St Mary’s, Puddletown
Maundy Thursday 2018
Exodus 12.1-4, (5-10), 11-14; John 13.1-17, 31b-35
We are called to serve the one who serves us.
How can this be: that the Lord of Creation stoops to wash dirty feet?
How can this be: that the glory of the divine reveals itself in vulnerability and suffering?
How can this be: that the mightiest becomes the least?
How can this be: that we feast on the broken body and outpoured blood of God?
How can this be: that the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent limits Godself to be contained in human form?
This is the night when we see the greatest paradoxes of the Christian faith: the Master taking on the role of servant, the God who gives life facing death.
What is it that the foot-washing says about Jesus? Why does John feel a need to include this scene, when he says nothing about the bread and wine at the Last Supper?
Well, there are all sorts of answers we could give to that, not least a theological commentary on the whole Gospel of John, but at heart the story says the same thing as the account of bread and wine – Jesus gives himself in love.
People these days are quite coy about their feet. We tend to keep them covered up, except in the hot summer, when they might go sockless into sandals, but even then, they’re not a part of the body we expect people to spend much time looking at.
Most people’s feet are working tools rather than objects of beauty. There might be a corn here or a bunion there, a blister or even a verucca.
Women – and these days apparently some men, though I don’t think I’ve seen that yet - might paint their toes to draw attention to the colour and away from the toe itself but most people, even if they spot the red or pink varnish won’t spend much time looking more closely at the toes themselves.
Back in the time of Jesus, in the warm climate of the Middle East, socks were unknown. It was only when the Romans started travelling to cold places like England that they started wearing anything but sandals; the first known reference to a sock comes from a wooden postcard-like missive found in Northumberland which dates from the end of the first century or beginning of the second, asking for socks and pants to cope with the extreme cold in a British winter.
Jesus and his disciples would have been much more familiar with each other’s feet than we are with those of our friends today. But even so, foot-washing was a menial task usually reserved for the lowest rank of servant. I mean, just think where those feet had been. Dust and mud were probably the least of it, there were no signs around reminding people to pick up their animals’ excrement, no poo bins. Everything washed away down the streets.
Of all the tasks Jesus could have chosen that night, this was the one that showed the extent of his love for his friends. It was an act of self-giving, of humility and of care for a part of the body that didn’t get much loving attention.
The other disciples seem to have accepted this act, but Peter, dear wonderful Peter who is so faithful in so many ways and yet so far from the mind of Jesus in others, feels it’s all too much. He is too proud to accept the loving service that Jesus offers.
But we have an important lesson to learn here, for if we cannot receive the love Jesus offers, then we will never be able to offer it either. If we are not willing to let the one who calls us to serve him, serve us, then we can’t be a part of what he offers.
That’s a harsh call, but Peter listens and then again in his not-quite-getting-it-right way, offers his whole self to be washed not just his feet. Peter who wants to give his all but doesn’t quite know how.
As with bread and wine in the other Gospels, Jesus says “Do this.”
Allow yourselves to receive from me; now go and give to others.
The message of this Holy Week is all about God’s love, a love that shows itself in sacrifice.
This is the love that took on the humblest task belonging to the lowest slave.
This is the love that took bread and wine and said that they pointed towards not wheat and grapes and sunshine and rain, but a broken body and poured out blood.
This is the love that stays silent when false accusations are made against him.
This is the love that hangs on the cross and calls out “Father, forgive.”
This is the love that we are called to emulate, a love that puts God first and the care of others next.
As we walk through the remaining days of Holy Week, will we be watching with Jesus or asleep in the garden with Peter, James and John?
Will we be standing by Jesus or will we end up denying that we even know him like Peter?
Will we be at the foot of the cross with John and Mary, or will we run from it like the others because the cost of staying is too great?
How much will we allow the love of Jesus to penetrate?
As he washes feet, breaks bread and hangs on the cross, he does it for us, for love. We learn what love is through watching Christ, not just doing miracles and healing people, but in suffering too.
The miracles and the healings are joyful things – I imagine he loved to provide for people in these ways; but no one can believe that the Passion was joyful, the real test of his love was his setting his face to Jerusalem and giving his life for all of us.
That pain on Maundy Thursday night, the tears in the garden, the betrayal by a friend, the denial by another, that was real suffering, only topped by the beating and taunting and being nailed to a cross and left to die in the heat of the midday sun.
So how do we serve the one who serves us? It’s very simple: we follow his example.
We learn to receive his love, that we might then love others. The love we are called to emulate held nothing back.
So on this holy night, let us be honest and ask where we find ourselves in the scene.
Can we open ourselves to this great love?
Can we be humble enough to allow Jesus to wash our feet so that we might then partake in his service and wash the feet of others?
Will we follow the call to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him?
It is a gift and a privilege to serve the Lord of Creation, to serve the one who serves us in his strength and his suffering, his joy and his desolation, his despair and hope, his abandonment and his presence.
The calling is his, the choice to respond is ours.