This week, Holy Week, is the most intense and emotional time on our Christian calendar. It started out well enough with shouts of celebration and the waving of palms but all evidence of joy and victory at this point have been eradicated.
This night we gather together to honor the institution of Christ’s holy supper. In the Gospel narrative it is Jesus’ last meal and it is also the Passover, the festival in which the Jewish people remembered God’s faithfulness and mercy to them when they were slaves in Egypt. You see, the final plague against Egypt was God striking down every firstborn in the land, both human and animal. This was God’s judgment set loose in Egypt, but because of the blood of a slain lamb put around the Israelites’ doors, the Lord passed over them and did not destroy them as well.
In the same way that the lamb’s blood saved the Israelites, we are meant to understand that Jesus is God’s slain lamb whose blood saves the entire world.
That is the context for why we are here and it is the ritual we celebrate in the Eucharist.
But let’s go back to that upper room where the disciples and Jesus gathered to eat the Passover. There was only one there besides Jesus himself, who definitively knew that Jesus would be arrested that night. That man was, of course, Judas, because he was the one who would betray Jesus. But I’m not so certain that he knew everything that would happen after his betrayal. If you remember, he later tried to give the 30 pieces of silver back to undo it all, but by then it was too late; it was done.
Still, the Scriptures say that Jesus knew this was the moment—that the hour had come for him to depart from this world and go to the Father. This moment in the upper room was the last chance for him to be alone with his friends, to tell them what was most important, to make sure they knew how much he loved them. It’s the same thing any of us would do if we knew we were dying. When our loved ones are on their deathbeds we listen more intently than we ever have before and we often make promises to our loved ones that we know we absolutely must keep. Well, Jesus is on his figurative deathbed and I think we need to listen very intently and try to understand what promises he would ask of us.
The disciples had no idea what this night would lead to and did not understand at the time that this was his deathbed speech. But our ever-wise Lord knew that actions can speak louder than words, and so he took off his outer robe, donned a towel, poured water into a basin and proceeded to wash their feet. Logically this of course made no sense to them; the master does not wash the servant’s feet. (Messiahs don’t get hung on crosses either, but let’s leave that for tomorrow.)
Their whole world was about to be turned upside down and not just because he was about to leave them. In this gesture he showed them that the Kingdom he was going to bestow on them was nothing like the Kingdoms they already knew; that those who would be great among them would be those who serve and those who humbled themselves. They were also those who would obey his commandment—his new commandment—which was for them to love one another.
Do you know what our witness is in the world? It’s love.
How we speak to each other.
How we treat each other.
If we say one thing to a person’s face and another to their backs.
If we look the other way when we see someone crying, or sick, or in need.
If we are too busy to spend time with those who depend on us.
If we stay silent in the face of prejudice and injustice.
These are the things I ask myself about when it’s time for me to do a love check.
“Am I serving; am I loving?”
These are the things Jesus communicated to his disciples and they are the things he communicates to us.
That’s why I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that everything I just rambled on about, and to which you so graciously listened, is not the actual sermon. The sermon tonight is what we are about to do.
The good news is that in the ritual of the washing of feet we are going to remember and enact the example Jesus left us. It is not only meant as a gesture of service but it is also an intimate gesture of love. In performing it we are showing that we have listened to his deathbed speech and that we are committing ourselves to following his new commandment to love one another as he has loved us.