Maundy Thursday, Year B
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
The cry and hue of Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem have died away. The palms, quickly forgotten, have pressed into the dust and muck, trampled under hundreds of sandaled feet, dropped into the road even as the last strains of Hosanna die away. The crowds have not yet amassed for the contrived trial and brutal execution of Jesus. For now it is Thursday. Just….Thursday.
Jesus was about to die. We know that – the 20/20 hindsight view of history tells us. The disciples…they knew he was doing bold, exciting, dangerous things. But he kept getting away with it. He was the messiah. He had to live, to lead the revolution, to free them as the slaves were freed from Egypt so many years before. Simply put, they were still in denial, (with the possible exception of Judas). Jesus knew he was going to die. That he had to die. That knowledge can be attributed to divinity or to simple common sense: one simply could not do the things that he was doing and expect the Roman or the Jewish leaders to allow it to continue. Jesus could not stop speaking truth and compassion; He would not back away from justice and love – and the powers that be would not allow it to continue. So He was going to die. And die soon.
These are His last moments of calm; of peace; of communion with his friends, and He knew it. One prison chaplain describes his experience with prisoners scheduled for execution. Often they would labor days and hours over their final words to their loved ones. “Every word, every act that would comprise their farewells was pregnant with meaning and significance, love an consolation, even hope and expectation.” (Guy Nave, Feasting on the Word). Most of us do not know the hour of death. Jesus did. He spent his last living, breathing, peaceful moments breaking bread with the man who will betray him (as well as with his friends) and washing feet.
John is the only one of the Gospels which describes this foot washing scene. It’s an interesting thing about foot washing. We talk about Jesus’s example of service, of humility, of love in this humble act. And so it was. Feet are a stinky enough proposition in this day and age – ever so much worse in Jesus’s time. The sanitation system in 1st century Jerusalem consisted of dumping such waste as the household had created, all manner of waste, out the window, or the door, or down the street. Wellies had not been invented – one trudged through the glop in one’s sandals. It was customary to provide the means for foot washing as a host. One provided a towel, water and a bowl. One did not offer to undertake the job. Even a male Hebrew slave could not be asked to undertake that distasteful task. Yet Jesus did not shirk from it – insisted rather setting an example of service, of humility.
But here is the interesting bit. I’ve done this a few years now. The hard part is not getting someone willing to wash feet. The hard part is getting someone to agree to have their feet washed. We do not like it.
I read one story about a parish that was going to give foot washing a try. The church secretary set out to get 12 people willing to sit and have their feet washed. The first six calls yielded 6 refusals. A dozen phone calls later, they finally settled for 3 washees, grudgingly willing to submit. When the night arrived and they sat dutifully and uncomfortably in front of the congregation, naked feet before them, 2 of them had fresh pedicures – glossy bright toenail polish shining through, the third had his Gold stripe socks freshly pressed, neatly folded and the smell of freshly applied Febreeze wafting from his shoes. We are Peter – you will not wash my feet! Aside from the intractable issue of pantyhose, part of it is embarrassment about the feet themselves. As we get older we look down at those boney, veiny, calloused misshapen things and wonder how they got to the ends of our ankles.
Part of it, the bigger part, I think – is that sense of vulnerability. To allow someone to hold and wash and care for the things about ourselves that are least desirable, least presentable, is an unnerving, even frightening prospect. As one commentator said, “To allow Jesus to cleanse our feet is to remove all that prevents us from using our feet to follow him. To scrub away our insecurities, to wash away our weariness, to buff off our bitterness.” (Alyce MacKenzie, Patheos)
Jesus did not just offer to wash their feet – he insisted upon it. The time for sermons and parables and words had ended. The lesson he would teach that night as he shared bread and wine with the man who would betray him; as he washed away the grime and filth from the feet of the man who initiated his death sentence, that lesson must be experienced, must be tasted, must be lived. To be with Jesus we must accept vulnerability, accept intimacy; accept that we are loved and cared for despite the corns and callouses on our spirits. We must drink that cup of love and forgiveness, then do as He has done for us.
In tonight’s liturgy, 2000 years later, we share with Jesus his last quiet moments before his friend betrayed him. We share his last meal. We wash the dust of the day from each other’s feet. We pray together. In the end, we will strip the altar and feel the emptiness. Then we will go home to our ordinary Thursdays. Will we wait to see the joy of Easter as spectators? Or will we live the transformation of an intimate connection with Jesus?
As one friend said, “The question at the Eucharist is not, “is Jesus present?” All Christian groups say yes to that reality in one form or another. The question is, “Are we present?” Are we willing to become what we place on the altar?–a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world. Don’t just come to Maundy Thursday services. Place your life on the altar.” (Rev. Stephen B. Smith, personal communication). Amen.