For the last few weeks, it has been hard to think of anything except the covid virus. Among other things, it prevents us from being in each other’s physical presence on one of the holiest days of the year.
But in each of the next few days, I hope we can take a break from covid to commemorate the events around which all of history turns.
Today we remember Jesus’ Last Supper. But today’s Gospel reading is a little puzzling. The main thing to happen at the Last Supper was the institution of the Eucharist. Jesus broke the bread, and blessed the wine, and gave them to his disciples as his body and blood, and commanded his disciples to continue the ritual in remembrance of him. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell that story. So does Paul in the passage we just heard.
But John doesn’t tell that story. Now, we can be pretty sure that John’s community celebrated the Eucharist virtually every time they came together. But John found meaning in the Last Supper other than the Eucharist. That is good news for us on this Maundy Thursday since we are not in a position to celebrate Holy Communion the way we normally do.
In his version of the Last Supper, John emphasizes foot washing. So what does the foot washing mean? What did it mean when Jesus did it? What does it mean for us today?
Start with how we might feel about a foot washing.
You will perhaps be happy to know that I took a shower this morning, and I washed my feet. Indeed, thinking about this very moment in my sermon, I made a point to wash my feet very thoroughly! That was just a few hours ago. My feet are not particularly nasty right now.
But still, you wouldn’t really want to wash my feet even under normal circumstances. You especially wouldn’t want to wash my feet now, when we are not allowed to come within six feet of each other.
More to the point, I wouldn’t want you to. And I am not just talking about the possibility of spreading infection. Having someone wash my feet would be uncomfortably personal, uncomfortably intimate. Sitting there with my bare feet exposed, I would feel vulnerable and probably a little ashamed.
Foot washing was more common in the first century, so it wouldn’t be as weird for them as it would be for me. But foot washing could still be uncomfortably intimate even in the first century.
Once when Jesus was eating at the home of a Pharisee, a sinful woman barged in, in the middle of the party, bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried his feet with her hair, kissed his feet over and over again, and then anointed his feet with oil.
Jesus’ host was scandalized that Jesus would let such a woman handle him in that way. Clearly his host saw the foot washing as somehow binding Jesus and the woman together. Jesus saw it the same way. Jesus called it an act of great love, and he told the woman that her sins were forgiven (Luke 7:36-39).
The closest parallel to that foot-washing in my life was giving my children baths when they were little. Getting my children clean could be hard work, and it was sometimes gross. But I loved it. I am talking about when they were young enough that they accepted my love as a matter of course, without embarrassment or vulnerability or shame.
That is how Jesus accepted the sinful woman’s anointing, as an act of love that concealed nothing and held nothing back. That’s what Jesus offered when he washed his disciples’ feet.
But love that conceals nothing and holds back nothing is unnerving if you are older than about three.
Other than Peter, we don’t know how the disciples experienced Jesus’ foot washing. My guess is, most of them shared Peter’s reservations about having their lord and master wash their feet.
But I think particularly about Judas. Judas was all set to betray Jesus when the foot washing began, and he actually did the deed only a few minutes afterwards. Judas knows it. Jesus knows it. And there Jesus is, kneeling at Judas’ feet. The humble love and forgiveness in Jesus’ action is itself a kind of miracle.
But how do you think Judas felt about it? How would you feel as you shared a moment of intimacy with a man you planned to have brutally killed?
My guess is, Judas felt mighty vulnerable and exposed and ashamed. And my guess is, Jesus’ love and forgiveness made those feelings worse. For the moment, Judas had to act as if everything was OK. But my guess is, Judas was so uncomfortable that betraying Jesus came as a relief.
Now, this is where it gets really awful. That is our place in this story.
Judas stands for us, for us who betray Christ every time we choose sin, for us who make Christ’s sacrifice necessary every time we fall short of perfect love. Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Every time we sin, we team up with Judas to put Jesus on the cross. And the whole time that we are betraying him, Jesus is at our side, loving us, helping us, carrying our burdens, washing our feet.
The question for us is, how do we respond to the loving Lord we are helping to crucify?
For Judas, the burden of guilt and shame proves too heavy to bear. In the end, Judas could not believe in, and could not accept, Christ’s forgiveness or Christ’s love.
It is not easy for most of us either. Often we try to do what Judas does at the Last Supper. We pretend like everything is OK, and remain in a state of sin and imminent despair.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In the very act of washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus demonstrates his forgiveness and his love even though he knows they will all fail him in the next few hours. Jesus demonstrates his love and forgiveness even more powerfully on the cross itself, where Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Jesus offers that same forgiveness to us, knowing all there is to know about our sin and failure.
I think again about having our feet washed, about exposing the dirty parts of ourselves. It is uncomfortable. But it is how we get cleansed.
So now let’s pretend we are at the table with Jesus on that night. Jesus has finished with the feet of the disciples, and now he approaches us. Do we hide our feet in shame, as if he doesn’t know they are dirty? Do we let Jesus wash our feet and experience the whole thing as a humiliating affront, as Judas did? Or can we accept Jesus’ washing as the act of our loving and forgiving God?
I think again about my children at bathtime, filthy but happy, paddling in the water, enjoying my touch, reveling in the experience of their father’s love.
That is God’s invitation to us who remain God’s children even when we are dirty. God knows us straight through, and God loves us as we are. Our task is simply to let go of our foolish pride, acknowledge our sin and our weakness, and receive the forgiveness and love of Christ.
My prayer for us, as we go through these most holy days of the entire year, is that we can do that, with God’s help. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan