A Holy Thursday Sermon
Text: John 13:1-17; 31b-35
The Robe and Stole
As you can see, I get to wear my robe tonight. Whenever I do, some of you come to me with a smile and take note. I get that. I rarely wear it on a Sunday morning, Christmas Eve and Holy Week are the primary times. If I’m playing guitar, the sleeves tend to get in the way. I also think that as the guy who leads the “nontraditional” worship on Sunday mornings, it seems a bit out of place for me to wear a traditional robe. But I like to wear it sometimes as it is a sign of my ordination.
You will note that I wear my stole differently than Pastor Bob does. This is not a fashion statement but rather a sign in the difference in our ordinations. Pastor Bob is an Elder in the United Methodist Church, and he wears the elder’s stole. The elder’s stole drapes around his neck and over his shoulders. It is a symbol of the yoke of teaching and leading to which he as an elder is ordained.
I, on the other hand, wear what I sometimes call the “Miss America” style stole. This stole signifies that I am a Deacon, also a clergy person in the United Methodist Church, but called to a different role. The deacon’s stole is a symbol of the towel Jesus used on this night to dry his disciples’ feet.
When I was ordained as a Deacon in Full Connection with the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, I was presented with this hand-thrown bowl, a gift from the other Deacon’s in the conference. This bowl is the other symbol of my ordination. It represents the basin in which Jesus washed his disciples feet, and my stole is a symbol of the towel he used to dry them.
So tonight is my night as a Deacon. Tonight I get to share the story that has been used by our denomination to symbolize my ordination, my very call to ministry.
But if I am 100% honest with you, I have to confess that I am not a fan of “foot-washing services.” I know that they are meaningful and powerful for others, but I just find them awkward and uncomfortable. Maybe because I am one of those people who never wears sandals or flip-flops. I decided long ago that no one needs to see my feet.
Despite my lack of fondness for them, I have participated in my share of them. I have been one of the pastors in the highly organized foot-washing where people were pre-selected to be up front to have their feet washed. I have been in an intimate one where my feet were washed as I became a member of a Christian fraternity in college. I have been on at least two mission trips where I have had my feet washed and washed the feet of others.
I once served under a senior pastor who really wanted to do a foot-washing on Holy Thursday that everyone could participate in. Knowing how impractical that was he got creative. His experiment was to have hundreds of individually wrapped, pre-moistened wipes on hand. The congregation washed one another’s hands before receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion. While that was a good move toward being sanitary, it was hardly a moving spiritual experience.
One pastor tells the story the first foot-washing services in a congregations where she was serving on staff. The secretary had called the 12 members of the Church Council, the leaders of the church, asking them to volunteer to have their feet washed by their pastor on the platform during the Holy Thursday service. Six of them said no, but she did get six volunteers, that’s 12 feet – close enough. Alyce McKenzie, the pastor telling the story then writes:
That evening…there they sat up front, in a line of folding chairs facing the rest of us, with their shoes neatly lined up next to each of their chairs… There was Joyce up there on the end seat. She had had a pedicure just for the occasion. I could see her bright coral nail polish blinking from my seat. I could see Ralph’s “gold toe” socks neatly folded on top of his newly polished wing tip shoes. I could smell a hint of Febreeze that Denise must have sprayed in her shoes just before she left home. We in the congregation got to watch while the pastor washed the six best smelling pairs of feet in the entire town.
Not exactly the what had to be dirty, dusty, and probably downright disgusting feet that Jesus washed at the Last Supper. The sanitized ritual of pouring water over pre-cleaned feet misses the point.
But the church often feels compelled on this night to reenact a foot-washing because that is what we hear Jesus say to his disciples, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15 NRSV). But that may not be exactly what Jesus is talking about.
If we back up to the top of the story, notice how it begins, “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (v 1-2 NRSV). This isn’t a story about the act of foot-washing so much as this is a story about love.
Ben Witherinton, III, whose commentary on John Bob and I have been using throughout this Lent, introduced me to a concept in the Gospel of John I had not seen before. If you remember the story from very early in this series about Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding, Jesus is reluctant to perform the miracle. At one point, he turns to Mary his mother and objects saying, “My hour has not yet come.” Then this reading tonight begins with these words, “Jesus knew that his hour had come.” John emphasizes throughout his gospel Jesus’ reluctance to act unless he has clear direction from “the Father,” as he says throughout John. John wants us to know that Jesus is not acting on his own, but is always acting on behalf of God, the Father.
Witherington says that Jesus is acting as an agent. Back in the days when long distance communication was impossible, a landowner would send an agent to act on his behalf – to buy, sell, deal with legal issues – whatever needed to be done. Furthermore, when the agent was the eldest son, he could act on behalf of his father – whatever the Son did, decided, etc., was done on behalf of the father.
John emphasizes Jesus acting in this role. What Jesus does is as good as having God himself doing it. Then Jesus, as he washes the disciples’ feet is also doing something else.
Listen again to what Jesus says here, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them” (v 14-16 NRSV).
Jesus, the agent or messenger of God the Father, is in some sense commissioning them as his agents going forward. Which means that his disciples have the responsibility to act on behalf of Jesus, the one who was always acting on behalf of God. And what is he commissioning them to do as his representatives? Serve in love.
More about getting feet washed than washing feet
But before they can do that, they need to have their feet washed. This story is as much about having Jesus wash your feet as it is a call to wash others.
Peter, the one who is always quick to speak and sometimes slow to listen, pulls his feet back when Jesus gets to him. “You will never wash my feet,” he says to Jesus. That sentiment is understandable. This was not a practice that was done this way. In a society where social status was more important than it is to us in America today, it was unheard of for someone to “humble themselves” in this way, and Peter may have been afraid of what he would be allowing to be said about his relationship to Jesus if he were to let this happen. He knows his place. He is the student of Jesus and should be serving him rather than being served by him.
Then Jesus says this odd thing, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (v 8). What is Jesus’ talking about? It can’t be about foot-washing, because he goes on to correct Peter whose enthusiasm gets the better of him when he asks Jesus to wash all of him, by saying, “one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet.”
This isn’t about cleanliness. This is about discipleship. Perhaps Jesus is washing feet to anoint his followers in a new way of living. A way of living that will not always lead them where they want to go, but will lead them in his way that leads to life eternal and abundant in the Kingdom of God. Jesus is washing feet to initiate his disciples into putting their faith into action, into “walking their talk.” Jesus is washing feet as a sign of love on the move – a love we are called to share, but not until we have had our feet washed.
So the question for each of us tonight is simply this: Are you and I willing to put our feet in Jesus’ hands? Are we willing to allow him to set the direction for our lives? Are we willing to follow him, even tonight when that means we will witness his arrest, his trial, and his execution? Will we still trust him?
This is no simple exercise to be repeated ritually, but to have your feet washed by Jesus means that you are ready to go where he goes, to act on his behalf as his agent, to love as he loves.
Today is sometimes called “Maundy Thursday” from the Latin word mandatum, commandment. At the end of the story Jesus gives the disciples the mandatum novum, the new commandment, which is simply this, “Love one another.”
With open hearts and clean feet, may we be sent forth from the cross to act as Jesus’ agents of love in the world around us. Then we can sing with our lives, as many of us have with our voices, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Amen.