us.