Follow the Muddy Footprints

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Holy Thursday
April 14, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary : Jesus sets a simple example of service -- not only of giving service, but of receiving it. He shows those who claim his name how to treat one another. In this tableau of enacted love, the church and the world are shown what it is to live in anticipation of the kingdom of God coming amongst us.

Tonight we celebrate the arrival of something new, something revolutionary, literally revolutionary: On this night, and on this weekend, the usual order is turned upside-down. God, acting through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, turned what is still regarded as the established order of things upon its head -- even if we haven't, yet, quite caught on to the implications of all of it. Tonight, we once again acknowledge, celebrate and begin to appreciate a new way of life, a new creation -- something new that began with a reversal of roles, that continues tomorrow night with a horror story and that culminates Sunday in a miracle story of death's defeat that still beckons us forward. The story of God's work in the world, which began with the creation of heaven and earth, took a miraculous turn on this night. That turning began at the Last Supper. It continued and will continue with the Resurrection we'll celebrate on Easter Sunday.

The hour has come

Tonight, the road to Easter begins in a very graphic and physical way: with 12 pairs of dirty feet. The night will end with a new commandment, which is where we get the name, "Maundy Thursday" which is used for this day in some denominations. "Maundy" takes us back to the earliest days of the church, when Latin was the official language. " Maundy " is derived from the Latin word Mandatum , which means command . It refers to what Jesus said at the Last Supper, immediately after the betrayer departed to do his treacherous work. "I give you a new commandment," Jesus says, "that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."1

This night is about that. A new commandment for us. A new commandment, a new way of being, for the world, offered by the world's Creator.

Tonight we lead off with true knowledge , which in turn leads to true and genuine love -- real love, love beyond romantic attachment, physical titillation or the fellow feeling of good buds -- the love that created the world and the love that will save it in spite of itself.

Muddy footprints lead to a new law

We are told in verse 1 of our text that "Jesus knew that his hour had come ...." He knew that he was going to meet his death that night. And he knew that God had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God.

Jesus knew his horrible death was imminent. What we see next is his first response to that knowledge: "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end."

And how did that loving-them-to-the-end manifest itself? By way of another profound discourse about God and love and new commandments?

No. There will be plenty of that, especially in this section of John. But not now. What he did next, to demonstrate his love for them, was to get up from the table, take off his outer robe, tie a towel around himself and begin to serve them. He served them in the most menial way imaginable: by doing, for them, the work of the least of the slaves in a household: washing the feet of household guests. The standard footwear of the time was sandals; roads were dusty, muddy, no doubt splotched with the excrement of livestock and other animals. Feet got filthy. It was standard to leave bowls of water out for guests to wash their own feet. Wealthier households appointed slaves -- no doubt the lowest ranking slaves -- to wash the feet of guests as they arrived. This service was also sometimes performed for a teacher by his disciples.2 It was humble, dirty work.

This mandate, this new commandment, is first made known without words, but in action, in this action -- the washing of the disciples' feet. Think of it: the master, the boss, the Lord, serving the people who serve him, getting down on his knees before them and serving them by doing the work, for them and on them, of the lowest ranking household slave. This is, still, all but unimaginable. What might we compare this to, today? What leaders among us today most closely exemplify the kind of leadership Jesus is showing in this passage? What leaders among us today are most closely enacting this new commandment? We might recall Mother Teresa, taking her place among society's most wretched, alongside those who worked in the ministry she began, bathing and comforting people most of us could not bring ourselves to touch. We remember, from earlier in church history, the story of St. Francis embracing lepers. We regard such saints as extraordinary heroes, but what they were doing was modeling what is intended to be, and will be, the new normal for all who welcome the kingdom of God. It began with Jesus. It continues with us, as the spirit of the resurrected Christ lives and moves among us. This is what real love looks like: Jesus, the teacher of all teachers, kneeling at the feet of his disciples and washing their feet.

Peter's (false?) humility

Take a moment and try to situate yourself in this drama. With whom do you identify? With Peter? With Jesus? (Yes, that's a valid question! Perhaps you are living out the kind of leadership that Jesus exemplifies here! Parents act out this kind of love. They lead, all right, but they also serve , many times in the most menial of ways.)

Do you perhaps identify with one of the other disciples who are just sitting there passively experiencing all of this, who apparently have nothing to say, one way or the other?

Imagine yourself at that Last Supper. What would you do if Jesus -- the real Jesus, whom you've been following around for these three years; at whose feet you've been sitting, learning; whom you have seen heal the sick, give sight to the blind, raise the dead -- suddenly kneels before you and starts washing your feet? We can well understand Peter's reaction: "You will never wash my feet."

Is this a false humility? It would be the only kind of humility Peter has ever known. Of course, the teacher does not wash the disciples' feet! It's unheard of! It's supposed to be the other way around!

But Jesus is having none of it. He says, "You do not know now what I am doing," he says, " Unless I wash you, you have no share with me."3 In other words, if we do not allow Jesus to serve us in this way, we have no part in him, we do not "know" him, we are not truly his followers. Put it however you like. To be followers of Jesus, to be Christian, we must allow him to serve us in this way. What we are being shown here is that Jesus does not require us to put him on some kind of pedestal. Jesus requires us to allow him to come down to our level and serve us -- even in ways that we might find embarrassing.

How can we do that? How do we allow him to serve us ? In what ways does he present himself to us as our servant? He comes, not to be served, but to serve, and in ways that we might find embarrassing, in ways that might even lead us to exclaim, "Oh no, Lord, you must not do that!" "Far be it from me to accept this kind of service from you!" This new world itself, this new commandment, this example Jesus sets for us: this in itself is an embarrassment. It sets the order and the hierarchy we accept as "normal" upon its head and lays out for us a new way of being that seems on the surface insane, but is nevertheless the only way to the kingdom of God.

But we risk overthinking this. Back to basics. For I have set you an example, Jesus says. You should do as I have done to you. The service he has rendered for us is to give us this simple and graphic example, to show us that we must be both as ready to receive as we are to give and as ready to give as we are to receive.

We are called to serve one another. We are called to humbly and gratefully receive service, to humbly and gratefully give, and to be beacons to the world of this kind of giving and receiving. This is the new commandment, that we love one another as Jesus loved us. This is our message to the world. This is God's offer of salvation to the world. This is the new thing God started at that Last Supper, the something new that God is working even now in us.

How shall we, as the Body of Christ, pay it forward, to a hostile and confused world -- this gift that has already been given?

With our intentional actions.

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