Do You Know What He Has Done to You?

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Holy Thursday
April 1, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Humble service is at the heart of Christian discipleship.

This report of the Last Supper tells us that after Jesus had washed his disciples' feet, put his robe back on and returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you?"

Do you ?

Do you know, today, what he has done to you ?

Peter didn't. Not at first. When Jesus knelt before him, basin and towel in hand, his first reaction was to pull back. "You, Lord: wash my feet? No way!"

Peter was a man of traditional values. He knew his place. He was the student; Jesus was the rabbi. Peter's place was to listen - and, if there was some small service he could do for his master along the way, to do it, efficiently and cheerfully. Out of respect. Proper deference.

Peter's world had rigid categories. People were who they were and remained who they were. There were those who served and those who were served. Society was stratified into social layers, piled one atop another like veins of sedimentary rock. Like the variegated stone you hold in your hand, those layers were fixed. Rigid. Literally, cast in stone. As long as everybody colored within society's lines, everything would turn out all right. The great clockwork of the universe would continue to tick smoothly. No variations. No surprises.

But the sight of Jesus, kneeling before him, wringing out that towel he'd used to wash the feet of several others, and then extending his hand, palm upraised, in a gesture that said, "Now, Peter, your foot, please ...." Why, it was just not right! Not natural.

We'd like to think we're better than Peter, more clued-in to what's happening in that sacred drama. We're good, upstanding Christians.

We've come today to what's called a worship service. The word is not accidental. We know our place. We've come to serve Jesus by being here. For most of us, it's a routine religious obligation: one that's easily discharged. After an hour or so of sitting here, taking everything in, it's all over (at least, until next year). And we feel good for having come. We're not like those other people who aren't here: the ones who don't know seem to know how to serve the Lord during Holy Week. We've done our duty. We've served Jesus, as we were taught.

But then, he says to us the same perfectly obvious question he asked his disciples, after he'd washed every foot in the place and put his robe back on. "Do you know what I have done to you?"

He's pushing Peter and the others to go a little deeper than the basin and the towel, to attune themselves to another level of meaning in the events of that evening.

Basin and towel

We, too, focus our attention on the basin and the towel. Where have you seen such a sight before?

Maybe you've seen a basin and towel in action in your own home. Whenever you see it, you know it's symbolic of humble service. There's no glory in it. Whoever takes a basin, fills it with warm soapy water, then picks it up, a towel draped over the arm, is not seeking accolades. It's a humble job that must be done, that's all. Maybe you can imagine what sort of job: cleaning up something a child has spilled, something a pet has left behind on the floor, something that has erupted from a sick family member. No, there's no glory in that.

Maybe you've seen it in a hospital room. It's days after surgery, and the patient is still confined to bed. The personal care assistant comes in, holding a similar plastic basin and a towel. Maybe the patient's feeling a little embarrassed to need help with the bed-bath. The simple act - the intimacy of it - crosses the usual boundaries of propriety. Yet, how eager the patient is to feel clean at last, and what gratitude that person feels towards this stranger who's come in to render such a kindness!

Few have seen this next procedure in today's world, but in a little room at the back of the funeral home, an undertaker peels back the sheet from a body laid out upon a gurney. There's a basin and towel in that place as well. Slowly, reverently, the undertaker washes the rigid limbs and carefully cleans the face, before discretely applying makeup that will hide the gray pallor of death. It's a mercy for the family, who yearn to see their beloved one last time - and remember.

Essential workers

One thing we've learned during the pandemic is the importance of those people whom the news media call "essential workers." Some of these workers hold down jobs that put them in the front lines of fighting the virus: first responders, doctors, ICU nurses or healthcare aides. A much larger group are those whose jobs aren't directly related to Covid-19 but are essential to the ordinary life of us all. They work at the supermarket cash register, at the wheel of a garbage truck, walking a mail-carrier route, cutting and packing meat, picking vegetables or driving buses.

Many of us have been fortunate enough to be able to shelter in place during the lockdown, without spending large amounts of time in close proximity to others. Maybe we're retired. Or maybe we have the sort of job that can be done from home, using the internet. We may complain about how lonely we feel or about the boredom of looking at the same four walls, or about how hard it is to keep the kids occupied, but those are actually the complaints of the privileged. Many of us have a choice about whether we stay at home or venture out into the world for brief, face-masked excursions.

Choice is not a luxury many essential workers can afford. Theirs are not high-paying jobs, for the most part. Many of them struggle financially just to make ends meet. For them, staying home is not an option, economically.

If you're an essential worker, thank you! You're an unsung hero in this struggle.

If you're not, reflect on this. What the essential workers are doing is serving others. They're serving us .

Does it make you uncomfortable to look at it that way? Does it make you squirm to envision these hard-working men and women coming towards you with a basin and towel in hand?

The power of foot-washing

Randy Friesen is general director of MB Mission - the global mission agency of the Mennonite Brethren churches of the United States and Canada. He tells of a trip he took to a North African country. Randy was there with several other Americans to meet with leaders of struggling house churches. Those African church leaders were in a dangerous position: In their country, conversion from Islam to Christianity was a crime punishable by death.

Because of those security worries, the conversation began slowly. The church leaders were not entirely sure they could trust the American visitors.

A compelling thought occurred to Randy: that he ought to wash these young men's feet. The logistics were problematic: in that culture, feet are considered unclean. To show the sole of one's foot to another person is an insult. But he just couldn't get the thought out of his mind.

Listen, as Randy continues the story:

Finally, I asked to be excused to use the toilet. There, to my surprise, was a basin and towel sitting on the floor, as if prepared for me.

I re-entered the room and asked if I could wash the men's feet. The leaders were surprised but said yes.

What followed can only be described as an outpouring of God's love and presence. As we washed the feet of these young leaders and prayed for them, God melted away our cultural differences and fears. We became aware of our common need of God's grace and love, as well as the presence of our leader, Jesus. Trust and friendship were established. 1

Do you know?

Do we know - do we ever really know - what others do for us, when they render such humble service? Do we ever fully appreciate what it means to other people when the roles are reversed and we're the ones with the basin and towel?

If you truly pay attention to our Lord's question today - and as you hear the sacred story of Christ's Passion retold, in all its agony and grief - it's going to rock your world. No longer will you take comfort in predictable categories. No longer will you get up and leave this place complacently, imagining you've done a nice thing for God by giving an hour or so of your time.

Do you know what he has done to you? Do you really know what he has done - in enduring the humiliation of that mock trial, in offering his back to the whip, in groaning under the weight of the wooden beam, in finally arriving at the stony, desolate place of death itself - knowing, with every step, he was walking to the summit of a hill he would not walk down?

At the table where he was host, he took the loaf of bread and tore it - like the tearing of his flesh. Then, he poured the wine into the cup, where it pooled - like his blood at the foot of the cross. The bread broken, the wine poured out - for you, and for me.

Do you know what he has done to you?

Do you ?