Lord, may our eyes see, our ears hear, and your words be written on our hearts. Amen
Here, and throughout the Christian world, tonight we recognize the origin of two significant events in the life of Christ as we commemorate Maundy Thursday. One of them is Eucharist; we all know this ritual because we celebrate the Eucharist whenever we gather to worship. We are very familiar with that rite and sometimes feel detached if we don’t regularly receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
However, the second event is much less recognized and is often associated by many Christians with an ‘ick’ factor. . . that of feet washing.
I just saw some of you get that ‘not me’ look on your face when I even mentioned it.
But let’s examine the ritual and practice of feet washing.
We know that Jesus didn’t do anything without a very good reason. He only had three years to get his message across and change the course of human history, so he didn’t have any time to waste. So let’s look at the practice of foot washing and see if we can understand why he did what seems repugnant to so many of us.
- Foot washing was a sign of common courtesy.
It seems to us that what Jesus did was bizarre and distasteful, but in those days foot washing was what you did when somebody came to your house. The roads in Palestine were dry and dusty, except when it rained and then they turned into a quagmire of mud. So even if your feet were clean when you began your journey, by the time you got wherever you were going, your feet would be covered with dust and dirt and grime and grit. The practice in those days was that when you entered a house you would be greeted with a kiss on the cheek, offered oil to rub on your face, and then a servant would kneel down, take off your sandals, and wash your feet. This was the practice.
But what was NOT common was for the host or the master of the house to wash the feet of his guests. Foot washing was the work of slaves. A rich man never had to wash anybody’s feet because he had enough servants to cleanse the feet of anybody who came to see him. So when washed the feet of his disciples, he broke the accepted rules – and that’s why the disciples were so shocked—not that somebody would wash their feet, but that Jesus was the one doing it. That violated all customs of the day.
- Foot washing is dirty, smelly and humiliating.
- Foot washing is an act and symbol of servanthood.
Have you ever tried to wash somebody’s feet at the end of a long, hard day? Feet that are covered with grime, perspiration, feet that don’t smell good? It is unpleasant, to say the least. There are some churches that practice foot washing as a part of their regular practice. They even call it a Third Sacrament —Baptism, Eucharist, and the Washing of Feet.
I have participated in feet washing, as the one being washed and the one washing. I have found
it to be humbling, every moving, both as the washer and the one being washed. You are exposing yourself completely to the other person; it makes you vulnerable. But this action, no matter which role you take, shows us immediately how Jesus washing his disciples’ feet was the ultimate feeling of servanthood.
In the Gospel reading, we heard Peter object to Jesus washing his feet:
- “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”(John 13:8)
In Peter’s mind and in the mind of the other disciples, what Jesus was doing was demeaning. You just didn’t do that. That was slaves’ work. What bothered them was not what he was doing, it’s that He was doing it. Foot washing was OK as long as a person of lower class or lower position did it. But to see the Son of God do it, that was a problem. Jesus was acting as a servant, not the Master!
Everybody has dirty feet. That’s one good thing about foot washing. Everybody around you has dirty feet. What if we took a few minutes now to prove that, by taking our shoes off and checking everybody out? That would be the end of this service.
It is a bit frightening to realize that underneath the exterior, we have all got dirty feet, and weaknesses, sores, scars and sins.
Jesus came to a world of dirty feet. He came to clean the dirty feet, which means he came for you because your feet are dirty too.
As our Gospel today told us, when Jesus had finished washing the disciples’ feet, He asked:
- Do you understand what I have done for you? (John 13:12)
In washing their feet he was giving them a hands-on parable, an acted-out object lesson. He wasn’t just washing their feet. He was saying, “This is who I am. This is why I have come to earth. This explains the cross. I came as a servant, to cleanse dirty feet.” The answer to his question,
- “Do you understand?” (John 13:12)
is ‘NO’, they didn’t, and often we don’t.
So like any good teacher he goes ahead and gives them the truth, the command and the promise.
In John 13:13 we hear the truth:
- You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.
In John 13:15 we hear His command:
- I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
Here’s the promise in John 13:17,
- Now that you know these things, you’ll be blessed if you do them. (John 13:17)
Now I know that you are not going to go out and wash the feet of every person you meet on the street.
As we know, Jesus spoke in parables – and this is one of those.
If we are to do what Jesus commanded, we must be servants!
How can you be a servant, you ask? There are lots of ways.
- Being a servant is an attitude, not an action.
So many of us think, “Tell me what I need to do if I’m going to be a servant.” Being a servant doesn’t start with what you do, being a servant starts with the attitude of the heart.
- Servants come in all sizes, all shapes and all colors.
Servants are some of the most ordinary people in all the world: think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Mother Teresa. They may be short and fat, tall and skinny, someone you pass on the street and don’t even notice. They live unremarkable, ordinary lives.
- Anyone can be a servant if they have a servant’s heart.
What is it that makes the difference between being a servant and not being a servant? Is it visiting a nursing home? Is it baking bread for those who are sick? Is it giving money to those who are in need?
No, because you can visit a nursing home with a servant’s heart or you can do it out of a sheer sense of obligation. You can bake bread because you want to serve somebody, or you can do it because you want to win favor and have them praise you. You can give money because you really want to share your gifts, or you can give money out of pity or in superiority.
The same action can be the action of a servant or the action of a proud person. What makes the
difference is the motivation inside your heart.
- Some people will find it easier to be a servant than other people.
Jesus commands us all to be servants whether we find it easy or difficult. We must acknowledge that there is such a thing as a spiritual gift of service. There are those people inside the body of Christ who are specially gifted by God at serving others. Romans 12:7 says,
- If your gift is service, let him serve.
The other part is that all believers, whether they have the gift or not, are commanded to serve one another. Galatians 5:13 states,
- You therefore, have been set free. But do not use your freedom as an excuse to indulge the flesh, but rather serve one another in love.
So whether you find it easy or difficult to be a servant, it is still commanded that you act with a servant’s heart.
- Jesus Christ was the ultimate servant for the people of God.
There are two verses we all should engrave on our hearts. The first is Mark 10:45,
- For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
The second is Philippians 2:5,
- Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.
Who was Jesus? . . . Why did he come? . . .
He was a servant, he came to serve. And by His serving, we are saved.
How was Jesus a servant?
- He saw a need and moved to meet it.
- He took the initiative.
- He took off his robe of greatness and got down on his knees.
- He didn’t announce what he was going to do. He just did it.
- He didn’t wait for a thank you and didn’t receive one either.
That is what a servant does. He sees the need and moves to meet it. And servanthood begins with an attitude of the heart.
Remember from today’s Gospel:
- Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them (John 13:17)
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, for too long we have overlooked your words and we wonder why the world has overlooked us. Forgive us for our disobedience. Send the Holy Spirit to do a deep work of repentance within us. Grant that we might leave this place determined to become foot washers for you. As you were not ashamed to kneel before your brothers, may we not be ashamed to do as you have done, and so prove ourselves worthy to bear your holy name in the world. Amen.
Delivered at Saint Phillips Episcopal Church, Circleville, OH 21 April 2011