As usual in the Gospel of John, there is much to hear and muse about in this story of an expression of love. Much has been written about this passage and we still struggle to understand all of it. Later on in this service we will mimic this story as we minister to each other with a foot or hand washing. Not a normal occurrence in our routine of personal hygiene and care. It is both intimate and intrusive. Loving and yet unsought.
Washing of feet springs from history. We are told, as folks arrived for a meal, dusty from walking to the host’s home, in the desert times, they were greeted by an action of hospitality- washing of feet and hands to be clean for the meal to follow. It was commonplace to be attended to in this fashion by one’s host or his servant.
But in this instance it is Jesus who wraps the towel around his waist and kneels to cleanse the feet of his followers. What is wrong with this picture? He is the Master, the teacher, the healer, Rabbi, Son of Man, the one in whom God is well pleased….. The spectacle of one so powerful on his knees is daunting and scary. We should be kneeling, not being cleansed. How much love can one take??
Some have also equated the washing with reconciliation and confession of sins . To be right with God in body and spirit we need to be cleansed inwardly and outwardly. Once baptized or fully washed we do not need another spiritual bath, but we do need to be cleansed from the dust and dirt of daily living that gets in the way of our path to God.
Wherever our confusion leads us, the Gospel takes us to the answer. The act of washing, Master to servant, Jesus to disciple, is the pattern we are to adopt. Do the unlikely, the unexpected. Reverse roles to fully understand what it is to be a leader and a follower. Both vital to the whole community, each needed to build the body of faith.
Jesus tells us “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Tough stuff my friends. Not all are lovable, not all want to receive our love, not all would accept our love without seeking to take advantage. How to discern. How to live into this challenge. It should be easy to give and love and help, not only because Jesus says that is what we are to do, but because it feels right, there should be no other reaction.
We don’t hear Jesus talk too much about how it feels to receive the gift of love. If you are like me, I am pretty good about taking care of myself and not being too vulnerable , but life can bring us odd gifts.
In 2004 when my mother was a tender 84 we took her to Scotland for a week with our son, his wife and then 2.5 year old grandson, Tommy. All four generations had a glorious time seeing any old building with the name Douglas attached. Gigi, as she loved to be called, was mother, grandmother, motherinlaw, great grandmother to all and blossomed in that calling. Some of our history together became unraveled and the chemistry shifted. Came the time to put Gigi on a plane from Glasgow back to Bristol and we were all saddened and wondered would we ever all be together again. The mood of quiet prevailed in the van travelling back to our rental house. At some point my son asked Tommy if he was sad to say goodbye to Gigi .Yes he was and then he asked me in his own wise way, Nana are you sad because you miss you friend, Gigi, too? This small wise boy gave me a gift of love, permission to mourn and rejoice and relabel my mother, my friend, who knew that could happen?
I wonder how much of what Jesus taught them that night in the upper room, the disciples remembered or grasped. What would we have held onto, especially with the events that followed so quickly? The days ahead would be awful, full of sorrow and accusation and fear. Much of Jesus’ words might have been forgotten as the disciples scrambled to save themselves from danger.
But later, later when the immediate danger was past and the need to grieve and feel the abiding love that was missing from their core beings overwhelms, later they would remember the elegance of the gesture of service . They would remember the tenderness of Jesus calling them “Little children”. Then they would remember his words. “Love one another as I have loved you.” Take care of each other as I have taken care of you so that you can be messengers of my love. Over time that credo became expanded to all who are in the believing community, take care of one another as I have taken care of you, as you reach out and bring others into the fold.
Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin mandatum or commandment which is what Jesus gives the gathered . Not just wash feet, not just feed , not just heal and comfort, but love, love, love. And to be certain that we can continue to love others, God provides his abiding love to us in new ways. We will not be alone in our journey nor will we run out of love to share. God will provide for our needs.
In the hot dusty desert, feet need to be cleansed and bodies needed to feel welcome. In our world the same needs are present, it is only our response that changes. Shelter, food, safety for those on the margins are still the currency of love. We only need to remember that in our sharing of these gifts, we continue to share in Christ’s love.
On this night of remembering take heart that we can hold onto these words and summon them up to prepare us for servant-hood. As Jesus reminded the disciples “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them”. Let us pray that these words and commands will burn in our hearts forever.