He Loved them to the end
April 9, 2009
Foot washing is not a longstanding tradition at St. James. I understand there was a time when Maundy Thursday services often included it, but that hadn’t been the case in recent years. Last year we re-introduced the tradition, and we are continuing it this year, and I suppose in future years as well.
I suspect that for many people, the very notion of washing someone else’s feet is offensive. It seems to shatter some basic barrier of decorum, good manners, or personal space. Some few of us, have perhaps had to take care of other people in such intimate ways—our children, of course, but also loved ones who are no longer able to take care of themselves. Usually though, people who earn their livings taking care of others’ physical needs, health care workers, or even day care workers are looked down, certainly in our society they receive less pay than people in other jobs.
Today is Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the great Triduum that culminates with the Easter Vigil. We are participating again in the ritual commemoration of the last days of Jesus’ life beginning with the last supper he had with his disciples. Tonight we remember the events of the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples. The synoptic gospels tell the story of the institution of the Eucharist. In tonight’s reading from the Gospel of John, we hear of a very different event.
The beginning of chapter 13 of John’s gospel marks a significant shift in tone and message. In the first half of the gospel, Jesus comes into conflict again and again with his opponents. As that conflict increases, his words of judgment against his opponents and the unbelieving world become more and more harsh. Now however, the scene shifts and from this point on, except for his confrontation with the high priests and Pilate, Jesus will speak only with his disciples, and he will leave words of judgment behind.
Instead, the theme that takes center stage from here on out is love. The chapter begins with that remarkable comment by the gospel writer, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The Eucharistic Prayer we’ve been using this Lent quotes that verse before beginning the institution narrative. What’s remarkable about it is that it tells the reader something new, and something the gospel writer perhaps didn’t think was obvious—that Jesus loved his disciples. What comes next in the gospel of John, John’s version of the Last Supper, and indeed Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in a way explain what the gospel writer meant by saying “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The culmination, the completion, fulfillment, even perfection of Christ’s love is shown for John in the events that unfold in the following chapters.
We will have more to say about the rest in the coming days, but now I want to focus our attention on that odd, offensive act of foot washing. Yes, it’s offensive. It offends our sense of propriety and our sense of personal space. It challenges taboos. But the gospel writer seems to have anticipated our discomfort with it, for he writes the disciples’ discomfort into the story. Peter’s problem with Jesus’ actions was that they seemed to subvert the teacher student, master-disciple relationship. Peter didn’t understand what Jesus was doing, and presumably the other disciples were no more perceptive.
Although we don’t call foot washing a sacrament, it is one. It is a sacrament of service, a sacrament of love. In the gospel of John, it serves to tell us something about the relationship between Jesus and his disciples; it is the way by which Jesus begins to demonstrate his love for those around him. By putting himself in the place of service, by kneeling, yes by abasing himself, Jesus was acting out servanthood. He was showing in this way the same love that would lead him finally to the cross.
The foot washing was not just a sacrament of Christ’s love for his friends. John means for it to be a sacrament of the love Jesus’ followers have for one another. Why do I call it a sacrament? If you are a cradle Episcopalian of a certain age, you may probably still be able to recite the words of the catechism: They are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. In this instance the gesture of washing feet is a sign of Christ’s love for us, and our love for one another.
We know that rituals are important things. As members of a liturgical tradition, we believe strongly that what we do in worship, not simply what we say or sing, but what our bodies do, all of that matters in worship. Whether we kneel or stand, genuflect, or bow, the very way we do things in worship is very important. That’s why there is so often intense conflict when we change things. The cry “but we’ve always done it that way” is not simply the cry of a hidebound traditionalist, although sometimes of course, it is. Very often it comes from a worthwhile concern that we may not be simply changing what we do, but ultimately we may change what we believe.
Foot washing then means a great deal, whether or not we participate in it. To see people, clergy, kneeling in front of other people, transgressing the customary boundaries of personal intimacy, and washing the feet of one another, speaks loudly.
Our gospel reading began with a reference to Jesus’ love for “his own.” It closes with another reference to love. After washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus tells them what it means: “I give you a new commandment that you love one another.” Of course it is probably the case that foot washing will never be observed among us as universally as the great sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, but it is vitally important that we internalize its meaning. Sacramental actions, rituals are among the ways that we move beyond saying something and begin to live it.
To love one another as Christ loved us and to serve one another bind us together as Jesus’ disciples. It is easy to pay lip service to both love and service—or outreach. We do that easily and readily at St. James. More difficult is to show, to demonstrate, to act out that love. Being here this evening, participating in the ritual itself, or watching as others do, challenges us to think of ways of making our love incarnate in the world. Somewhat later in John’s gospel, when Jesus again tells his disciples to love one another, he goes further, saying “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The vision of love put forward in these chapters culminates tomorrow, on Good Friday. This evening, let us ponder and seek to embody, Christ’s commandment to love one another.