Imagine with me, if you will, what it must have been like to be with Jesus and the disciples on this night over 2000 years ago.
With less than 24 hours left on this earth for him, Jesus gathers his disciples together away from the crowds in an upper room. As the fanfare and busyness of the last few days fade away, the noise of the busy streets below is muted. There is something different about this room they are gathered in. Though they are gathered together for a meal, there seem to be no servants scurrying around making preparations, no one waiting to wash the disciple’s dusty feet before they recline together for the meal. This ritual of gathering for a meal is so familiar to them, yet this time is somehow different. There’s a feeling of uneasiness in the air, and it increases to discomfort as Jesus rises from his place, takes off his robe, and proceeds to tie a towel around his waist. Can’t you see the disciples now, turning and asking one another in hushed whispers “WHAT IS HE DOING?”
Once a year, our worship service takes us to a meal in an upper room where a friend turns traitor, to a garden of hard-fought prayer and then arrest, to a kangaroo court, and to an execution. Once a year, we peer into the abyss and we remember those whose suffering was mirrored on the cross: the oppressed, the dying, the unjustly accused, the deserted, and those who feel hopeless. Once a year, we leave this place of worship in dark, ponderous silence.
The term Maundy comes from the Latin “mandatum, meaning “command.” In today’s scripture, Jesus speaks of a commandment. Having startled his disciples by washing their feet, he says to them, “You call me Teacher and Lord and you are right, for that is what I am. 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.”
We should be on our knees washing each other’s feet because that is precisely what Jesus did at the first Eucharist, demonstrating that the Eucharist is not a private act of devotion, but a call to-- and a grace for-- SERVICE. Both are meant to send us out into the world ready to give expression to Christ’s love, Christ’shospitality, and of course Christ’s humility!
The Gospels report numerous healings in which the sick found wholeness through physical contact with Jesus. Tonight we are representatives of the servanthood of Jesus. We are able through the healing touch of our hands to convey that loving contact with the divine.
As I reflected on this command this last week, I was reminded of the very first time I ever experienced a foot washing service – it was here at St Michael’s in the old sanctuary. Just as this part of the service was about to begin, Brian leaned over and asked me if I would wash his feet. I didn’t have a clue – how one did this - or - why me! I guess someone had to start the process and I was the closest one to ask.
I remember well, the feelings of awkwardness, and uncertainty; but as I begin to participate in the process, a sense of being engaged in a most profound and meaningful act took hold of me. My tears began at that moment and I wept through most of the service. I was experiencing what it must have been like for the disciples on that night. The humility, the love, and the sense of service was transforming!
What Jesus is saying to us is that there is no task too menial, no service so difficult, no need so off-putting that we shoule not do for each other – and also for those whom Jesus elsewhere referred to as “the least of these.” Jesus turned his world upside down when he took on the role of a servant and washed the disciples’ feet. I found myself thinking about how it would be to have a service on the street tonight, and to offer to wash the feet of the street people.
Last year in Miami, a church held a service on the street and washed the feet of 300 street people, gave them each a pair of tennis shoes and even had a podiatrist present to look at their feet and provide some advice.
In the 3rd century CE, the Roman emperor Valerian regularly persecuted the church. One day he summoned a deacon of the church named Lawrence and demanded to see “the treasures of the church.” The emperor intended Lawrence to bring the golden and jeweled vessels used for liturgical purposes. Lawrence returned instead with a gathering of the poor, the lame, and those without a home. Angered, the emperor demanded to know where the treasures of the church were to be found. Pointing to these people gathered around him, Lawrence said, “these are the treasures of the church.”
Hold that image in your mind this night “of the poor, the infirmed, those without a place to call home, as the treasures of the church”.
What is so unexpected, and so radically loving, about this foot washing is not just that it is the teacher and master doing a servants work. What sticks out in my mind is that Jesus held their dirty feet (which undoubtedly they were dirty indeed)…and in that moment of intimacy-- held so much more. Jesus held their untrusting hearts, their weak spirits, their calloused egos, their unwillingness to be so vulnerable!
Jesus is quite clear that this particular act of foot-washing is not about cleanliness but about relationship. IT IS INDEED ABOUT INTIMACY. It is the liturgical foundation of the new commandment which he then gives them: “love one another AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.”
So just how far does this kind of loving and making ourselves vulnerable stretch us? Well, Jesus’ teaching on the subject makes it pretty clear that the kind of love for which he is speaking ignores all the boundaries we human beings so imaginatively create. Political, ethnic, gender, economic, educational, age – all those lines are erased by this particular kind of divine love.
Serve one another this night, knowing that as we participate in this sacred act, we are experiencing God’s love for us through another. In this moment as we become truly present to one another, Christ becomes present with us as surely as He is in the breaking of the bread -- Washing away the pain and the wounds from each of us, tenderly touching us! Let us be Christ to one another!
Let us open our hearts to receive God’s love and to give Christ’s love as we participate in the rest of the service.