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"Will You Let Me Be Your Servant?" -- John 13:1-17, 31b-35 (Maundy Thursday)

When we are in one of life’s upheavals, sometimes it’s good to have a second or third pair of eyes and ears to help us take in everything that’s going on. In Emergency Rooms and ICUs, I know my family has found it pretty much necessary. The doctor gives the diagnosis and starts to talk treatment options – what they know - and what they don’t know about what’s going on. A flood of information, when our hearts and souls are raw and hurting. I hear one thing; you pick up another; I clarify this; you clarify that; together, later, we figure out the questions we should have asked. When the world feels too big for the human heart to hold, we need each other to remember the story of what has happened, to tell the story together, and to try to make sense of it all.

On the night before Jesus died – the night that set everything in motion that would lead to crucifixion – Matthew, Mark, Luke and their communities remembered the meal. Jesus gathered the disciples together and took bread and then the cup, “My body... My life... for you.”

John and his community remembered this:[1]

On the night before he died, the night of his arrest, Jesus gathers his friends at table. He knows that his hour has come. Having loved them this far – John says – Jesus loves them into the end.

The meal is going just fine, and at some point, Jesus gets up, starts to take off his outer clothing, wraps a towel around his waist. He pours water into a basin, kneels before the disciples, and begins to wash their feet.

Imagine that. Jesus – whom they call Teacher and Lord – kneels down before them, and he takes their mud-crusted feet in his hands, and he begins to wash them. That would be plenty shocking in our world. In their world, perhaps even more so. Washing the feet of the guest was an act of hospitality – but it never would have been done by one called Lord – it was a filthy task – it was what servants did. What Jesus does here subverts the whole order of things.

And that’s why Peter gets upset – and he asks the indignant question: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answers, “You may not understand now, but you will.” Peter replies, “No, never. No, you will never wash my feet.” And Jesus says, quietly, “Unless I wash your feet, you have no part in me.”

Peter asks the question that lays the moment bare. Here Jesus is – in John’s Gospel, the Word made flesh – the one they have come to know as the Son of God – the fully Human One – the one whom Peter has called Christ. And when Jesus’s hour has come – when everything has come into its fullness – what we find is that his hour “isn’t defined by military triumph, or by power over, but by washing dirty feet.”[2] And the question that hangs in the air is really this:

Will Peter let Jesus be Jesus?

Will Peter let God be God?

Will Peter let Jesus wash his feet –

a humble, tender mercy, powered by nothing but love?

Jesus says quietly, “Unless I wash your feet, you have no part in me.” And Peter says, “Then not just my feet, wash my hands and head – every bit of me.”

Tonight, we tell both stories. We tell the story of the meal – “My body, my life... for you.” And we tell this story. We will remember and embody the sacrament of communion, and to that sacrament, we’ll add a washing of hands – a symbolic remembrance of this moment at the Last Supper.

With this moment, we know that each of the disciples knew the touch of Jesus’s hands. Jesus moved from one to the other – kneeling down – taking their feet in his hands and washing.

In their world and in ours, hands convey all manner of blessing and tender care:[3]

· From the moment of baptism, we dip our hands in water and with the touch of a hand, claim with and for each other the promise of God’s unshakeoffable love – a love sufficient enough, as Jesus says here, that we are made complete and whole, so that only our feet need washing as they continue daily to touch the soil of the earth.[4]

· We lay on hands in prayer as we call and ordain each other to service – affirming: “Yes, this is what you were created to do and be in the world.”

· When we are sick – our bodies or spirits broken – with the touch of our hands, we pray together for healing just as those in Jesus’s day did – as they, again and again, experienced Jesus’s healing touch, or reached out themselves to touch the hem of his garment and claim his healing power and love.

With our hands, we convey this blessing and love in the ordinary moments of ordinary days:

· Some of us are parents, and know what it is like to wash a newborn child – or to hold a small hand in ours.

· Some of us can remember, from childhood, how someone put a cool, wet cloth on our fevered brow, and maybe sang us to sleep.

· For those of us who have been in the hospital, we know what it is to have someone dress our wounds, and bathe us.

· Some of us know what it is to care for a parent or someone else we dearly love. To love them – with our bodies and our hands – as they have loved us.

Kneeling at their feet, with the touch of his hands, Jesus shows us what it is to be fully human. Jesus shows us how the whole of life – the whole of our life – can embody the good news of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Not only at the table. But in every moment of every day.

The Gospel of John is the gospel that affirms – in the very beginning – that the Word becomes flesh and dwells in the midst of us – in us – full of grace and truth.

Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. When he has finished, he rises from the feet of the last disciple. In the hushed quiet of the room, he puts the basin back in its place. He dries his hands, and puts his outer robe back on. Jesus sits back down with them, and says: “Do you know what I’ve done? You call me Lord and Teacher, and that’s true. But if I, Lord and teacher, wash your feet, then you must do likewise, and wash each other’s feet. If you know these things, you are blessed in the doing of them.... A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

When his hour had come, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. John remembers this, and tells us: Having loved them into this moment, he loved them into the end.

Sitting in this moment, at this table with the disciples, on Maundy Thursday – as we gaze ahead, knowing that where Jesus goes now is to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he will be arrested, and tried, and crucified.... and somehow, on the third day, be raised into life...

Facing what we know comes next,

the question that hangs in the air is this:

Will we let Jesus be Jesus?

Will we let God be God?

Will we dare to be fully human?

© 2023 Scott Clark

[1] For background on this text, see Gail O’Day and Susan E. Hylen, John (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (New York: T&T Clark Publishing, 2005). [2] See Susan E. Hylen and Trygve David Johnson, Commentaries in Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol.21 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), pp.273-77. [3] These images are inspired and informed by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, “Faith Comes by Hand,” Christian Century, April 2023. [4] See Waetjen, pp. 330-31.

Photo credit: Shawn Peng, used with permission via Unsplash


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